October is a good month to observe deer signs and behavior. This is the beginning of the fall rut. Dominance among both the females and males is being determined. Dominance hierarchies are maintained through complex, stereotypical behavior and threat displays, including stares, head bobbing, kicking, chasing, and various vocal sounds. During the rut, bucks are more likely to be seen during the day and are less wary of humans/predators due to the raging hormones that have been stimulated by the shortened day length. The rut causes an increase of movement by does in estrus and by bucks that are searching for them. By October, deer may triple their normal range. They are also fattening up for the rut, eating up to 300 acorns a day, spitting out the caps. While tan-fins found in the acorns can cause digestive difficulties if eaten exclusively, deer are known to dilute the tannins by eating brush as a “chaser.”
The first rut in October is a low-key event, occurring in the middle of the month in this Appalachian region. The does tend to come into heat together, at a 28-day interval. Does are only in heat for 24 to 48 hours. The November rutting is the major event. A final rut occurs in December for does that weren’t mated in the first two ruts. Scrapes are found during these months, either in the form of rubs on small tree trunks that bucks have made with their antlers and rubbed with their forehead glands, or cleared, pawed-out oval areas, where bucks have urinated over his tarsal glands to deposit scent. The scrape both marks his breeding territory and
attracts receptive does. Several bucks and does can use a single scrape.
The concept of large bucks sheparding a harem is largely a misnomer. In fact, it appears to be quite the opposite. Research has shown that does can freely enter or leave these loosely grouped harems. It seems more likely that the doe chooses which harem to join.
Subsequent to the rutting season, the bucks will regroup and remain in small groups separate from the does and iuveniles, as they do for the rest of the year. (The Shenandoah National Park study found winter group size ranging from one to 28, with a mean of 3.4.)
Deer utilize microorganisms in their stomachs to help digest food. Interestingly, while the deer’s diet changes from herbaceous plants in summer to buds and twigs in winter, so the microorganisms in the gut change according to what species are then in abundance. This explains why a deer in winter can die with a stomach full of grasses or hay presented by good-intentioned persons.
It is estimated that there are about 25 million deer living in Canada and United States. This is believed to be about the same number of deer that existed here at the time of the first colonists. However, in Virginia, we now have approximately 1,000,000, compared with an estimate of 500,000 in 1607. This would be the result of fewer woods, more secondary forests, and the loss of predators.
John James Audubon is widely known for his historic work, “Birds of America.” However, subsequent to this work, Audubon set out to conduct the same definitive work on all the mammals of North America. His book, “The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America,” has many wonderful anecdotal stories about the frontier life of the 1830s west of St. Louis. Regarding deer, he talks about the custom of many of the Indian tribes of eating the contents of the stomach without benefit of cooking or any other preparations. Noting that “hunger and hardships seldom fail to give a zest to the appetite,” Audubon reveals that, “as we have never been subjected to the necessity of testing the virtues of this primitive chowder, we are unable to pronounce it a delicacy, and must leave the decision to those who may be disposed to make the experiment.”
—Bob Pickett For more stories from Audubon’s book, you can go to www.bobpickett.org, and click on Appalachian Mammals.