Faced with sparse vegetation in central Texas after this summer’s intense heat and ongoing drought, San Antonio-based hunter Kenneth Drummond has been working to keep the feeder full on part of a ranch he rents for white-tailed deer hunting.
He flashed a few pictures on the screen of his phone showing just how skinny this year’s deer are. Of three white-tailed bucks waiting at the feeding station, only one has full nine-pointed antlers – a sign of suboptimal nutrition. Another has only six points, and his weaker opponent only four.
“You can see they’re already waiting at the shuttle to get going,” Drummond said. “You can tell they’re very hungry because they’re just sitting there waiting.”
Drummond drives the two-hour drive from San Antonio to Mason every two weeks to refill the feeder on 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 around. His goal is to make sure the deer are as healthy as possible when the hunting season begins. Archery season for whitetail deer begins October 1st and general whitetail hunting season begins November 5th.
As a longtime hunter, Drummond knows how weather can affect the hunting season. Drier years tend to result in thinner wildlife and fewer offspring, while wetter years tend to have the opposite effect.
This year was particularly hot and dry; San Antonio experienced its hottest summer months on record and is also poised for its driest year on record. From more wildfires to dwindling rivers and ponds, this year’s heat has given central Texas a crash course in drought preparedness.
Drought is definitely impacting wildlife and the hunting season in Texas, said Alan Cain, director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s white-tailed deer program. Cain said this year’s deer season is expected to be “average to below average.”
Program leaders like Cain oversee various species of hunted animals to ensure they are being hunted legally and properly so as not to interfere with or threaten Texas wildlife conservation efforts.
Male deer will likely have smaller antlers this year and females will produced fewer fawns, which will impact future hunting seasons, Cain noted.
“They don’t get the nutrition they need, which limits the growth potential of the antlers,” he said. “So this year the bucks will have smaller antlers than in wet years.”
While Cain said there shouldn’t be a significant decline in huntable deer populations this year, he said Texas deer surveyors have found that fawn production is below average. Deer season four to five years later could be sparser because of the current drought, he said.
Wild birds, on the other hand, have benefited from this year’s dry conditions, said Owen Fitzsimmons, head of TPWD’s netless migratory game program. Netless migratory wildfowl include pigeons, doves, sandhill cranes, rails, chickens, snipes, and woodcocks. Wet years can destroy bird nests, blow them out of trees or knock them out from hail, while dry years allow them to nest undisturbed, he said.
“Pigeons actually do well in dry climates. They’re well adapted to that,” Fitzsimmons said. “For birds, the drought means there is much more food available. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but they eat insects and seeds, which they find easier to find when it’s dry.”
As a result of the drought, Fitzsimmons said he’s heard from pigeon hunters that they’re having a particularly fruitful season. Texas dove hunting season opened earlier this month.
Drought is also helpful for hunting waterfowl, the second most common bird group after pigeons, Fitzsimmons said. This group includes ducks, geese and some cranes. Less water means waterfowl tend to concentrate in areas with water, making them easier to spot and hunt, he said.
“Waterfowl typically breed in the Dakotas, northern US and Canada,” he said. These birds come to Texas for the winter.
While he’s more focused on deer and wild boar than poultry, Drummond said he’s still looking forward to going out and hunting this year.
“It’s always a blast,” he said.