Gentlemen deer are beginning to see lady whitetails differently about now.
As a result of the changing photo period, autumn’s shortening allotment of daylight, whitetails are slipping into their annual reproductive phase. This time of raging hormones and uncharacteristic deer behavior is what we know as the rut.
The rut is a lengthy cycle that begins in late summer as bucks’ newly grown antlers of the year harden and they shed the cushy velvet that nourished the sprouting headgear.
The antlers harden into bone with the rise of male hormones that eventually will peak weeks later. That occurs as nature demands that bucks go all out to breed females to perpetrate a new generation of whitetails, fawns to be born in spring.
We humans may recognize the deer rut when the bucks start acting, well, rutty. As the natural urges rise, bucks begin to increase social marking behavior. This is manifested in rubs, actual rubbing of their antlers on small trees and brush. They typically scour bark off saplings, leaving raw wood that shows off their handiwork to other deer.
The rubs also receive smearings of secretions from glands around the base of their antlers, tagging the scarred vegetation with each buck’s own scent.
Scraping behavior starts a little later than rubbing but it gains steam as the rut works toward a climax. Bucks begin to paw out bare patches of soil in leaf-covered or grassy areas. A typical scrape will be placed beneath an overhanging limb where a buck usually rubs against to leave scent from glands on its forehead and face.
In the scrape on the ground, a buck more often than not will stand over it and pee down its hind legs (and over the secretion-oozing tarsal glands in its hocks) to give the bare spot his own stinky identity.
These social markings are to flag a buck’s home territory, to advertise his presence and status claim to possible rivals in the mating game, and to alert area does that, yes, girls, I’ll be available to father your fawns shortly.
It is chiefly hunters who are attuned to these buck deer bulletin boards. Most others take little notice — unless a buck decides to make a rub and perhaps have a mock battle with an ornamental shrubbery in someone’s lawn. Numerous homeowners find that their lawns become deer habitat at night, and sometimes expensive shrubs and tree plantings lose battles to rub-stoked bucks.
The most obvious signs of the rise of the rut increase every year around the last days of October and the first few days of November. This is simply the increase in deer movement, especially antlered bucks. More frequent and longer travels, especially at night for now, result in deer being seen more as they cross highways, traverse open fields and such.
The increased buck visibility is about guy deer checking for potential girlfriends and their status in relation to the rut in, around and even beyond their typical home range. The actual breeding behavior mostly kicks in about middle November, but until it does, bucks usually increase their movements and become more aggressive in their quest for receptive does.
Some enlightened deer hunters attempt to break the rut down into identifiable segments such as the pre-rut, the trailing period, the chasing phase, the breeding period, etc. However, the deer all haven’t read the same playbooks and they don’t necessarily perform in such an orderly, identifiable fashion.
Too, while the changing photo period is the overall driver of this entire phenomenon, there are individual differences in deer. Some bucks are motivated on slightly varying timetables, and, more importantly, the does may be ready for breeding at slightly different times. After all, it is the does’ readiness for breeding, the hormonally triggered coming into estrus, which determines the eventual couplings that are the essence of the rut.
A high percentage of adult does are impregnated from about mid-November to the last days of the month. A smaller percentage of the does that somehow don’t get bred in this primary estrus period will come into estrus again 28 days after their first missed opportunity. Beyond those, what amounts to a trace number of does will be bred later.
As the primary breeding period approaches, deer get obsessed with their natural obligation to procreate. Bucks become distracted by the quest for does, sometimes disregarding elements that would spook them normally. As the peak of the rut looms, wary, mature bucks that have grown nocturnal will find themselves traveling in broad daylight, largely ignoring human activities that would usually keep them in hiding.
When the carnal lamp is lit, bucks will cruise through deer habitat, using keen sense of smell to sample the trails of neighborhood does. When a buck crosses a lady’s trail that has a bouquet of impending estrus, that buck may lock on to the hot scent and follow it to his reward or his tragic end, depending on what’s ahead.
Hunters, of course, live for this. No other occasion makes hyper-cautious mature bucks expose themselves in the light of day. Nothing else makes bucks recklessly trail does through whatever perils await.
During the next several days, deer, especially the lovelorn bucks, are going to get silly. But it takes that to have a new crop of fawns every spring.