It is mid-autumn in the arboretum: many trees are bare, a few hearty bird species remain, and white-tailed deer mating season is in full swing.
Referred to as the “rut,” white-tailed deer mating season occurs from October to December. Because whitetails are short-day breeders, behavioral changes are trigged by reduced daylight in mid-to-late autumn. With days now growing shorter and nights growing longer, signs of the rut are scattered throughout the arb. Two of the most easily recognizable signs are rubs and scrapes.
Rubs are formed when bucks scrape against trees and shrubs, shedding a layer of velvet from their antlers. The velvet, which begins to grow in the spring, is a thin layer of living tissue that provides nourishment for the antlers. By fall, this tissue begins to die and is no longer necessary. In addition to shedding velvet, rubs are used to mark a buck’s territory. When a buck creates a rub, it secretes a musky scent from a gland just below the base of the antlers. This scent acts as the buck’s “signature,” indicating the deer’s age, social ranking, and breeding status to the remainder of the herd.
Several weeks after the first rubs appear, bucks begin making scrapes. Scrapes are identified by bare patches of earth on the edge of open areas and below low-hanging branches. A buck begins the scrape process by chewing buds from overhanging twigs, then secreting scent onto the branches from his forehead, preorbital, and nasal glands. He will then paw the ground beneath the branches, creating a bare patch of earth. Most bucks will also dispense scent by urinating in the scraped area. In the period about two weeks from peak rut, bucks will make 6-12 scrapes for every hour they are on their feet.
Rubs and scrapes only tell a small part of a complex story. While they do not show the sparring matches, the stare-downs, or the starvation caused by a buck’s one-track mind, these signs offer us a glance into the busy world of whitetails in mid-autumn.