The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is a well-known mammal in our local towns, finding abundant food in our forests and meadows, and much to our chagrin, in our yards. Normally most active at dawn and dusk, white-tailed deer can nevertheless be seen at almost any time of day. Whether munching on woodland greenery or your favorite backyard shrub, you have to admit that an antlered deer in autumn is an impressive sight.
An adult male deer, or buck, begins growing antlers in the spring. This is an annual event; the buck will shed his antlers each winter. Nourished by a covering of skin and blood vessels, the antlers reach their full size in early autumn. The skin is known as “velvet” and antlers with this covering are known to be “in velvet.” By September the velvet will begin to dry and peel away, revealing the hardened antlers beneath. The buck will rub his antlers against small trees about one to two inches in diameter, helping to rid himself of the velvet. Small saplings may snap in two with the force of the buck’s efforts. (A larger diameter tree used for rubbing indicates a larger buck making the rub.) Bucks have favorite trees that they will use year after year, often species that are aromatic, such as cedar, juniper, sumac and cherry. If you see a small tree, as short as six feet tall and with a two-foot strip of its bark rubbed off on one side, it may be a neighborhood buck’s rubbing site.
Though bucks live most of the year together in small herds, in late summer and early fall they will go their separate ways as the mating season begins. (Does live in herds of their own with their yearlings and new fawns.) The bucks become more aggressive toward one another at this time as they compete for mates. A dominant buck will show an opponent his superiority by first flattening his ears against his neck. Then he’ll stare his rival down. If that doesn’t work, the buck will sidle toward the other in the hopes that it will back off. Rarely, two bucks will face one another, lower their heads and point their antlers toward one another. If one does not cry “Uncle!” and the competition escalates, you may witness the rivals rush in and crash antlers.
Tree trunk “rubs” are also a sign of territorial behavior in bucks during the mating season. It is believed that a buck leaves a scent marking on the tree when he rubs it with his antlers and scent glands (found on his forehead).
By late winter the bucks have shed their antlers. So why aren’t we tripping over an abundance of these fallen prizes? Rodents, such as squirrels, mice and voles, gnaw them down to nothing for their nutrients.