-Back to Articles-

HUNTING THE RUT: UNDERSTANDING THE RUT'S VARIOUS PHASES
Text and Photos by Charles J. Alsheimer

Have you ever sat on a stand and tried analyzing the whitetail's rut? Have you ever wondered when it begins, how long it lasts, or what aspect of the rut is most fascinating?

When I began deer hunting, I didn't know much about rutting behavior. During my youth, I viewed the rut as one frenzied two-week period in the whitetail's life. After 20 years of extensively hunting and photographing whitetails, I now realize the rut's chemistry is more complex than I originally thought.

Understanding the rut requires knowledge of deer behavior and what triggers the rut's various phases. Everything that precedes breeding - velvet peeling, rubbing, scraping, chasing and fighting - has a purpose. No aspect of the rut stands as an isolated occurrence. All the activities blend to create one of nature's most incredible spectacles.

The Preparation
Photoperiodism - the deer's behavioral and physiological responses to changing amounts of daylight - drives nature's timetable, from leaves growing on trees to antlers growing on deer. Though summer's growing season is leisurely for whitetails, subtle changes within the buck population are shaping a herd's pecking order for fall. Dominant bucks engage in stare-downs, shadowing and, in some cases, flailing with their hoofs. These behaviors help determine which buck could become the bull of the woods when the actual breeding game begins.

Nature does not provide bucks their full arsenal before the precise time each weapon is needed. Can you imagine what the woods would be like if a buck's testosterone level peaked in early September rather than early November? By late August, bucks' velvet dries, cracks and peels. About the same time, just enough testosterone surges through their systems to inspire rubbing. Then, near the end of September, the testosterone "valve" opens wider, stimulating scraping.

By mid-October, with the days cooler and testosterone levels higher, bucks move more during daylight. Does' estrogen levels climb, and they begin smelling differently. By early November, bucks' testosterone levels and does' estrogen levels have peaked, setting the stage for what deer hunters call the "rut."

The Rut's Confusing Terms
When people mention the pre-rut, rut or post-rut to me, I ask them to define what they're talking about. These terms have been used so many ways the past 50 years that it's difficult to define them universally. For biologists and researchers, pre-rut usually defines all behavior that occurs before full-blown breeding. In contrast, most hunters think of the pre-rut as the early autumn period when days are warm and little rubbing, scraping or fighting occurs.

To researchers, the word "rut" usually means the actual breeding period. But most hunters think it means that much and more, namely the time when bucks are going bonkers while rubbing, scraping, chasing and fighting.

Both hunters and biologists agree the post-rut is the period and behavior associated with the time after breeding ends. So, the mere study and use of the words can be confusing. Though I believe pre-rut, rut and post-rut are good ways to describe a whitetail's autumn behavior, I break it down more precisely.

The Dominance Phase
Dominance among white-tailed deer is progressive and ever-changing. Once a buck's velvet peels, it begins the physical training for its greatest game - breeding. In many ways this period reminds me of an athlete's preseason training regimen. A buck is fat-laden as summer ends, far different from what it will be by October first. Once its antlers are hard, a buck begins to rub more frequently as daylight continually shortens. A buck rubs frequently for two obvious reasons. First, like a boxer working a speed bag, a buck rubbing a tree is strengthening its neck and shoulder muscles. Second, rubbing allows a buck to leave its scent and visual markers so other deer know it has been there and will return when breeding begins.

With ever-increasing testosterone in its system, a buck adds another dimension to its identity by making scrapes. Scraping, like rubbing, allows a buck to make its presence known by dispensing scent throughout its area. Hunters debate whether scraping is primarily a "buck thing" or if it's done to attract does. In more than 25 years of photographing and hunting deer from Texas to Canada, I've only seen a handful of does interact at scrapes. In my opinion, scraping is a buck behavior - a way a buck shows its dominance.

I believe scraping is also a satisfying, conditioned response for bucks. When working an overhanging licking branch, a buck is greatly satisfied by the branch massaging its forehead, preorbital and nasal glands. I don't believe a buck consciously knows it is spreading its scent to other deer.

Judging from the hundreds of photos I've taken of scraping bucks, it appears the satisfying and stimulating aspects of scraping might largely explain why a buck performs the behaviors frequently. I'm not saying scent depositing isn't a big part of scraping, because it is. But I'm convinced the dynamics of scraping are incredibly complex and serve several functions, probably more than we'll ever realize.

Physical Competition
With rubbing and scraping comes physical competition. Once free of velvet, most bucks begin sparring. This is a way to exercise while testing the herd's competitive waters. For the most part, sparring matches are playful skirmishes between two bucks of equal size and stature. However, on occasion, sparring can get out of hand and become ugly. The best analogy I can offer is two teen-age brothers playfully wrestling on the living room floor. Before they realize it, one gets his nose bloodied and tempers flare. While photographing in fall, I've often seen sparring contests between bucks follow a similar sequence.

As breeding time nears, bucks become adventurous, and trouble often befalls a traveling buck. A buck's range often expands from about 600 acres to nearly 4,000 acres by early November. As a result, a whitetail's summer and early-fall pecking order falls apart because strange bucks continually trespass on each other's turf. Chaos invades the whitetail's world!

