Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 11, 2009

Blood on the Trail

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:27 pm

The autumn White-tail rut provides a showcase for all kinds of testosterone driven activities. There are saplings out there to be pummeled, ground to be pawed, and scent saturated urine to be spread about. No, I’m not talking about the activities of those orange-clad victims of buck fever who take to the woods pursuing monster bucks, but am referring to the animal these humans are seeking. For love-sick male deer, November is the signal bell that initiates a period of intense pummeling, scraping, strutting, peeing, and goring toward reproductive success. Individual females are only receptive for a few days and there is no room or time for weakness. Only the dominant males earn the right to breed.

Normally, the question of dominance is settled peacefully by a simple matter of size – antler size, that is. A meager spike horn will not challenge a stately six, eight, or ten pointer in the hierarchy. The larger antlered deer is assumed to be the rightful lord of all the does in the vicinity on the merits of his rack alone. Bucks of different rack sizes will often engage in innocent sparring matches, but these don’t amount to more than confirmation exercises. Dominant bucks also maintain a series of scrapes and sent marked trails to advertise their virility to all comers. The problem comes when two bucks of equal measure are interested in the same female. Unable to assess each other by visual means, they are forced to settle the matter with a show of power. A buck fight can be a violent and deadly affair.

I was lucky enough to witnesses to one of these matches recently.  A pair of eight point bucks elected to duke it out at the trail head at Lake Erie Metropark near the Marshlands Museum. The rumble took place at high noon and within photo distance of the museum lobby. I was able to record most of the event as a distant observer. From behind the protective enclosure of the glass I was even able to shout out like an animated viewer at a boxing match and engage in a bit of maleness. Fortunately, there was not another human soul around at the time.  Take a look at the tussle in this video here or slip on over to the longer You-Tube version (You-Tube video here).

Overall, the fight probably lasted only about three minutes. By the time I started filming, the thing was well underway but there was still two minutes of contact to go. The two bucks never broke their entanglement during this whole time. Each was trying to push the other backward and/or catch his opponent off balance. Bark chips and dirt flew up from time to time as one or the other would dig in with his hind legs and drive forward. They kept their heads down  and sideways with locked antlers maintained at right angles. Thickened necks were held rigid as high arched shoulders provided a platform for the front legs to claim ground. It was an exhibit of sheer power.

I never saw the contested doe during this match, but the fracas did draw the attention of a spindly four point. This smaller buck circled excitedly around the fighting pair like some sort of referee. He was hardly an impassioned observer, however. At one point he rushed at them as if considering a run at the prize money and then wisely veered off. This deer could have been shouting “deer fight, deer fight!” for all I know, but if he did I could not have heard it from my position behind the lobby glass.

If you look closely at the video you can see that the eventual loser tried to break things off about twenty seconds before finally succeeding. His left antler was hooked into his opponents rack as the dominant buck pushed him back. It took a quick sideways jerk to free his tines and then he was off. The winner was hot on his victims trail as they bounded off into the hawthorn thicket.

I saw the winning buck come out of the brush about ten minutes later (see above). Mouth agape and panting heavily, he trotted north and disappeared up the trail. The loser was seen sneaking south across the parkway by a park visitor. I’m sure the four-pointer went off to tell his fellow dorks about the “big fight.”

After the battle, I examined the arena where events had unfolded. The ground was plowed for about fifty feet along the trail (see here). Tufts of hair were scattered about the scene and the autumn leaves were evenly mulched into the bark chips and soil. Scattered drops of rich red blood (see below) on the ground provided evidence that this fight was an intense one. Since I saw no injuries on the victor, I assumed these scarlet markers were from the vanquished buck, although I doubt that the wounds were serious.

The heavy scent of testosterone still hung in the air only minutes after the conclusion of the fight. For a moment I felt an uncontrollable urge to do a head butt into a tree – but only for a moment.


  1. Now there’s something you don’t see every day. How lucky you were to not only witness it, but to also capture it “on film.”

    Comment by Ellen — November 12, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

  2. What a cool experience! For you, I mean, not necessarily for the deer… although who knows what great stories they’ll each tell their friends about their tussle.

    Comment by Holly — November 12, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

  3. Great post! Very exciting, and amusing too. Good you didn’t head butt the tree. They usually win.

    Comment by Hugh — November 12, 2009 @ 9:07 pm

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