JACKSON – William McKinnley is the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks deer program coordinator, and has worked with white-tailed deer for 20 years. He said there are several things hunters believe about deer that have no merit.
He said Mississippi State University, one of the top deer research universities, has made an effort to dispel myths about deer through scientific research. The MDWFP has a close partnership with the MSU deer program. He said they rely heavily on them as researchers in Mississippi.
One of the most common misconceptions is about how deer perceive color. McKinley said hunters think deer are color blind, but they are not. Instead, deer see different spectra of light than a human does.
“The blue stands out like a beacon for them, and the orange mixes with the green,” McKinley said. “I laugh every time I see someone who says they are not going to wear safety orange while hunting and that they are wearing camouflage with blue jeans. The only blue thing in nature is an eastern blue bird and a blue jay.
Deer see as poorly as humans in low-light situations like late evening and early morning, Mckinley said. Deer can pick up movement in the woods and in the dark.
He said that if a person moves through an area in the dark, the deer can still see the person because they have good night vision. Additionally, deer can pick up flashlights used by hunters as they walk to their stalls or blinds, but hunters must continue to use them.
“From a safety standpoint, I recommend hunters wear a small headlamp or wear a light in low light conditions,” McKinley said. “Hunting accidents are more common in low light conditions, so a flashlight should keep you from being mistaken for game.”
When a flashlight catches the tapetum lucidum, the part of the eye that reflects light emits a yellowish glow. The eyes of owls and dogs can do the same.
The deer cannot see in complete darkness. They use moonlight and starlight better to see than humans. If you shine a flashlight into a deer’s eyes in the dark, it can’t see anything, he said.
“The old saying about deer in headlights is true, it blinds them,” McKinley said. “They go blind and are amazed. Their perception is lost. It’s almost fascinating to them.
Another common misconception about deer is the way they use the wind to sense danger. He said that if a deer were still walking with the head wind, the deer would be in Canada at the end of winter. Deer do not have to travel the trails depending on the direction of the wind, however, they use the wind when approaching dangerous areas such as food patches or sleeping areas.
“Before they approach a danger zone, they’re going to go around it and downwind it,” McKinley said. “A lot of times when you see a deer entering a leeward foraging patch, you only see the end of the trail. The dollars circle a field for two things. Danger and done. When hunting, it is better to be downwind. The best way to outsmart a deer’s nose is to stay downwind of it.
He said people think rattling doesn’t work in Mississippi because they can’t see the deer when they do. However, he said the deer were circling about 100 yards downwind of a hunter and he may never know the buck is there.
McKinley said a hunter should safely have a buddy sitting 75 or 80 yards downwind to be more successful while clicking. The best time of year to shake is right before the peak of the rutting season.
The MDWFP can determine when to breed through health checks in cooperative areas. This is how they craft the rut forecast for the state, he said. Rutting is a term for the entire reproductive cycle of the deer.
“The goats are in estrus for about 36 hours; However, in one particular area, females go into estrus over a six week period, ”McKinley said. “There is a 2 week peak with latecomers at both ends. For example, in Madison County, the peak estrus date is December 31 through January 1. Some start on December 5th and others start the first week of February.
In the north, the extreme winters make for a more defined heat. In the south, it is far from being as defined. He said Florida has 10 months of the year when deer can breed.
The deer go into heat every year, and it’s usually around the same time, he said. However, if it is hot during the rut, there will be less movement.
Food and the desire to breed are the two factors that stimulate deer movement, he said. From his observation, the trees seem to have a bountiful harvest of acorns, the persimmons are full of fruit, and the woods have a lot of grazing from the rain.
Abundant food sources mean sightings may be lower this year, but the quality of the deer harvested is expected to be good. He said there hadn’t been any stressful times for the deer either.
Temperature is another factor in the movement of deer. He said if it is too hot, the deer become lethargic and do not move. In hot weather, deer lie down in shaded areas. Also, deer don’t move much in extremely cold weather, like last year’s blizzard.
“Deer will slow down their heart rate and breathing rate to lie down where they have thermal protection in brush or cedar trees,” McKinley said. “They will lie in a stupor to conserve heat. After 2-3 days, they have to move out. If you go hunting during an unusual cold spell for the season, you will likely only have a cold. (There are always exceptions). You have to wait for the sun to warm up. Extreme cold does not cause deer to move until it is prolonged. If it makes you feel good, then it does the deer good.
In 2016, the winter was so warm that people could swim at Christmas, he said. This unusually hot weather prevented the deer from moving. This brought down sightings, he said.
“I have received more complaints from hunters claiming our deer population has fallen,” McKinley said.
In fact, the deer population has not decreased. While the MDWFP cannot count all the deer alive in Mississippi. They can estimate deer populations using harvest data and historical data. They use data collected by the Deer Management Assistance Program to determine the condition of the population.
“We use the total harvest from state harvest data to estimate the age structure,” McKinley said. “We then go back and determine how many deer were in the herd at the time. The population has not declined, but has remained stable.