A Mississippi College Analytical Biochemist has been using game cameras to study how deer spread diseases and along the way he’s refined his techniques to not only get more bucks on camera but reduce the number of images of non-target wildlife.
Where, and where not to, put cameras for more pictures of bucks
His methods can help hunters have a better idea of what bucks are on their property and do it with a minimum amount of cameras.
“We’re trying to understand how deer spread social diseases,” said associate professor Scoty Hearst. “The second part is we’re trying to identify what chemicals deer use to communicate — these social chemicals they produce. To study that, we study scraping behavior which is a chemical-based social behavior.”
Hearst said when he began the study several years ago he placed cameras in a number of places including near feeders and trails. He said the cameras along trails produced little.
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Deer feeders attracted mostly does and raccoons
At feeders, it was a different story. Cameras recorded thousands of images at feeders, but they were mostly photos of does and raccoons with few bucks in the mix.
Scrolling through thousands of pictures of does and raccoons was an issue in itself, but the lack of bucks was more problematic. Because of their social behaviour, bucks are more prone to transmit diseases, so they are his primary focus.
For his purposes, Hearst said setting up at a feeder was “just a waste of a camera.”
He also said the lack of images of bucks at feeders wasn’t because they weren’t in the immediate area.
“When we put a camera over a scrape 50 yards away from the feeder we got buck after buck after buck,” Hearst said.
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Not all deer scrapes are the same
So, scrapes became the focal points for the study, but Hearst soon found they are not all the same. Some produced limited activity by fewer bucks and weren’t active year after year. He began moving cameras from one scrape to another until he found sites that attracted multiple bucks during the breeding season.
“The way we do it is finding the best scrapes,” Hearst said. “We find the community scrapes or scrapes that deer use year after year.
“These are the hotspots. What’s great about the scrapes is you can catalog the bucks. You can really keep up with the bucks on your property. That’s going to provide the best data about what’s on your property.”
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The community scrapes have a couple of things in common. They are typically located along high-traffic areas such as trails along wood lines or trail intersections.
They also have licking branches or branches that hang over them low enough for bucks to lick and rub their heads on to deposit scent used to communicate with other deer.
Hearst said bucks can get overly aggressive and break the branch, at which point the scrape will go cold. In these cases, when possible, Hearst said he ties a rope to the branch about 5 feet from the break and pulls it down to a point where bucks can reach it and then ties it into place.
“Without that licking branch, they’re just not interested,” Hearst said.
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Place cameras high to avoid spooking deer
Another problem Hearst had to overcome was bucks, particularly mature bucks, becoming camera-shy over time and avoiding the scrapes he was monitoring; especially in areas with significant hunting pressure.
“In areas where they are heavily hunted, they don’t want to be near anything they associate with humans,” Hearst said. “In the long-run, you just don’t want the deer to know it’s there.”
Although unsure of exactly what was spooking some bucks over time, he decided that placing them out of a deer’s line of sight would help. So, instead of placing them on a tree about 3 feet off the ground, he now carries a small ladder with him and places cameras 8 feet off the ground.
To angle them downward, he places a small piece of PVC pipe across the backs of the cameras near the top and secures it with zip-ties.
Carrying a ladder through the woods, placing cameras 8 feet high and moving them around to find the most active scrapes may sound like extra time and work, but if you want to track the inventory of bucks on your land, Hearst said it’s worth it.
“It will pan out year after year,” Hearst said. “It takes a couple of years to find these scrapes, but it’s definitely the best.”