By Mark Blazis| Correspondent
Our exciting rut is coming to its climactic end. Over 90% of Massachusetts does will have mated by weeks end. For deer, sex is only for reproduction, so all the passionate chasing will soon be over till next November.
The term rut was brought to America from England, where its Latin origins meant roar."Europe has big red deer, similar to our elk. Both species roar or bugle loudly during their mating season. Our white-tail bucks, though, dont come close to roaring, but their subtle grunts are enough to excite every bow hunter now.
While the mating period lasts little more than three weeks and is most concentrated in about ninedays, the rutting drama actually began silently in late September. Then, bucks with full-grown, but irritatingly-velveted antlers abruptly left their amicable bachelor groups for the solitary and competitive pursuit of does.
Mostly moving at night, they shed their velvet, polishing and staining their antlers on prominent saplings, simultaneously rubbing off bark to visually proclaim their territoriality while adding their scent from facial glands.
Just as little dogs urinate low on a fire hydrant and big dogs urinate high, small bucks rubbed off bark low and big bucks rubbed off bark high on the saplings. Those light, bare patches would advertise hierarchical claims. Both does and other bucks would take notice and instantly know when to be impressed.
Additionally, on the ground, bucks scraped bare patches with their hooves, making another form of forest billboard for all deer to pause at. In them, bucks urinated their hormonally musky status, stamping an exclamation point with their hoof print. Above their scrape, they again rubbed their facial glands on an overhanging licking branch, further communicating their presence.
Battles for disputed territory inevitably followed. First, bucks tentatively sparred with mild aggression, throwing their weight against each other while carefully engaging antlers to assess competition. Bucks of all sizes even those with tiny antlers participated boldly, though small bucks fearfully avoided big bucks. Mature males soon fought fiercely with other males that just earlier were amicable bachelor-group mates.
As antlers rattled, many bucks would be superficially wounded, especially around their heavy, muscular necks. A very few would be lethally stabbed or, on rare occasions, die of exhaustion and starvation with their antlers inextricably locked. More often, bone-hard tines would be broken off by the ferocity of their increasingly powerful collisions.
By early November, does began dripping attractive vaginal secretions, spreading attractive estrogen pheromones extensively and informatively by frequent urination. In so doing, they inadvertently proclaimed how close they were to the single day of the entire year that they would be receptive to mate. White-tail sex is not recreational. Once a doe is successfully mated, she will not mate again till the next November.
Its therefore critical that males are present on that exact ovulation day. Otherwise, her eggs typically one in a very young doe, two in most mature does and three in exceptionally nourished, mature does will exit her body unfertilized, necessitating another body-taxing ovulation 28 days later in December.
Does have thus evolved hormonal hints that begin several days before their eggs are in position to be fertilized. But that chemical communication which is unintentionally teasing results in frustration for males who seek and chase terrified females that wont yet stand to mate and fear being stabbed for their reluctance. During these times, thousands of deer immersed in a chase are killed by vehicle collisions.
During these focused chases, bucks can be seen curling back their upper lip, exposing their lower front teeth (they have no upper front teeth), and inhaling the air with their nostrils closed. Their Jacobsons glands, located in the roof of their mouth, can molecularly taste in the air a does hormonal signals. Those irresistible odors are the primary key to stimulate mating on a wildly romantic honeymoon that must begin with the perfect light of November.
After 11 months of celibacy, testosterone-driven bucks dont care if the objects of their desire are old, short-in-the-tooth females or sexually precocious 7-month-old fawns coming into their very first cycle. The only thing that matters is that theyre emitting pheromones and ovulating.
When a does egg is finally ready, she abruptly changes her elusive behavior and body language. No longer panicking from the chase of a male, shell stand invitingly with her back legs bent at the knee, unambiguously presenting her backside as she lifts her tail about three-quarters high. Her walk becomes silky and slow. Shell mate three or as many as fifteen times with a buck over a 24-hour period, who will try to monopolize her the day before and the day after. What they feel is unknown. We do know that all female mammals have a variably developed clitoris, but regardless of physical reward, a doe will never have any emotional attachment to her mate.
