A deer “rub” is a set of abrasions made by a buck when it rubs its forehead and antlers against the trunk or branch of a tree.
In late summer and early fall, bucks will rub a tree to remove the velvet from their antlers, but this is a brief process. As the buck’s testosterone levels rise in the fall, bucks use the rub to announce their presence in a territory, and sometimes to communicate a challenge to another buck.
Mature bucks (over two and a half years) have higher testosterone levels that peak earlier in the breeding season, and they produce almost double the number of rubs as younger individuals in the territory.
Territory marking, dominance, availability, or challenge … a rub is the equivalent of a dog’s fire hydrant. On any day, a mature buck might make upwards of 800 rubs. So it is not a major occurrence when a buck rubs against a tree. It is a major occurrence for me to see this happening 30 feet from my kitchen window. Adding to the moment is the excitement of seeing three bucks in my yard while this is happening.
They entered the yard lackadaisically in a single file, and then spread out to browse on the few decorative plantings that had not already been eaten to the ground. They were a young trio. The youngest had two small points forming a small fork on his forehead. The other two bucks were impressive eight pointers. One was about two and a half years old, and the other buck was approximately a year and half old. To possess eight points at a year and a half old is unusual. Think of that middle school guy who can already grow a full beard.
The middle schooler immediately set to making a rub on a small sapling. Apocine glands on the deer’s forehead leave a strong scent for other deer in the vicinity. The older buck approached the tree, and rubbed the opposite side.
As soon as the deer had entered the yard, I had shut off the kitchen lights, and grabbed the camera, which I now had pressed firmly against the picture window.
Something was up.
The deer spread out again in a casual formation, but then the two larger bucks approached each other, and stood quietly facing one another. The younger of the two turned his head away casually, as if disinterested in any confrontation. Then, he turned back, and the pair squared off.
Heads down, the antlers knocked together noisily. It was an appealing sound that resonated in the kitchen in spite of the closed doors that separated me from the fray.
They braced themselves in what appeared to be a shoving match. They locked and unlocked antlers, twisted, and dug in to gain better purchase. The surprising part was the lack of true violence. The sparring was slow, and careful as if this constituted a practice match.
I kept watching their eyes, fearful that with one small twist of an antler, one of the deer would lose an eye, but they backed away from each other with each effort, adjusted their angle, and then closed their eyes when they went back into their lock-up.
It was a wrestling match of sorts, not designed to inflict injury, but more to establish dominance. At times they would take a break, and return to casually browsing the vegetation. A minute would pass, and then they would lock up once again. The clacking of antlers grew louder, but the battle did not escalate. Neither deer made a running start, and neither attempted any violent body jabs. As fights go, this was a pretty dignified affair that tested strength more than inflicted harm.
After about 15 minutes of sparring, all three deer slowly wandered out of the yard, stopping every few feet to lower their heads and lock antlers. The two point deer trailed behind the combatants, and only observed the match.
Was this a practice spar? Younger deer come into peak season later than mature bucks, and in December there are still a few does that have not gone into estrus, so it is hard to determine whether they were practice fighting, or truly battling for breeding rights.
Had they been mature, dominant bucks, battling earlier at the peak of the rutting season, the fight would have been epic, but these deer were still just couple of middle school guys dropping their backpacks for a friendly wrestle on the walk home from school.
Mary Sonis is a naturalist, photographer and writer in Carrboro. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org