by Denny Olson
About this time last year, I was bushwhacking through a trail-less part of Audubon’s Owen Sowerwine Natural Area and happened upon a two-inch diameter sapling, rubbed barkless at about knee level. A few cream-colored bark shreds speckled the leaves below – leaves which had fallen just hours before. It was a fresh whitetail buck rub. From past experience, I faced the rub-side of the little tree and could make out a faint trail leading past it. About a hundred feet away I could just make out another rub, and when I arrived at that one, the pattern repeated. I followed the “flagging”, which the buck uses to stay on course in the dark parts of a day.
Likely, on the upwind side of this trail, there was a heavily used doe trail somewhat parallel to this one. After half a dozen of the trail-markers — which bucks not only use for navigation in low light, but also to wear off some of the effects of “testosterone overload” this time of the year – I found “doe central”, a spoked junction of six trails. The buck couldn’t pass this up.
Twenty feet ahead, I found a “scrape” pawed to bare dirt, three feet in diameter. In the scrape were tracks about five and a half inches from front to the dew-claw. “Big boy,” I thought. A fresh wet spot in the center smelled musky and rich. He had been there recently, rubbing his inside-the-hock tarsal glands together as he urinated on them, leaving an irresistible deer version of English Leather as a calling card for the girls.
I had tried to be quiet and move very slowly to the spot, and as I waited, listening, a mature doe stood up from her bed about 50 feet away. She was probably in estrous and waiting for Mister Right to bring flowers and a romantic card. Being motionless in these situations often pays dividends, and from the corner of my eye, slightly behind me, a flicker of motion materialized into Bad Leroy Buck, pointed toward the doe like a German shorthair, neck stretched and tail pointed straight back, belching like a college student toward the end of a good party. I was close enough to smell the hormone mix of tarsal, metatarsal, supra-caudal and pre-orbital glands. He totally ignored me, which wasn’t surprising. I’ve seen that kind of hormone overload in our species as well.
She played “coy” and walked away slowly, her suitor in tow, who was trying to conserve energy by taking shortcuts to her whenever she changed course. It was probably a good strategy for him; by the time the primary “rut” is over in late November, he will have lost a quarter of his body weight to lust and the resultant forgetting to eat.
White-tailed deer have a notoriously high reproductive rate, and that causes a few problems in places without normal predation — like a 442-acre river bottom right next to a city — to counter-balance that rapidly growing population. They overbrowse seedlings of aspen and cottonwood, affecting major habitat for birds and other animals. They are great transport systems for invasive plants, like the Velcro-seeds of houndstongue. As a scientific and educational project, FAS is considering putting up a deer “exclosure” or two, to see how much they affect the landscape over the years.
Any species, overpopulated, can be a problem. But in the fall, they can also entertain, and remind us that a “natural area” is not just for the birds …