What Are Limiting Factors in Hunting?

March 25, 2021
Man with bow pulled back

A limiting factor is something that reduces the size of a particular population of animals. Knowledge of the limiting factors in a given environment and season helps hunters find game more easily, significantly cutting time spent searching and tracking down and increasing the chances of a successful hunt.

Why Do Limiting Factors Matter?

Biologists use two terms when surveying the wildlife population in a particular region or habitat: carrying capacity and limiting factors. Think of a particular habitat as a bucket and wildlife population as water. Every year, wildlife reproduction adds water to the bucket. The size of that bucket is the habitat’s carrying capacity. If there are too many animals, there is an excess population, which can endanger the habitat.

A limiting factor is a hole in this proverbial bucket, which keeps that population at manageable levels. There are different types of limiting factors, and they can change depending on the current season. Examples include food and water scarcity, diseases, natural disasters or predators. Experienced hunters exploit specific limiting factors in a particular area to increase their chances of success. Hunting itself is a limiting factor, as well, and perhaps the only human-related limiting factor with a positive impact: Not only is it a great way to feed your family, but it also helps combat the issue of wildlife overpopulation, which can have devastating consequences.

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Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument

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Hunt the Water

The best examples of limiting factors are starvation and dehydration, caused by a scarcity of food and water sources. In these regions, keeping an eye on water sources — a tactic that pronghorn hunters call “hunting the water” — is a safe bet for finding animals. Not only does it provide deer and other game animals with a place to drink, but wetter areas are also where they find the best, most nutritious vegetation. This tactic may not work as well if you live in a colder, wetter region with lots of streams, such as Vermont or Maine. Scarce water sources are far less of a concern in these areas.

Find the Acorn, Find the Deer

If water isn’t a limiting factor, then a lack of food sources will most likely come into play. Deer are naturally predisposed to look for food sources closest to their habitat. The less they need to travel and expend energy to find food, the better for their survival. Like cows, deer possess a four-chambered stomach, using the first chamber — the rumen — to store food for later digestion and use.

Unlike cows, deer have a limited rumen capacity, needing to refill their reserves every three to four hours. For this reason, deer are wired to maximize their energy cost-efficiency ratio; in other words, they seek the most efficient food sources at the shortest possible distances. By far, the most efficient and preferred food source is acorns. Knowing where the acorns grow and how abundant they are is often tied to your deer hunt’s success. Look for oak trees; if you uncover an area with plenty of acorns, you’ve likely found a feeding spot and a great place to install hunting blinds.

If acorns are not available, either due to geographic or seasonal limitations, you may have to look for other food sources. Hunters often overlook mushrooms, yet they are typically the deer’s second choice after acorns, providing them with plenty of phosphorus and protein. Mushrooms grow in surprising quantities across all kinds of climates, even relatively dry ones. If you’ve got foraging skills, you can put them to good use during your deer hunt. Look for concentrations of morels, brittlegills, boletes or polypores (shelf fungi); they’re also likely to be good feeding spots.

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Red deer

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Thermoregulation: Animals Need to Stay Warm

During colder months, and particularly in forested regions where snowfall is expected in the winter, deer regulate their body temperature in three ways: finding high-fat foods, expending as little energy as possible and avoid treading through areas with high snow depth.

Softwood trees, such as pines or spruces, create a protective canopy that intercepts some of the falling snow before it lands on the ground. This canopy reduces snow depth and makes it easier for deer to tread through. These same trees can also offer some protection against cold winds, helping deer remain warm. If you hunt during the late fall or early winter, finding plots with trees that can shield deer from wind and deep snow may give you an idea of where to place a DIY deer blind.

The Take-Home Message

Knowledge of limiting factors comes down to understanding your hunting environment and deer habits and searching in the right spots. Spend time looking for these areas and not only will you have great locations to place your hunting blinds, but you will be more likely to come home with plenty of food for the freezer.

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