In late autumn, when the air turns moist and chill, and the leaves fall from their bright October colors into forlorn brown, the deer of the woods begin their brief and tumultuous season of breeding, the Rut.
The deer here are not harts and hinds, nor stags. Their antlers do not arch over their red backs like candelabras, as do those of the great Red Deer of Europe, or their cousins the Pale Deer (Wapiti) of the American West. Our deer of the Midwestern states are the White-tailed deer. In summer they are tawny red, yet still difficult to see in shadow dappled woodlands. Come autumn, their hides turn grizzled grey. The does, as females are called, remain elusive. But the bucks, who have newly rubbed the fine velvet from the upward-curving basket of tines that crowns their skulls, wander openly.
One may see in the late autumn woods a sapling or small tree that has been scraped free of bark on one side, exposing the pale wood beneath. If very small, it may have been twisted or broken altogether. These are the deer ‘rubs’ where the buck has rubbed the velvet covering from his antlers to expose and polish the dense bone. They also serve as markers for his regular territory. To attract does he will scrape ruts in the earth beneath a tree with spreading branches, piss on the gouged earth, and bite and rub with his face the twig-ends that hang near. His neck is swollen, his eyes red with the madness of the breeding season.
If two bucks meet who are fairly evenly matched in strength, they will fight one another. It is a thing which is rare to see, and I myself in years of woods-wandering have never witnessed it, or heard the ringing echoes of bone as the beasts clash their tines together and push and struggle.
The force with which they clash together is so immense that once in a great while, the antlers of one deer will flex such that their horns become inextricably locked. This misfortune usually dooms both combatants to death, as neither can run swiftly, or forage reliably while in such a state. Fortunately such disaster is rare, but bucks can become wounded in such contests of strength, and occasionally are so killed.
The White-Tailed buck doesn’t collect a herd of females as does the Elk. He pursues each individually, relentlessly, lips peeled back to scent her, following until the time when she is ready to mate. If you ever see a sleek doe pass some distance before the gleam of your headlights as you are driving at night in late autumn, be careful. The buck who is following may step onto the road, blind with lust, just in time for it to be too late for you to stop.
When the killing frosts come, and winter grips the land for good, the rut ends. The does will grow large with young who shall be born in spring to those mothers strong enough to survive winter’s trials. The bucks will once more become shy and fleeting, and in late winter or very early spring, the crowns of bone will fall from their sleek brows. If you are very lucky in your wandering of lonely woods, fencerows, borderlands, and hedge-places, you might find the shining curve of an antler where it has fallen.