Lewistown, Ill. — When Alan Harn waltzed onto forested Fulton County property in 1962 and quietly took a seat, there was no inclination that he’d still be sitting there 50 years later.
Obsessed with patterns – things people and animals do over and over – Harn simply thought he might learn a few things from the few deer that inhabited west-central Illinois at the time.
Harn began sitting daily, late summer through January, noting the actions of four bucks.
By 2011, he had spent nearly 6,800 hours recording behavioral patterns of 1,379 bucks during 50 breeding seasons.
“What I really wanted to know was why animals are in the places they are and for what reasons,” Harn said. “I am not a biologist by trade, but I spend a lot of time observing the natural world, both as an anthropological researcher and as an avid bowhunter.”
Harn, assistant curator of anthropology with Dickson Mounds Museum near Havana, has completed a paper on his enduring project. It is titled “Five Decades at the Scrape: Observations on Variation in Whitetail Deer Breeding Patterns in Illinois.”
In short, the volume of data provides new insights into breeding patterns of the state’s deer.
What Harn describes as his biggest finding came by studying his series of deer charts and deer data over and over and over.
In effect, what deer hunters in the state have known as the rut and pre-rut is actually a series of starts and stops in the mating cycle.
“There are misconceptions of a single November rut or a “pre-rut” and main rut cycle,” he said. “By looking over 50 years of data, I was able to demonstrate that breeding actually begins by mid-October and continues with four rut peaks at 28-day intervals into early January.”
Harn’s research also determined that bucks abruptly alter their rutting patterns during each breeding interval “by curtailing re-establishment of territorial markers, called scrapes, in favor of perpetual travel to directly intercept the increased numbers of females coming into estrus.”
The study describes the breeding process that begins with removal of antler velvet in the summer and culminates with antler loss in midwinter. His analysis of 593 fresh scrapes also documents wide inter-rut variation in the timing and preparation of these scrapes.
Harn presents evidence that the deer reproduction cycle is triggered by photoperiodism – decreasing sunlight entering the eye. It occurs at the same time each year regardless of weather, moon phase, or other natural condition.
While he has devoted his professional life to the museum and the story of people who lived and died in west-central Illinois before European settlers arrived, he is also a sportsman. He grew up about a mile from Dickson Mounds, fishing and hunting through his youth. A long-time hunter, Harn hasn’t actually shot a deer in 10 years. His last buck, a 10-pointer taken in 2002, was his “ultimate trophy.” These days he records the habits of deer and shoots occasional photographs. He has a son who remains an avid deer hunter in the area.
And how much longer does he plan to continue his “research at the scrape”?
“Probably until I die,” he said. “It’s part of me.”