Scrape activity is high this time of year, particularly when deer pay visits to community scrapes.
In search of vegetative foliage, five bucks — a mature 8-pointer, a 3½-year-old, two spunky spikes and a curious button buck — go single file along the forest edge, ascending a bluff. Occasionally the group stops to forage; yet one of the spikes and the button buck, by instinct, prefer to assertively test their status with bouts of mock sparring.
But soon the bachelor crew resumes their exodus to the vantage point.
Reaching the pinnacle, the older buck, using sight and scent, goes to a distinct pine tree and performs intense licking branch behavior. After thrashing his antlers and releasing scent from several glands, the buck breaks away and continues traversing the old game trail.
One of the young spikes is next in line. Standing right under the same licking branch limb, evident by being broken, the immature deer vigorously throws its entire head into the limb. Though not as precise as the older buck, the spike also works its instinct to scent mark the pine. Appearing rut crazed, he aggressively paws the scrape site with both front hooves.
Now the 3½-year-old comes along and shoves the spike out. Targeting the same pine licking branch, the buck also works the classical pattern of licking branch behaviors. Although the spike pawed the ground, the 3½-year-old doesn’t work his front hooves into the ground scrape; and just like the two males before him, does not exhibit rub-urination behavior.
Even so, the attack upon the pine tree is short-lived — lasting only some five minutes as the bachelor group finally disappears in the forest.
As for the button buck and other spike, the tree is quickly scented but ignored. The two seem more concerned to keep up with the other bucks.
This descriptive act of scraping behavior relates to numerous scientific studies and incidental observations that whitetails establish selective trees commonly known as “community scrapes.” These particular trees, similar to traditional rubs, are scent marked year round by deer of all ages and sex, and in theory, could be a major component for one of the mechanisms that unites breeding females and mature bucks.
Community scrapes tend to be located in visible locations — like a vantage point on a ridge top or along the edge of a feeding area. They can also be in the center of an interior woodlot — secluded and out of sight.
Community scrape trees can also be in open fields. Here, prior to the rut, when both bucks and does feed on preferred food sources, is a time that deer really work scent communication. A scrape tree with this type of visibility and location can be regularly visited and scent marked more so than other community scrapes.
Grant Woods, a well noted hunter, biologist and QDM expert, did his graduate thesis on scrapes. He gives an excellent layman’s analogy about a community scrape.
“The tree is like a telephone booth — serving whitetails with a way to communicate with one another through scent,” he said.
To simplify the complexity of deer behaviors, Woods describes that when deer deposit scent at a scrape, “it’s like they are leaving a business card.” All this scent communication could not only contribute to dominant hierarchy, but may very well set the stage for breeding couples to meet one another — especially once the pre-rut unfolds.
Woods stresses that these types of scrapes are almost always located in or near the most nutritious food sources. He also notes that scrapes near oak stands can become non-active if the acorn crop fails. Therefore, just because a scrape was once busy, doesn’t mean it will continue — especially if the scrape is near food sources that naturally fluctuate from time to time.
The degree of hunting pressure will dictate when whitetails hit these visible scrapes. Habitat with light human activity can certainly be utilized by whitetails during the early morning hours and late evening — especially once mature bucks explode with testosterone. Even so, research has shown that the overwhelming majority of scrapes are marked at night.
The tree chosen for this type of social activity is apparently different from scrapes that are done randomly in the height of the pre-rut, when bucks create new scrapes or visit old ones not being used regularly. Though not as common, a community scrape can be located near or even on a mature buck’s travel corridor from feeding and bedding locales. The scrape may even be located on a buck’s signposting routes, which are sometimes associated with females and their core areas.
The whereabouts and degree of scrape behaviors do vary due to buck-to-doe ratios, human pressure, weather, nutrition and the terrain. Yet a scrape that is visited regularly by deer of both sexes and different age classes is undoubtedly serving whitetails with major scent communication.
Karl V. Miller of Warnell School of Forestry, another respected QDM expert, biologist and hunter, believes that certain scrape sites are used by whitetails when the rut nears. His extensive research has also determined that certain scrapes are scent-marked all year round. He and his associates also believe that trees with licking branch activity during the summer will be targeted aggressively once the pre-rut begins.
Miller notes that scrapes are crucial for scent communication for both bucks and does. Females may rely on scrapes to not only distinguish mature breeding bucks in the vicinity, but the scent relayed at a community scrape could also contribute to females instinctively choosing a mate.
According to Miller, scrapes used by bucks and does could work to stimulate a female’s receptivity. Simply, a whitetail doe’s estrus cycle could be triggered by signpost scent communication along with the production of the hormones due to photoperiod.
In the late 1990s, the University of Georgia, under Miller’s guidance, conducted an intense study on scraping behavior. They concluded that bucks of different ages will scent mark a particular scrape — especially yearling bucks. The study also confirmed that mature bucks don’t necessarily suppress other bucks from engaging in signposting activity.
Their extensive research also determined that the majority of scrape marking was the “overhanging licking branch.” Bucks of all ages focused on this aspect of scraping more so than ground pawing and rub-urination. This indicates that scent from the forehead and nasal glands is a significant signal of scent communication. Although the saliva glands do not produce scent, there is some type of relay of communication when bucks actually lick an overhanging scrape limb.
Both Woods and Miller have also noted that if the licking branch is cut off by human means or broken and trashed to the ground by an aggressive buck, then the site ceases to be active. As to why the licking branch is so significant with scrapes remains unanswered. Even so, the Georgia study was highly accurate in assessing how deer work scrapes, and correlates with today’s trail cam studies as well as observations on free-roaming human-habituated whitetails.
Ground pawing at scrapes appears to be done more frequently when rut competition increases for mature bucks. Here, pawing the scrape not only releases scent from interdigital glands between the hooves, the activity is also associated with buck aggression. It is performed more so by mature bucks than younger males.
For example, if a particular scrape is being consistently hit by mature and immature bucks, dominant males can become more intense with ground pawing the scrape. Along with does visiting the site, all these instinctive endeavors could, in theory, influence a rise in buck testosterone. Simply, a mature buck is driven by biological instincts to procreate; he strives to maintain hierarchy while being stimulated by female scent at the scrape site.
During the pre-rut, roughly two to three weeks prior to when most females come into estrus, is when the majority of scrape activity goes down. Yet once mature bucks start tending and breeding, most scraping activity greatly diminishes — that is unless immature bucks visit these heavily-marked scrapes.
Although scraping during the rut fades a little, young bucks have been known to resume scent marking. Their activity can give a false impression that a mature buck is hitting the scrapes. Only an on-hand observation or trail cams will tell the truth of what is actually taking place.
Locating a community scrape and not disturbing the site can reveal a lot about the number, sex and age class of whitetails in the vicinity — helping hunting enthusiasts not only to assess the deer in a given area — but the harvest of a mature whitetail, be it a buck or doe.
Simply, a community scrape naturally reveals an evaluation of whitetails and their activity of communication. Along with the hormonal changes of both bucks and does, these particular signposting trees could very well be a major factor that contributes to successful whitetail breeding.