Return to Hunting Articles   

Reading White-tailed Deer Signs

A Deer Hunting Article

Written by T.R. Michels


White-tailed deer leave several different signs as evidence of where they have been. Both bucks and does leave behind trails, tracks droppings and beds. Bucks also leave behind rubs and scrapes as they prepare for the breeding season or "rut" during the fall. Knowing how to read these signs can help you to know when and where to find white-tailed deer throughout the year.

Whitetail deer use trails to get the from one "high use" area to another, often from daytime bedding areas to food sources and back again. Deer prefer to travel through the areas of least resistance, so they expend the least amount of energy. This means they often travel on old roads, on dry rather than wet ground, in light rather than deep snow, on hard packed snow rather than soft snow, and at an angle up and down hills rather than straight up and down. But, this preference by deer to move through the easiest areas of travel is overridden by the deer's need for security. Security to a deer is being in a place where it cannot see, smell or hear a predator or humans and human activity, which means the deer often move at night. Trails used at night, when the deer feel secure under the cover of darkness, are often located in open fields, on hilltops and in meadows. These are areas the deer wouldn't use during the day because they can be seen. Trails deer use during the day are usually located in woods, brush, swamps and fields with tall vegetation, ravines, gullies or low lying routes, where the deer aren't easily seen. Traveling in low routes has other advantages. Winds are not as strong in low-lying areas as they are in higher areas; which makes it easier for the deer to hear in those areas. You can tell how often trails are used by the amount of vegetation or snow in the trail, and the number of deer tracks on the trail. The less vegetation there is, and the more tracks there are, the more the trail is used. You can check trails after it has rained or snowed to find out how many tracks there are, and to see if the trail has been recently used. Kick dirt, leaves or snow over the old tracks, and then check the trail later for new tracks to see if deer are still using the trail, whether they are using it during the day or nigh, and what time of the day they are using it. I also use a Trail Timer to see how many deer use the trail, and what time of day they use it. If you want to find out whether or not bucks or does are using the trail, you can use a trail monitor with a camera, like the Photo Hunter.

Tracks on a trail can tell you how often (and sometimes how many) deer use the trail, but may not tell you how important the trail is. Traditional trails, that are used year after year, may not be used during certain times of the year. Heavily used trails leading to ripening agricultural crops may only be used in the fall and winter. Less frequently used trails may be used only at certain times of the year, certain times of the day, or used as escape routes. Game trails may also be used by only one doe group or by only one buck. Very few tracks on a trail, in thick cover, parallel to a more heavily used trail is probably used by a buck. Look for other buck signs (tracks with drag marks, clumped droppings) to tell you that a buck is using the trail. If you find rubs and scrapes near the trail, you have found a buck rub route. Deer tracks can also help you determine the sex of the animal and its size. When you look at tracks check the shape and size of the tracks, the travel pattern, and how the tracks are placed in relation to each other. Like some humans, some big deer have big hooves and some have small hooves. Usually older, bigger deer have bigger hooves than other deer in the area. This means that males often have the biggest hooves. One study showed that the width of the back of a mature buck's front hooves (when they are not spread apart) is wider than 2.25 inches; but, size is not enough to say that the tracks were left by a buck. In deep snow any deer may make drag marks. But if you see long marks with the tracks, where the deer dragged its hooves in the dirt or light snow, it is an indication that the tracks were probably made by a buck. Mature bucks walk stiff-legged, and swing their hooves out to the side, which causes them to drag their hooves. Because the added weight of the swollen neck and rack of a buck are in front of the hooves, they exert more pressure than the actual weight of the front of the deer. This causes four different effects on the front hooves 1. they hoof prints sink deep into the ground, 2. the toes spread apart, 3. the toes point outward, 4. the hooves drag. There are several other factors to consider when you are looking at tracks: 1. Because bucks make scrapes, especially dominant bucks, they round off the tips of their front hooves. Hoof prints that appear rounded on the tips are usually made by a scraping buck, which often means a breeding buck. This doesn't mean it is a trophy buck; a small racked buck may be the dominant buck in the area. 2. Bucks generally travel in a straight, purposeful line. 3. Bucks often step directly in or short of the prints of the front hoof with the hind hoof. 4. Because does have a wider pelvis for fawning, their hind hooves often land outside and ahead of the front tracks.

When they are combined with other sign, deer droppings, or scat, can help you identify the areas deer use most frequently, like bedding areas, food sources and the trails that lead to and from them. You may be able to determine size and sometimes the sex of the deer by the size and shape of the droppings. You may also be able to tell how recently the area was used. The most noticeable clue about droppings is their freshness, size and consistency. Shiny or moist droppings are fresher than dull, dry ones. Shiny droppings often indicate recent use of the area, usually within the last twelve hours. If the droppings are still warm, they were probably left within the last fifteen minutes. Droppings of hard pellets usually mean the deer were eating dry foods; twigs, dry grass, dry leaves and grain. Soft droppings in clumps usually mean the deer were eating moist food; green grass, leaves and agricultural crops. The size of the droppings may tell you the size of the animal. For whitetails in the northern States, droppings less than 1/2 inch long are usually those of does and fawns; droppings larger than 3/4 of an inch are those of a buck. Bucks also leave clumps of large droppings in cylindrical shapes; the larger the diameter of the clump, the larger the deer. These clumps can often be found in or near scrapes, along rubs routes, and in buck bedding areas. To find out how long the pellets are I use my little finger. I know that the last joint of my finger is about an inch long, my fingernail is 1/2 inch. The entire length of my little finger is three inches, and I use it to determine the size of tracks. If you compare the size of the droppings, tracks and beds to your finger, hand and arm, you have a better idea of the size of the animals in the area.

