FIELD ASSESSMENT OF BUCK AGE - WHITETAIL DEER
For a variety of reasons it is nice to be able to estimate the age of a whitetail deer buck in the field. Whether you are a hunter and managing deer on private property or just an outdoor enthusiast, this article will give you tips on how to get a pretty good guess on deer age.
Estimating the Age of a Buck Whitetail Deer in the Field
Ethical hunting involves knowing the animals you will be hunting. Beyond this, if you own your own property and wish to manage the deer population through selective harvesting, aging of deer is an important skill. While the most accurate methods are done using teeth wear (tooth replacement-wear method), these methods are not a practical answer for deciding whether or not to harvest a deer. Doing this will require some knowledge of how deer mature physically as they proceed through various stages of development.
Prior to beginning our discussion of these characteristics, let's establish why we are discussing age of deer in the increments we use. Fawns are born in the Spring and reach the age of 1/2 a year in the Fall around hunting season. Thus, we discuss the ages of deer, as fawns, 1 1/2 years of age, 2 1/2 years of age and so on. Antler development reaches its pinnacle at the time the deer reaches maturity, which is around age 5. Therefore, we will discuss the physical characteristics of deer through age 5 1/2, but deer typically retain their maximum antler size through approximately age 8.
The physical characteristics of deer are indicators of age, but no single one of those characteristic is by itself able to definitively give us the buck's age. At most of the age markers, the characteristics we will consider are:
Looking at how these physical characteristics change through the buck's lifespan will help us to gauge his age. It is perhaps noteworthy to mention that the buck's antlers are not a characteristic we will really consider. That is because it is an extremely unreliable age marker of a buck's age. Having said this, in general as a buck matures his antlers will gain mass, darken in color, and widen. On a mature buck, his antlers will generally be as wide or wider than his ears. If the genetics of a given buck are predisposed to an atypical rack, these anomalies will begin to show at maturity.
It might seem unnecessary to describe the physical characteristics of a fawn, but any conservation agent will tell you that there are many fawns that are harvested because they were mistaken for does. In the grand scheme of things these mistakes are probably not devastating for deer management purposes, but an outdoorsman will want to understand the complete physical evolution in a buck's lifespan. First, to differentiate between a doe and a fawn buck, look carefully for pedicles (nubs). The ears of a fawn will be disproportionally long, he will have a short nose, perfectly white tarsal glands, and long legs.
The next hunting season will find last year's fawns at age one and one-half years old. At this stage, bucks really are looking much like a doe physically. Obviously, the difference is that most does do not have antlers (rarely does do have antlers!). At this age, the bucks will have no muscular definition in the brisket area. Their necks will be thin and their tarsal glands will be white still. Their belly will turn up in the ham area in a pronounced fashion.
At age two and one-half, bucks will begin the process of bulking up physically. Their necks will have begun to become thicker, but the difference will not be great. At this stage the face will be long and the skin over it very tight. There will begin to be some development in the brisket area and the belly will still be turned up at the hams, but a bit less so. Here, the tarsal gland is still mostly white but a bit less brightly so. Finally, the rump area will be rather squared off.
At three and one-half, bucks are really beginning the maturation process. In areas where hunters are not carefully selecting for the deer they will harvest, very few bucks this age are passed on. This is unfortunate as these deer have much left in their maturation process if left to grow. Their nose is broadened noticeably and their head is as long as it will ever be. The brisket of a buck at this stage is developing noticeably, but is not fully developed. The legs of bucks at this age are proportionally correct for their size for the first time. If you can get a look at the buck on a piece of flat ground, his back will be flat.
By the time a buck reaches four and one-half years old, for those given the opportunity to grow to this stage, bucks are really starting to look mature. Now, that same buck if seen on level ground will have a slight dip in his back. Now, the belly of the deer will not hang below the chest line. The rump area will be rounded and the tarsal glands will be dark when in rut or close to rut.
Finally, when the buck has reached maturity in or around the fifth year (age five and one-half), the brisket will be defined where it meets the neck. Bellies of these deer will hang at or below the chest line. The facial skin will be a bit loose and deer will perhaps have non-typical points.
Most bucks by this age have reached their genetic potential. For a variety of reasons, it is likely wise to pass on a few of these deer on privately managed land if this is possible. Realistically, the few deer that have reached this age on public ground may as well be harvested by you as someone else.
These indicators of the age of a mature buck will be helpful in the field after some time practicing at looking for them. Even in the heat of the moment when a buck comes into your hunting zone, try to think about them and learn them over time.