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White-tailed Deer Scent-Marking

11-20-17 buck rub049A7932

Scent-marking plays an important communication role in the animal world. A variety of species use glandular secretions to convey (for some distance) messages. From beavers spreading castoreum on scent mounds to fishers leaving their scent every time their hind feet touch the ground, the woods are alive with messages often undetected by most humans. Some of these are left by White-tailed Deer, which have two primary scent-marking behaviors: antler rubbing and scrapes.

One used to associate an antler rub with the act of a buck removing drying velvet from its antlers. However, it turns out that very few rubs are made by deer removing antler velvet, a process that’s normally completed within 24 hours. Instead, most rubs are made by relatively few dominant bucks to signal their readiness to breed and to mark their territory.

All White-tailed Deer possess specialized forehead glands that become increasingly active in autumn, particularly in adult males. All bucks spread their scent by rubbing their foreheads (which contain specialized scent glands) against trees and shrubs that have smooth bark, few, if any, lower limbs and are ½” to 4” in diameter. (Older bucks also will rub trees six or more inches in diameter.) In the Northeast, Trembling Aspen, Staghorn Sumac, Red Maple, and willows are often used for this purpose.

Mature, socially high-ranking bucks exude greater amounts of the glandular secretion than do younger males or females. They begin marking their territory soon after losing velvet and continue marking until they cast their antlers in December or January. The chemical signals left at a rub site tend to suppress the aggressiveness and sex drive of young males. However, those same signals stimulate females. The amount of rubbing an individual buck does depends on the level of testosterone in his blood, which in turn is largely determined by the animal’s age and dominance status.

We may not be able to detect the chemicals on a rub, but it’s hard to miss the sight of the light-colored blazes that magically appear in the woods at this time of year. (Photo: White-tailed Deer rub on Staghorn Sumac. Thanks to Chiho Kaneko and Jeffrey Hamelman for photo op.)


4 responses

  1. Bill On The Hill...

    Yup, no mistaking that rub! If you hadn’t told me it was a sumac, I could easily have identified the picture of it as a cherry or birch whip…
    Just this morning Mary, still very dark, I saw the black outline of what I think was a buck just above my pond standing in the snow with the snow covered pond as a back ground. It is about 150 yards away from me. I reached down to grab my binoculars & when I looked back up, he was gone… Quite typical behavior!
    I believe it was the same buck I woke up to a few mornings back, 25 feet out the bedroom window, cleaning up the last remaining fallen apples. He was a young buck with 6 points, below the height of his ears & dead centered between them & weighed about 130 Lbs….
    Great post once again!
    Bill Farr…

    November 22, 2017 at 9:42 am

    • Alice Pratt

      Awesome way to start your day!

      November 22, 2017 at 10:05 am

  2. Alice Pratt

    I’ll be on the look-out for those markings….I wish I knew all this info you’ve given us, years ago! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving…thinking of you and Sadie and Otis. ♥️

    November 22, 2017 at 10:08 am

  3. Lots of helpful details in this one, Mary! I hadn’t heard about the diameter of tree choice being an indication of age. And so interesting how these left scents both depress and activate hormones in mal and female deer. My husband has noticed lots of sign on our prolific stands of striped maple, too, over the years. Warmest wishes to you, Sadie, and Otis.

    November 25, 2017 at 9:33 am

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