Deer beds look like large ovals where the dirt, grass, leaves or snow have been pressed down. The size and location of the bed can tell you the beds were used by bucks, does or fawns. The beds of northern whitetail bucks are usually longer than 45 inches. Very large bucks may have beds up to 50 inches. Doe beds are about 40 inches, fawn beds 36 inches or less. Deer often use the same general areas to bed down in on a semi-regular basis. Bedding areas are often located on benches on the downwind side of hills, so the deer can smell approaching danger. Daytime bedding sites are generally in heavy cover; nighttime bedding sites may be in the open. Because does have their fawns with them, they require larger bedding areas than single bucks. Does often use the same general bedding area, but different sites. Numerous beds of different sizes and ages indicate frequent use by does and fawns. Splattered urine near the back of the bed indicates a doe bedding-site. Bucks often choose the densest or most remote areas, and use the same general sites. Single large beds in heavy cover indicate solitary bucks. A urine stream near the middle of the bed indicates a buck. Beds with nearby clumped droppings or large pellets, and rubs, indicate a buck bedding site. The use of bedding sites varies by the time of year, and the time of day. When deer choose a bedding site they are concerned about security first, and then comfort. In warm weather, daytime beds may be in open cover with shade on high ground, often on north facing slopes where cooling breezes blow. They may also be in low-lying areas that remain cool. During cold weather daytime beds may be found on south facing slopes, where the animals take advantage of heat from the sun when it is out. On windy days in cold weather, daytime beds may be in dense cover, low-lying areas, or on the downwind side of hills and slopes, where the deer can get out of the cold wind. Nighttime bedding sites are not used as regularly as daytime bedding sites, because the deer are less concerned about security, and more concerned about food and comfort. Deer often lay down near nighttime food sources. In warm weather nighttime beds are often found in open areas on hills, where breezes allow the deer to remain cool and smell approaching danger. In cold weather night beds are often found in cover on the downwind side of hills, where the wind isn't so strong.

Bucks begin to rub their antlers on trees in the fall as they prepare for the rut. Rubbing may help remove the velvet from a buck's antlers, and strengthen its neck for any sparring matches and fights it may have during the rut. The rub of a whitetail buck is both a visual and scent signal, which tells other deer there is a dominant buck in the areas, and allows them to tell which buck made the rub. A rub is made when a buck rubs or thrashes trees and brush with it's antlers and forehead for about fifteen seconds, breaking smaller trees and brush or removing the bark from the tree, while leaving scent from the buck's forehead on the rub. The buck may also lick or chew the rub after it has rubbed the tree with its antlers, leaving saliva and possibly scent from the glands on the inside its nose on the rub.

Rub Routes
A series of rubs along a lightly used buck trail is called a rub route, and it shows you where a buck travels during the rut on a semi-regular basis. A rub route can also show where the buck beds, feeds and ends up at night in search of does. The rub route leads from the bedroom (where the buck often rubs on trees less than two inches in diameter) through several doe use areas, and then to a night food source. If the buck travels through wooded areas at night, it may rub more trees on the way back to the core the next morning. But, if the buck travels mainly through open areas at night (which is often the case) it won't leave many rubs behind. The side of the tree the rub is on usually tells you the direction from which the buck came. When you are facing the rub, you are facing the same direction the buck was when it made the rub. Several rubs on the same side of trees, and tracks pointing in the same direction, tell you which way the buck was traveling. A buck may have several rub routes leading to different food sources and doe areas. Some people believe only big bucks rub on big trees. The problem is that many hunters think this means a buck with large antlers. I believe that rubs on big trees are made by bucks with big racks. However, I have watched large antlered bucks rubs trees from one inch to six inches in diameter. I have also watched a small antlered buck rub a 9-inch tree. Most 3.5 year old bucks, with an eight-point rack, scoring in the 100 point range, are able to rub five to six inch diameter trees.

Bucks also make scrapes during the rut. A scrape is a combination sight and scent signal left for does; to help identify the social status, health, and the individual buck making the scrape. A scrape is probably also a signal to other bucks that there is a dominant buck nearby. A scrape is made when a buck rubs a low hanging branch with it's antlers and forehead, and then licks and chews the branch.. The buck then paws the ground several times with both hooves and squats and urinates over its tarsal gland and into the scrape. A friend of mine who is a wildlife photographer says that bucks in velvet will rub and lick an overhanging branch, but do not usually paw the scrape until after they shed the velvet from their antlers. Some deer experts claim there are three different types of scrapes. Some scrapes are called boundary scrapes because they appear along the boundaries of a buck's home range, or between two different types of habitat. They are often located along trails, creeks, fences, old roads and field edges. Because these scrapes are often found in open areas they are often made at night. Secondary scrapes are generally found in wooded areas, along trails, and in natural funnels between core and feeding areas. They are called secondary scrapes because they are not frequently used during the weeks just before breeding occurs. Most scrapes start out as secondary scrapes. A scrape becomes a primary scrape when it is frequently used during the two to three weeks before peak breeding. Primary scrapes are often used by numerous bucks, and are usually found on wooded trails near food sources and doe bedding areas. They are often used year after year because they are in cover where the deer feel secure during the day.