Blane Klemek: ‘Tis the season for white-tailed deer
By Blene Klemek
The range of the white-tailed deer is testament to its astonishing adaptability. From southern Canada to the Florida Everglades, and from the eastern hardwoods to the western pines, the white-tailed deer flourishes throughout its extensive North American range. They even exist in South America.
Here in Minnesota the deer herd is in excellent condition. As autumn progresses into the white and cold reality of winter that will soon follow, it is a good thing — winter is a difficult time.
During the fall, many changes occur in the routine of the white-tailed deer, also called “whitetail”. Seeking out the most nutritious foods, they begin to feed in earnest to accumulate fat reserves. Acorns, hazelnuts, wild fruits, grasses, and cultivated farm crops all contribute to the deer’s fat reserves. The extra layers of fat help to prepare the animal for the long and lean months of winter.
The bucks, now sporting polished racks, are eager to spar with other bucks or make battle with unfortunate shrubs and saplings. The shortened length of daylight triggers a testosterone surge that sets the stage for the annual rut, or breeding season. These events, among other physiological and behavioral changes, occur rapidly in deer during the autumn months.
Young bucks nearing one and a half years of age are usually rejected and often physically attacked and driven off by their own mothers or older female kin. This is nature’s way of spreading the population in a well-known and studied phenomenon called dispersal. This is why it is more common to see bucks of different age classes together than young buck with does and fawns. Autumn dispersal works to spread the gene pool and ensure genetic variation.
Oddly, with regard to a whitetail cousin, the mule deer, this doesn’t seem to be quite the case. Throughout the many years that I have been hunting mule deer in Colorado and Montana, it’s very common to observe large family groups of primarily does and fawns intermixed with young bucks sporting their first set of antlers, usually bucks of about 1.5 years of age. For unknown reasons, at least to me, these young “muley” bucks seem to coexist amicably within these mostly female dominated groups of deer.
In regard to young whitetail bucks that have been discouraged to range with female family groups of deer, young bucks oftentimes tag along with other, more mature bucks during the early fall. “Bachelor groups” are quite common in the summer as well as early fall and serve a social function within the deer herd. The youngsters spar with each other, tickling their puny antlers together in mock battles. Occasionally, dominant bucks will lower their great heads and racks to allow little bucks to push and shove against the much larger and stronger bucks’ antlers.
Well known to deer hunters are the associated behaviors that bucks display during the pre-rut and the rut. While it is common knowledge that bucks participate in scrape making and rubbing their antlers on trees, the reasons why they do are sometimes misunderstood. Rubs not only serve the function of “polishing” antlers; the activity also serves as a scent post.
From the book “Whitetail Country,” by Daniel J. Cox and John Ozoga, the authors cite research showing that a buck possesses a forehead gland that, in the process of rubbing, spreads his scent. This informs other deer of his presence. A line of rubs on the trunks of saplings provides physical evidence of an aggressive, and probably dominant, buck. The rubs and scent can mean many things: “Stay away” to lesser bucks, and “I am here” to all deer.
Scrapes are generally acknowledged to coincide with increased rut activity. Similarly, they possess powerful scent stimuli to all deer and provide information about their maker. Overhanging twigs above the scrape are chewed on by the buck, in addition to rubbing their forehead and tear ducts glands against them. Scent is also released from glands between the hooves, from glands on the legs, as well as from bodily excrement. All of these things combined serve as calling cards and warnings that this is the scrape builder’s turf.
The world of the white-tailed deer is fascinating and perplexing. As the seasons change from spring to summer and fall to winter, the whitetail adapts and survives. Their coats, changing from red to gray, provides a thick insulation against extremely cold temperatures. Their diet throughout the season-of-plenty changes to a subsistence of primarily twigs through the winter months.
The fawns quit growing by late fall and early winter; nature’s way of helping the young deer survive the cold and scarce food supplies. Metabolic rates in all deer slow down in order to combat the high energetic costs of staying warm. From spring through autumn the bucks proudly display and care for their antlers, no matter what their racks’ size, only to lose them by mid-winter in an unceremonious shedding. The does will breed in November and December and will give birth to a fawn or fawns by May and June.
Some deer will not live to see next spring. Winter hardships, available habitat and food, hunting, and collisions with vehicles all take their toll. But survive the species do. The remarkable success of the white-tailed is evidence to their astounding resolve as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is the DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor in Detroit Lakes. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)