Skinny deer, plump doves: Drought affecting game animals in different ways – San Antonio Report

San Antonio Report
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With scanty vegetation in Central Texas following this summer’s intense heat and ongoing drought, San Antonio resident and hunter Kenneth Drummond has been working to keep full the automatic feeder on part of a ranch he leases to hunt white-tailed deer.
He pulled up a few images on his phone’s screen that showed how skinny this year’s deer are. Of three white-tailed bucks waiting by the feeder, only one has full nine-point antlers — a sign of less-than-optimal nutrition. Another has just six points, and his weaker counterpart only four.
“You can see they’re already just waiting by the feeder for it to go off,” Drummond said. “You can tell they’re very hungry since they’re just sitting there waiting for it.”
Drummond makes the two-hour drive from San Antonio to Mason every two weeks to refill the feeder at the ranch acreage he leases year-round. The feeder automatically spins out food twice a day, and a motion-activated wildlife camera connected to his phone allows him to keep an eye on things when he’s not there. His goal is to make sure the deer will be as healthy as possible when hunting season comes around. The archery season for white-tailed deer starts Oct. 1, and the general white-tailed hunting season begins Nov. 5.

As a longtime hunter, Drummond understands how the weather can affect hunting season. Drier years tend to make for skinnier wildlife and fewer offspring, he said, whereas wetter years tend to have the opposite effect.
This year has been particularly hot and dry; San Antonio experienced its hottest summer months on record and may also be facing its driest year on record. From more wildfires to dwindling rivers and ponds, this year’s heat has been giving Central Texas a crash course in drought preparedness.
Drought definitely has an effect on Texas wildlife and hunting season, said Alan Cain, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department white-tailed deer program leader. Cain said that this year’s deer season is expected to be “average to below average.”
Program leaders like Cain oversee different species of hunted animals to make sure they’re being hunted legally and properly so as to not harm or threaten Texas wildlife conservation efforts.
Male deer will likely have smaller antlers this year and females have produced fewer fawns, which will affect future hunting seasons as well, Cain noted.
“They’re not getting the nutrition they need, so that limits antler growth potential,” he said. “So the bucks will have smaller antlers this year compared to wet years.”
While Cain said there shouldn’t be significant declines in huntable deer populations this year, he said Texas deer surveyors have found that fawn production is lower than average. Deer seasons four to five years out may be more sparse because of the current drought, he said.
Game birds, on the other hand, have benefited from this year’s dry conditions, said Owen Fitzsimmons, TPWD’s webless migratory game bird program leader. Webless migratory game birds include doves, pigeons, the sandhill crane, rails, gallinules, snipe and woodcock. Wet years can disrupt bird’s nests, blowing them out of trees or knocking them out from hail, whereas dry years allows them to breed undisturbed, he said.
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“Doves actually do well in dry climates. They’re well adapted to that,” Fitzsimmons said. “For birds, the dryness means there is a lot more food available. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but they eat insects and seeds, and they can find those easier in dry conditions.”
As a result of the drought, Fitzsimmons said he’s been hearing from dove hunters that they’re having a particularly fruitful season. Dove hunting season for Texas opened earlier this month.
Drought also is helpful for hunting waterfowl, the second most harvested bird group after doves, Fitzsimmons said. This group includes ducks, geese and some cranes. Less water means waterfowl typically concentrate in areas that do have water, making them easier to spot and hunt, he said.
“Waterfowl typically breed in the Dakotas and the Northern U.S. and in Canada,” he said. Those birds come to Texas for the winter.
While he focuses on deer and feral hogs rather than fowl, Drummond said he’s still excited to get out and hunt this year.
“It’s always a blast,” he said.
Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.