Conditioning Rural Whitetails
At the very core of the theories laid out in Urban Deer Complex 2.0 is the science behind conditioned animal behavior. Not just urban deer behavior, but even rural whitetails. We are going to skip over the scientific terms and get down to the core of what this all means by talking about New England logging country.
Just like many others raised in a family which hunts, many of us would often venture to the North Woods (New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine) with family. Deep in active logging country, hunting rural whitetail deer is a tough venture and not for the fainthearted. Here, logging equipment such as skidders and log trucks replace cars, and the sound of chainsaws replaces the hum of traffic on the interstate.
A brief talk with any of the loggers who live here will start to expose the same conditioning that we see in urban deer. For some reason, the loggers see a ton of deer on active logging sites while the hunters in the undisturbed woods typically don’t. Some loggers will tell you how the deer were seen browsing on the tops of the trees just felled while the loggers were working just yards away on a 10-ton skidder.
These big woods mountain deer that are generally so threatened by the presence of man, have adapted to understand the difference between non-threatening and threatening human behavior. Just like the landscapers, the children playing in a backyard or the casual hiking outdoor enthusiast, these loggers were not displaying predatory behaviors that condition deer to fear. Some loggers tell stories of starting their chainsaws and letting their skidders idle while they sit and wait on a day they are hunting. They pretend to be logging just to create the scenario where the deer don’t feel threatened.
This is the foundation of urban deer behavior, the idea of “urban camouflage”. By avoiding predatory behaviors, we become more invisible to these deer that have been forced to develop complex ideas on human behavior in suburban America. It is fascinating science that observes and describes how much a deer can truly become conditioned to a behavior.
What suburban and urban America has done is expose the whitetails adaptable behavior to extremes that rural whitetails often did not experience. Whitetails, without a doubt, become clever products of their environment and the Urban Deer Complex invites us to open our minds to the understanding of this learning process.
Just as those savvy loggers applied a little urban spice to their rural deer hunt, many savvy urban hunters have done the same. In the end, they harvested more rural whitetail deer close to houses than from the vast wilderness available to them nearby. It is possible that this comes from years of hunter behavior that has often keyed in on a theory that assumes that the deeper we go and the farther we walk, the more and bigger the deer we will see. Whitetails could have adapted to avoid these hunters or it could be the product of a selective cull we were unaware of. We quite literally could have hunted out that genetic of deep woods behavior thus allowing the more “suburban” behavior to survive.
Then again, basic biology tells us that deer are edge creatures.
In fact, human development has created more edges than a natural forest ever could. In theory, we could argue that the creation of edges, whether human-caused or not, has a direct correlation with the boom in suburban and urban deer populations.
Nevertheless, if you find yourself hunting the North Woods, don’t be afraid to get laughed at in hunting camp by applying suburban theories. Look for man-made funnels like rows of houses and narrow stretches of woods surrounded by human development.
We understand the biology of whitetails; the mass hunting market has given us plenty of information on it. It is the science of psychology that will push the limits of us becoming successful deer hunters. It is that mental process of the “conditioned” whitetail that has shaped the deer that we hunt today.
Jesse St. Andre is a New England native. Raised in central Maine, Jesse now lives in eastern Connecticut with his wife and two kids and can be found hunting or trapping the small woodlots of southern New England.