Her buck will stay with her no more than a day after she stops coupling. Hell then move off to find another hormonally-ready doe. During the entire season, bucks are likely to fertilize three or fourdoes.
With open mouths, hanging tonguesand out-stretched necks, excited males throw their caution to the wind. They vie recklessly and relentlessly, hours on end, noisily crashing through thick brush, chasing, grunting, snorting and wheezing for receptive does. Their athletic strengths are severely tested.
Bucks with the healthiest genes will have the edge to pass on their desirable traits. Nevertheless, many a young, vigilant buck will surprisingly succeed in sneaking in for a copulation, and many does will consequently bear twins or triplets that have more than one father. Before the rut ends, a buck is likely to mate with threeor fourdoes. Hell never be with them again or tend to his fawns.
All participating bucks will pay a heavy price for their efforts. Theyll lose 20% of their weight. Very big bucks that were optimally fat in September will lose as much as 50 pounds. That loss will necessitate refocusing entirely on feeding come December to help them survive the challenges of a tough winter. Why all the focused urgency and expenditure of energy? It all boils down to limited, essential timing.
Survival dictates that the northern whitetail must mate in November. Carrying her fawns for six months, a doe cant afford to mate earlier and deliver them in freezing weather. The newborns would die of hypothermia. In late winter, there is additionally no lush vegetation for milk production and no thick cover to hide her fawns from predators. Does that deliver in winter would also be forced to transfer their own limited body nutrients to their nursing fawns at a time when food is most scarce. A does health would be severely compromised.
Does that mate later than November also experience critical reproduction difficulties. If they bear young in summer rather than spring, their fawns would have insufficient time to grow strong enough to endure their first winter. Fawns conceived in November have all the best advantages for survival. Through evolution, that timing has become a vital part of their genetics.
But without a calendar, how do their hormones know its November?
Their critical signal is neither temperature nor precipitation both of which are all too variable and unreliable in our region. The single wondrous and totally dependable constant is the immutable length of the day made possible by the diminishing hours of sunlight in autumn. Like an alarm clock, that photo-phenomenon reliably triggers ovulation every year through unconsciously recognized signals going from the optic nerve to the pituitary gland of the brain.
In North America, depending on latitude, white-tailed deer can breed anytime from August through February. Floridas rut begins in October. The Texas rut takes place in December. Alabamas rut is in January. On the equator in South America, where the trigger of changing light doesnt come into play every month having 12 hours of daylight white-tails can actually breed during any of 12 months a year. But in Massachusetts, their time to mate has to be now.
By back-dating fetuses recovered from harvested does, biologists know that most conceptions occur between November 6 and November 20 in Massachusetts. The most intense period lasts only about ninedays with November 12 or 13 usually the peak day. The rut happens when it must. Hunters often complain then of no deer movement as bucks lock down with their does, mating and hidden for a couple days.
In a lifetime, most bow hunters will never get to see white-tails secretively mating. Bad conditions like excessive heat and humidity, heavy rain, high winds or even moon phase all conspire to further conceal the drama, much of which occurs under the cover of darkness.
Bow hunters consequently hope that conditions that get deer moving like plunging temperatures will coincide with the rut. We expect those conditions this week, affording us our last, best-chance to arrow a careless giant whose mind is temporarily un-obsessed with his security. Bucks may desperately and in greater comfort move all day now. Statistics show that a surprising number are shot between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., just when the majority of tired or cold hunters leave the woods. And its going to be cold this week deer cold.
Dress warm. Use the wind right. Climb safely. Stay in your stands as long as you can, and shoot straight. Its time for bow hunters to roar over a great buck.
Contact Mark Blazis firstname.lastname@example.org.
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