Understand why, where bucks rub their antlers

Veteran outdoor photographer shares his insights on the meaning of deer’s rubbed trees.

Rubs, the marks that whitetail bucks leave on trees, are a means of communication and have several meanings to all deer.

As a wildlife photographer, I have watched bucks rub trees more times than I care to imagine. Bucks make rubs to strip the velvet off their antlers, but they happen for many other reasons. I have seen bucks use anything from honeysuckle, to briars, to bushes, to thick-limbed saplings to remove velvet. I saw — and got on film — one buck even use the strands of a barbed-wire fence to tear the velvet from his rack.

I am confident that my years of observations have helped me understand why bucks rub trees and bushes, even though my ideas may not hold true 100% of the time. The information can still be useful to hunters, helping them understand and pattern the behaviors of bucks on your hunting land.

Why deer make rubs

An impressive buck rubs the base of his right antler on a rather substantial tree, leaving his scent and building his neck muscles.

Bucks make rubs by raking and twisting their antlers on trees, ranging in size from pencil-thin to thigh-sized. They make rubs for visual markings and scent markings to communicate their presence to other deer in their territory. Rubs also have the added benefit of helping to build and strengthen neck and shoulder muscles for use in their quest for dominance.

For visual markings, rubs are often made on tree species that have light colored wood under the bark, which makes the rub more visible to other deer traveling through the area. Their choices depend on the tree species in their home ranges, but the trees I’ve seen used most often are pines.

Bucks that live in close proximity to each other may have differing tastes as to the species they prefer for their rubs. While some bucks prefer mostly soft wood, others favor hardwood species; pine vs. ironwood, for example. The species of trees rubbed can also have a bearing on “the look” of a buck’s antlers. Things such as the type of sap and the tree’s tanin content play a part in how dark or how light their racks will be stained.

Scent markers

Most rubs fall into the category of scent markers. Watching a buck make a rub can be very educational, much less exciting. A buck will rub his rack up and down a tree, trying to rub his forehead and eyes on the tree as much as possible. Using the bases of his rack for the majority of the rubbing, the buck will also twist, push and pull on the tree, depositing scent from glands located on his forehead and around his eyes. A buck will rub for a bit, stop to smell and lick where he just rubbed, then continue this sequence until he is satisfied he has left sufficient evidence of his presence in the area — sort of a “wash-rinse-repeat” scenario.

Almost all rubs on sizeable trees will at least be started by big bucks; smaller bucks may rub them after the bark has been torn off.

I  have watched does and other bucks smell and lick rubs left by other deer to get an idea of which buck left that “calling card.” On several occasions, I have even seen two bucks take turns rubbing and scent-marking the same tree. Bucks also get the added benefit of building their muscles and stamina when they work each rub. With an overload of testosterone coursing through their bloodstreams for breeding, it is akin to you or I working out while taking steroids.

Different rubs

Rubs come in several categories: travel-route rubs, core-area/bedding-area rubs (both of which normally are in clusters), and boundary rubs. You can tell a lot about a buck and his territory by finding his rubs. Travel-route rubs are usually made on trees along the direction a buck uses to get from one part of his domain to another. They will be spaced out in a rough line along this route. The rubs will be on the side of the trees as the buck approaches them on his travels. Clusters, or rubs in close bunches, usually point to a buck’s core and/or bedding areas.  If nothing else, a rub will tell you a buck has spent time in that section of the woods.

How is the size of a rubbed tree related to the size of the rubbing it? I have never witnessed a young, small-racked buck start a rub on a tree with any size to it. Conversely, I have seen small bucks rub on large trees that already have a rub on them, probably made by a different, mature buck.

The larger the diameter of a tree, the harder it is for a small buck to rub his forehead and around the eyes to leave any scent. Large, mature bucks will rub most any size tree, from small to thigh-sized.  Also, it is mostly true that the higher up a tree the rub goes, the bigger/taller the buck is that made it.

Below is a video showing a big buck rubbing his horns on the strands of a barbed wire fence.

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