Video Field Guide: How to Identify Antlerless Deer

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posted on September 28, 2023

Have you ever noticed that deer licenses are generally sold, not as "buck" and "doe," but as "antlered" and "antlerless"? That's because many hunters have a lot of trouble telling very young bucks (often called "button bucks") from does. If you look at the picture above, you'll see that it does depict a buck, but with tiny nub antlers that would be easy to miss, even with good optics.

That said, it is absolutely possible for a trained eye to tell young deer from older deer, and bucks from does, even if the antler situation is murky. That's why the National Deer Association's educational video project, “How to Identify Antlerless Deer in the Field,” is important. (If you'd like to see a comprehensive video about how to field-judge bucks, click here!)

With regard to harvesting antlerless deer, some hunters are concerned about accidentally shooting a fawn, which means deer under one year old during the fall hunting season, especially buck fawns. There is nothing wrong with harvesting a fawn as long as your license covers it, but NDA’s new video helps hunters separate adult does from fawns in the field, and even identify whether those fawns are does or bucks.

Why should you watch? Well, proper scientific ecological oversight says that balancing a deer population with the habitat and available food requires harvesting the appropriate number of does. This may be a lot in some areas, a few in others and none in more isolated cases. Being able to separate the does by age in the field allows hunters to selectively harvest antlerless deer–whether their goal is to harvest more mature does and reduce the deer herd, or harvest younger does and allow the deer herd to grow. (Not for nothing, but does and younger deer tend to be tastier eating than rut-addled bucks!)

In this 17-minute video, NDA Chief Conservation Officer and wildlife biologist Kip Adams shares tips on how to separate adult does from younger does in the field–and even how to identify fawns (deer under 1 year of age) as does or bucks. The 18-deer quiz at the clip’s conclusion allows you to practice what you learned throughout the video. Here, viewers are provided a few seconds to identify wild deer from live footage in the field. After the pause, Kip reveals his analysis of the deer in each of the nine scenarios, with 18 deer being shown in all.

“The ability to separate live antlerless deer into two general age groups – fawns and adults – is obtainable for all hunters with a little knowledge and some practice,” said Adams. “The three key characteristics are body size and shape, head size and shape and animal behavior. This is especially pertinent when you have a group of deer in front of you during hunting season. Estimating the sex and age of live antlerless deer is a great skill for hunters.

“The team at The Bearded Buck gave us full access to their incredible collection of whitetail footage from years of their hunts,” he continued. “The result is NDA’s most comprehensive and realistic look at how to age deer in the field.”

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