Editor’s note: Tommy Kirkland has spent years observing deer behavior as a photographer. This story shares some of the knowledge he has gained in the field. This story was written with Marie Kirkland.
After early morning foraging, the white-tailed buck moves into the adjacent woodlands. He slowly and effortlessly follows a deer trail up a steep ridge. With a steady pace, he heads to familiar ground.
Reaching a vantage point, the whitetail finally stops behind a large tree. He eyes and listens to his surroundings, and then finally lowers his head. After scenting the ground, he kneels on his front legs and slowly lowers the rest of his body.
Here, the buck rests in a secluded bedding site.
Scouting the deer woods, several oblong depressions in the dirt and leaves were clearly visible on the ground. Deer droppings were in the area. For sure, a prime whitetail bedding site has been located.
This area is a sanctuary for whitetails and a jewel for hunters who pursue whitetails.
But, for the most part, many hunters avoid the cryptic and isolated bedding sites of whitetails. This terrain is off-limits — especially if the locale is under heavy pressure.
Simply put, a buck’s bedroom is his sanctuary. His beds are used not only to avoid danger, but to develop his antlers by resting, processing nutrients and reducing stress from the elements.
For those hunters who pursue whitetails in the early part of the season, attempting to pinpoint secured buck bedding areas can be a success or a fatal mistake — even during the pre-scouting times of velvet antler growth.
Yet by understanding whitetails and their bedding routines, hunters can not only increase their chances to harvest, but gain insight into the whitetails’ world of how important bedding really is.
Deer movements and bedding biology
Prior to the peeling of velvet antler tissue, bucks are usually easy to pattern as they venture from feeding to bedding areas.
But once the velvet tissue cracks and the peeling process commences, bucks temporarily become somewhat erratic as they frantically remove the bloody tissue. This is especially true if the temperatures and humidity are conductive for flying insects that are attracted to the blood and, in turn, annoy the bucks.
For a short time, buck bachelor groups might split up and the members go their separate ways to remove the velvet. Even though the establishment of dominance is now underway, most bucks will reunite with hardened antlers for a short time, and resume using the same bedding sites prior to the velvet tissue shed.
Of course, loner bucks can move on — separating from the core bachelor group and utilizing different bedding sites. When this occurs, a buck might no longer be consistently patterned simply because he is now using fall bedding locales.
Other factors such as hard mast can alter or cause bucks to shift bedding areas during this time. Yet, if they are undisturbed and sufficient food and water are nearby, late-summer bedding locales are, for the most part, maintained by bucks before the hormones of the rut stimulate them to move.
Knowing where deer consistently go from feeding sites can provide a fairly accurate assessment of bedding areas. Usually, the animals have several preferred bedding areas and different modes of travel to reach those beds.
For example, one day a deer might venture to a bedding site north of the food plot. Several days later, that same animal might move to the west or southwest of a plot and migrate to bedding in that direction.
However, whitetails can also exit a feeding area from the south — only to circle back to bedding sites on the north side.
All in all, knowing the routes used is key to determine bedding areas.
Throughout the year, whitetails spend the majority of their time in secluded areas. With the exception of during the rut, deer are on a “time clock” to rest; yet there are exceptions, with predators and weather dictating when and where they bed. Here again, bedding is not only important for proper antler development; it is crucial for pregnant females and fawn recruitment.
Whitetails — both bucks and does — usually possess several preferred bedding sites within a reasonable proximity of feeding areas. This gives them options in the event that one bed is disturbed. When deer evade predators, they are attempting to draw the canines away from one particular bedding sanctuary — falling back on another bedding quarter. In other words, deer have numerous beds to confuse predators.
They thrive from resting amid dense undergrowth, young pine tree growth, cedar and hemlock. These evergreen trees act as thermal protection — providing coolness in the summer and warmth in the winter. Deer will also seek out deadfall timber, which offers prime camouflage for secured bedding.
If weather conditions are favorable, whitetails prefer a vantage point for bedding from which they can visually detect danger while maintaining several escape options.
At times, buck bedding sites will reveal tree rubs and scrapes nearby — particularly just after velvet shed and during the pre-rut. Heavy sign-posting activity is a good indicator of bedding sanctuary, be it does or bucks.
Bucks tend to scent mark not only the travel routes of females but their bedding sites, as well.
Bedding is important for more than resting; it also allows deer to avoid exposure during the day, and permits whitetails the opportunity to regurgitate and chew food consumed during the night and dawn hours. Whitetails possess a major advantage over predators — being that they can consume food and quickly evade danger, digesting vegetation later on in their beds. This biological function enables them to quickly obtain nutrition that can be processed hours later.
When bedding, deer tend to stretch out their forelegs and, at times, a back leg while bedding and spend time relaxing; then they will usually tuck their forelegs back under their bodies and begin the process of rumination.
Some other positions of rest include tucking the head into the hind legs and lying the head on its back. If a deer is worn out, the animal might lie outstretched on its side or lie its chin on the ground, much like a dog. In this position, a buck’s head and antlers may sway back and forth if the deer is sleeping.
Being vulnerable, the whitetail’s ears are moving and listening at all times. The deer’s eyes can be closed for a time and slightly or wide open when bedding — though having the appearance of being in a daze. Yet, when a whitetail hears the slightest sound — or the alarm of squawking crows or chattering squirrels — they quickly come to their senses.
Deer fawns, by instinct, are experts at bedding. This act of concealment and remaining motionless is one of the most-important whitetail survival mechanisms. As newborns, bedding protects them from roaming predators. This is where bedding behaviors are imprinted into the whitetail deer. Fawns are notorious for remaining motionless and quiet for hours.
Even adult whitetails are known to stay bedded down and not move an inch when hunters are ground stalking or driving.
Also, bucks seriously injured during the rut have been known to return to summer/early fall beds, where they attempt to rejuvenate strength and heal battlefield wounds.
Hunters have conveyed to me that if they spot an injured rutting buck and are familiar with his routine, they might set up near a travel route or corridor associated with a pre-season bed.
When undisturbed, deer will usually start grooming themselves before rising from their bed. Back on four hooves, they stretch their bodies, groom some more and perhaps defecate and urinate. They will either reposition in the same bedding spot or one close by, or forage for a brief time and bed down again.
This is usually the routine until they resume foraging in the late afternoon or evening. As long as the deer doesn’t sense being seen and camouflage is sufficient, bedded whitetails use their inborn traits and learned behaviors to try and outwit hunters and canine predators.