Autumn in the eastern deciduous forest is a time of transformation. Leaves change from green hues to vibrant oranges and reds, days grow shorter, temperatures grow cooler, and some mammals, like the white-tailed deer, begin their mating ritual.
The mating ritual of white-tailed deer is referred to as “the rut”. Female deer, or does, have spent the spring and summer months raising their fawns. Male deer, or bucks, have spent these warmer months feeding and developing their antlers, all in preparation for this special time of year.
A white-tailed doe and her fawn. Photo by Park Attendant, Jeff Mattingly.
The rut generally begins in late September but can vary depending on climatic conditions. During the beginning of the rut, bucks are busy shedding the velvet from their newly formed antlers. Velvet refers to the soft outer covering of newly grown antlers. Antlers are made of bone and primarily comprised of calcium making them strong enough to spar with other bucks. The velvet supplies blood flow to the antlers so that they may grow healthy and strong. Strong antlers with many points, or tines, indicate dominance to other bucks and genetic superiority to does.
Once the antlers are fully-grown, bucks find small trees or shrubs to “rub” their antlers on helping to shed the protective velvet covering. This rub leaves easily identifiable marks on trees that look as if the bark has been stripped away. These rubs serve two purposes, to strip away velvet and to mark the buck’s territory. Pre-orbital glands near the eyes leave a scent that lets other males know this territory has been claimed. In addition to rubs, bucks also make scrapes. A scrape is formed when a buck paws at the earth stripping away vegetation down to bare soil. Bucks then bend their back legs together and urinate so that scent from their tarsal and metatarsal glands ends up in these scrapes further marking their territory and telling does they are available as a mating partner.
Deer grazing in Distillery Bend in Beckley Creek Park. Photo by Park Attendant, Jeff Mattingly.
Bucks rarely eat during the rut, putting most of their energy into the mating process. Once a doe in estrus has been identified, mature bucks chase them until they can breed with her. Younger bucks hang around hoping for a chance to breed and may get to if a mature male is occupied fighting other bucks or breeding other does.
Once the rut is over, bucks spend their time eating heavily to prepare for the coming winter season. Does gestate their young over the winter, giving birth during early spring. They generally have one or two fawns that are born with white spotted covering for camouflage from predators.
Whitetail deer are crepuscular animals meaning they are most active during early morning and late evenings. They can been seen in a variety of habitats within The Parklands from meadows to forests during dawn and dusk. So, the next time you are on a Parklands trail, keep your eyes peeled for a deer rub on small trees or even for the deer themselves and bare witness to one of the most amazing events in our eastern deciduous forest.
Curtis, hired as Education Coordinator in March 2015, previously served as an Interpretive Ranger for the Parklands. As Education Coordinator, Curtis oversees programming and staffing for The Parklands Outdoor Classroom, based in the PNC Achievement Center for Education and Interpretation. A native of Louisville and a graduate of Ballard High School, Curtis returns to Louisville after having worked as an environmental educator in Maine and Colorado at Acadia and Rocky Mountain National Parks. Curtis also served as Membership Manager at the Rocky Mountain Conservancy. Curtis enjoys hiking, biking, camping and kayaking.
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