The Seeking Phase
Bucks are more vocal in autumn than at any other time of the year. By November, bucks communicate with other deer by emitting grunts, bleats, snorts and snort-wheezes.

With maximum levels of testosterone now flowing, bucks look feverishly for an estrous doe. Their noses dictate when and where bucks go. No doe group is safe as bucks weave across their expanded territory.

At this time, all the dynamics of buck behavior unite. Bucks are now finely tuned physical specimens that spend every waking hour rubbing and scraping, and looking for does. Judging from research I've conducted for several years, an active buck makes eight to twelve scrapes per hour during this rut phase. At this time bucks also lip-curl - a behavior called "Flehmening" by scientists - far more than in previous months. They exhibit this behavior when they find a place where a doe has urinated.

Lip curling allows a buck to determine if a doe is entering estrus. The buck traps scent from a doe's urine in its nose and mouth, and then lip-curls. This allows a buck's scent-analyzing device - the vomeronasal organ in the roof of its mouth - to pinpoint the doe's status.

When a mature buck or aggressive yearling buck encounters a stranger or a recognized contender, one or two things occur. Stare-downs or shadowing usually occur first. It's generally a buck's antlers and body size that cause one antagonist to cut short the encounter by shying away. Most bucks are aware of the size of their antlers and body, and can quickly size up the situation. However, if two bucks of similar size - with testosterone-injected attitudes to match - find each other, the results can get ugly.

If a fight to the death begins, the scene can be spectacular. Antlers become ice picks, and there are no rules of combat. A buck's objective is to knock his opponent to the ground, and then stick him in the abdomen or hind quarters with his antlers. Such a fight can be gruesome, and when it's over, victor and loser alike often need time to recover before resuming their pursuit of does. Combatants can even die from their wounds. Of all the times to hunt, the seeking phase it tops, especially for a treestand hunter. Bucks are on the move, but not yet chasing the does they encounter. Their movement patterns through funnels and along scrape and rub lines is more predictable. Unfortunately, the seeking phase only lasts about a week to ten days before blending into the chase phase.

The Chase Phase
The chase phase often gets confused with the seeking phase. The two behavior periods overlap, but their different. During the chase phase, does are almost entering estrus, and bucks are frantically trying to be the first to find them. Now a buck will chase every doe it encounters. Such meetings often resemble a cutting horse trying to cut a calf out of a herd of cows. A buck can be persistent at this time, knowing it will eventually find a doe that won't run. During the chase phase, scraping and rubbing continue, but are not as frequent as during the seeking phase. The chase phase often brings more intense fights, especially if two bucks are pursuing the same doe.

The chase phase can be a great time to hunt. Unfortunately, it often takes bucks out of range as they chase does. Such scenes can be frustrating.

The Tending and Breeding Phase
This is the stage that gives the rut its name. When a doe finally enters estrus, it's willing to accept a buck's company wherever it goes. In many parts of North America, the buck-to-doe ratios are so weighted toward females that all available bucks can easily find a hot doe. When breeding begins, scraping nearly ceases and bucks curtail much of the activity that took place throughout the rut's dominance, seeking and chasing phases.

Rather than traveling, a buck will stay with a hot doe for up to 72 hours. For the first 24 hours, a doe will smell right but won't be ready to breeds. During the second 24 hours, the doe will be in full estrus and allow the buck to breed her several times. Then, because she continues to smell right for the last 24 hours, a buck will continue to stay near.

During those three days, a buck will move only when the doe moves. Because most does cover little ground, deer activity can seemingly halt during this time. Only when the doe cycles out of estrus will the buck move on to look for another estrus doe.

The first does to come into estrus will often cause a commotion by attracting several bucks. When that happens, a dominant breeder buck never rests as he tries to run off all intruder bucks in order to stay in position to breed the doe. Because they have no time to rest or eat, breeder bucks can lose up to 25 percent of their weight during the rut's seeking, chasing and breeding phases.

Of all the rut's phases, the breeding time can be the most difficult to hunt because movement is limited. At this time, about the only way treestand hunters will see action is to place their stands in the hot doe's core area or in sites frequented by doe groups.

Post Rut - The Recovery Time
By the time a whitetail's prime breeding period ends, a buck's testosterone level is rapidly falling. A breeder buck is also so rut-worn that its body is in a near meltdown. Researchers have found that some bucks are so worn down by the time breeding is over that they'll have trouble surviving a hard winter. With less testosterone to drive them, bucks go into a resting and feeding mode as soon as breeding ceases. In regions with high doe-to-buck ratios, the stress of an extended breeding season decreases the survival chances of many breeder bucks.

Even with does entering estrus at non-traditional times, such as December and January, the rutting behavior of bucks will not be as intense as it was earlier. Limited, subdued chasing will occur, but scraping and serious fighting is mostly over. Most post-rut behavior is done by subordinate bucks in the form of sparring, but minor scraping and rubbing will likely occur.

Survival again becomes more important than breeding. The post-rut is a time for bucks to restore fat and energy reserves. The bucks seem to know their only chance of surviving a northern winter is to rest and feed heavily.

Conclusion
The whitetail's rut is an amazing and complex phenomenon. It's made up of an array of behavioral traits, each distinctly different but interwoven. Each rut phase works in concert with the others to ensure the species' survival.

-Back to Articles-