The rut is winding down as bucks come out of overdrive and gradually return to familiar ground. Yet, with shades of testosterone remaining and an occasional female cycling into estrus, a handful of deer are still engaged to procreate.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part two of a 12-part series in which renowned wildlife photographer Tommy Kirkland gives readers an inside look into the private world of whitetail deer.
Exhaustion sets in, forcing the battle-scarred buck to seek refuge. An eye is wounded, and missing fur and cuts prevail all around its face and neck. Finally, the worn buck returns to an old bedding site. Here it beds down, and within minutes, the whitetail knocks out.
The rut has taken its toll, and although a little breeding action remains, the post-rut is now dictating the deer.
Once the majority of females in an area are bred, the post-rut unfolds. Yet some females that did not initially mate can possibly come back into estrus some 26 to 30 days later. This is what hunters and biologists refer to as a second rut.
Also, there are still a handful of females that are on a biological clock to breed after the rut’s peak. These particular does come into estrus at nearly the same time each year, possibly due to the theory of “genetic memory.”
Post-rut breeding can also be influenced by other events as well. If more females are available for breeding, then with fewer bucks to go around, does not bred initially can come back into estrus. This is especially true if buck-to-doe ratios are out of balance and in locations where there is minimal or no antlerless harvest.
When a lone female is receptive at this time, there can be an overload of bucks in the vicinity. During the rut, when most mating occurs, mature bucks are locked up with estrus females, and can be much more difficult to sight. However, for those adult males that are still around, a post-rut female can lure in a horde of testosterone — simply because she is among just a handful of does signaling estrus.
Of course, depending on the degree of hunting pressure, surviving mature bucks can be more elusive than ever, going totally nocturnal — as many hunters afield can attest. These late-season gatherings will almost always attract young bucks that are 1½ to 2½ years of age — especially if the region enforces antler restrictions.
So fluctuations with the age class and the number of bucks will vary. Yet if two mature bucks with assertive dispositions congregate around a post-rut estrus doe, it will most likely set the stage for a brutal conflict of antler clashing.
Most mature males that are not harvested enter the post-rut with some type of injury. There are cuts to the face, chest and neck areas from antler tines, and occasionally deep gashes erupt from fights. An eye can be easily punctured, causing blindness. Ears may be bitten off in places — looking torn or chewed up. Bites to the neck area are fairly common during serious fighting as well.
Yet despite these injuries, leg and hoof injuries are by far the most serious. All the stress chasing estrus females and the force of pivoting and twisting when engaged in dominant fights can take its toll to a buck’s legs. If the deer cannot recuperate from a leg injury, it is only a matter of time before it falls prey to a carnivore — especially opportunistic scavenging coyotes.
Yet surprisingly, most bucks do heal from moderate leg injuries. Even so, their status on the post-rut battlefield diminishes as they instinctively begin to go into a survival mode — unless it is one of a handful of bucks that ruts to its death.
Post-rut bucks are also faced with pure fatigue. For the last few weeks, they’ve been in overdrive, denying themselves nutrition and burning fat reserves on a daily basis. Due to full-speed chases and traversing the land, bucks can lose 30 to 40 percent of their initial body weight by this time.
Only the strongest, healthiest and instinctively determined bucks resume rutting activities during this time. Surviving bucks that are not as confrontational become not only evasive due to human pressure, but are in avoidance of brute bucks as well.
These types of bucks, though not typically dominant, evade conflict and yet adapt to still breed. Simply they take advantage of less male competition to seek a few remaining post-rut females in estrus. However, if doe numbers are kept in check through a QDM program, then by the post-rut, those remaining bucks, with nothing or very little to mate, can go reclusive.
By this time, cold weather is usually in place, and with testosterone diminishing, bucks finally return to their senses. Unless a buck’s prime core area is disrupted, he is almost always going to return. In fact, he can even travel back via old rub lines and scrape routes.
Of course, his core range includes old bedding sites and feeding locales as well. This is why scouting well before the rut is important. If a mature buck wasn’t harvested and survives the rigors of the rut, and a hunter has determined the animal’s pre-rut routine and basic range, then the opportunity to sight him still exists.
Social bucks that have evaded danger can also reunite during the post-rut. Although a little dominant tension still remains, once two or more bucks are seen foraging together, then the confirmation of the rut’s end is validated.
Bucks beginning to congregate provide the chance for one to assess the number and age-classes of surviving deer. Yet there are usually a few mature males that are loners and will not engage in bachelor-buck socialization.
The post-rut sometimes acts like a time machine in reverse. In the pre-rut, there is sometimes just a handful of does to breed; then the majority are receptive during the rut, followed by a smaller number of estrus does in the post-rut. Also, post-rut signposting activity is less in comparison to pre-rut scent marking.
As winter progresses, bucks finally cease the chaos of any rutting. Testosterone diminishes as a physical change takes the male deer to a new stage — the shedding of antlers and the gradual process of reestablishing dominance begins — next month’s series topic.
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