Outdoor report: The Silvery Moon and white tails

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Photos by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III
The moon can play an important role in the rut of White Tail deer.

“By the Light of the Silvery Moon” was written by Gus Edwards and Edward Madden in 1909. It has been an exceedingly popular song and sung in numerous movies over decades of time. Most people know at least some of the lines ending in moon, spoon, June.

It is a fact that the moon’s gravitational pull on the earth’s oceans is what causes the tides to rise and fall in a little over six hours a day, twice a day. When I was a boy, many of our farmers planted certain crops according to the phase of the moon. You can still find those moon tables in each year’s edition of “The Old Farmer’s Almanac.”

There have been many myths associated with the full moon by humans over the past centuries. Before artificial lighting people paid more attention to the moon, because it was the only light they had at night. Before we assume that the myths started because the primitive people were uneducated, you must remember that you can read today how more crimes are committed on nights of the full moon, that more operations fail during the full moon because the doctors are affected and how more epileptic and schizophrenic events take place when the moon is full. There are countless other supposed connections. All of these associations have proved to be false. I’ll even give you one more.

This white-tailed doe was bred by four different bucks on November 15, 2008, a day of frenetic activity in our author’s research pen.

During the 1980s and 90s, I was crisscrossing the country lecturing about whitetail deer at Buckoramas, Big Buck Shows, Hunting Jamborees etc. I became friends with many of the other lecturers and show people, but I don’t remember who was the first to tell me about the phase of the moon and how it affected deer hunting. Nor do I remember what year I first heard of it. The idea sprouted like mushrooms after a rain. I mean it was the “secret” that hunters had been searching for, for generations I was told. They had it all spelled out. Tons of books were written, stacks of DVDs were made and sold. Some lecturers couldn’t keep up with the demand for their services. WOW!!!

When I was asked at my lectures for any input I had on hunting by the phase of the moon, I gave the same answer then that I do today. There is no truth to any of it. A full moon event that occurs, and is realistic, is the full moon of May, which creates the highest tides of the year, prompting the horseshoe crabs to come up on the beach in the Delaware Bay area and lay their eggs. Shorebirds from South America arrive at that precise time and glut upon the eggs, layering enough fat on their bodies that allows them to complete their journey to the Arctic, where they nest each summer.

Most of the wild creatures that we know, however, are guided by the photo period, which is the amount of daylight in any given 24-hour day. Photoperiodism determines when birds and animals molt, when they migrate, when they breed, etc. One of the most famous examples of this feature is the return each year of the cliff swallows from their winter range in Argentina to their summer nesting spot at Mission San Juan Capistrano, Cal., on March 19. They have done this religiously for several centuries, and that has absolutely nothing to do with the moon.

Hunters want to know when the “peak of the rut” occurs because that is the time when they have the best chance of shooting a buck. That’s true. But the time of the rut occurs at different times in different places for different deer, and they occur regularly in those places year after year.

Fawns have to be born in the northern portion of the deer’s range the latter week in May or the first week in June because that is the time of the peak vegetative growth which the does need to produce the milk they need for their fawns. The deer in the southern states have a longer, usually later peak, because they do not have the severe winters to contend with. I have found that the peak breeding seasons for whitetails in Texas was the first week in January. Deer near the Canadian border, in either country, breed a little later because their spring occurs later. Deer living near the equator are capable of breeding in any month of the year as their weather is basically the same year round. There is no reason for a peak period.

I have not radio collared any deer to record what they do electronically. I have studied deer since 1939 in the wild and during the 21 years I was chief Gamekeeper for the Coventry Hunt Club, the largest hunting club in the state of New Jersey. I have had my own personal research deer herds for 28 years, losing them when Super Storm Sandy flattened my fences. However, during those 28 years, I literally lived with those deer, particularly from the middle of October when the pre-rut commenced with all the rubbing, scraping and sparring in earnest. From the first week in November through the first week in December, I did live with the deer from dawn till dusk, not even going to the house to eat. My wife would bring out my lunch which we jokingly called “Meals on Heels”.

I had one doe, my first doe, that bred on November 9th year after year, every year, no matter what the phase of the moon. My friends, the Spaces, at one time had one of the largest mink farms in the country. Fred Space told me that the individual female mink bred on the same day every year and their daughters would breed on that same day when they matured. That had nothing to do with the moon. That was genetics.

I found that the week of the peak of the rut in Northwestern New Jersey to be November 12th to the 19th with November 17th to be the one day with the greatest activity, and that was year after year. I found that a cloudy, rainy autumn caused the rut to be several days earlier than usual because there was less light to be filtered to the deer’s brain by its eyes, but that was photoperiodism at work.

Hunting pressure definitely caused the deer to move more at night regardless of the phase of the moon, and I am firmly convinced that the biggest, oldest bucks moved the least in the daytime because of that reason. It’s how they got to be big bucks. That was education at work. There was very little response to temperature as extreme cold or snow is not experienced during the rut. Both conditions change movement patterns and times in January and February.

A very dear friend of mine, Helen Whittemore, had a large estate that was a nature preserve. No hunting was ever allowed. Helen’s passion was deer, and she had her help put out over 100 pounds of corn each day in places where she could observe the deer’s activity from the windows in her living room. I have seen as many as 56 deer in sight at one time and as many as 17 bucks in one day. Both of us kept record of the bucks we saw by drawing their antler tine numbers and their patterns and then compared notes. We agreed that seeing that many bucks in the daytime was probably because many of them never left her property and knew they were safe there. We often saw different bucks just a time or two, proving that they were transient bucks that had expanded their range during the rutting season, which is what bucks do. Her does usually bred a couple of days sooner than other deer because they had constant feed and were in better physical condition.

You don’t have to take my word for all of this, but there have been many symposiums, seminars, forums and conventions of the top deer researchers in the country, and they have all come to the same conclusions. The peak of the rut is NOT influenced by the phase of the moon.

(Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III is considered to be one of the foremost authorities on Whitetail Deer in the country. Lennie’s 31 books and over 1400 magazine articles and columns about whitetails are regarded by many wildlife enthusiasts as their reference library. Lennie has been listed in the masthead of Whitetail Times as our staff photographer since the early days of the publication. During a recent telephone conversation, he said, “I have been studying whitetail deer since 1939 and continue to learn something new every day.” Rue has a new website at www.ruewildlifephotos.com, which he invites everyone to visit.)

— Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.