By Susan Benson,
CNHM Director of Education
What can reach speeds of up to thirty miles per hour, can leap, and swim, and weigh up to 200 pounds? A white-tailed deer, of course. Mid-November appeals to us all for a variety of different reasons – the last days before winter sets in, the approach of a holiday of thanksgiving, or the approach of the deer hunting season. For me, it continues to be a deer appreciation time as their visibility increases through the next few weeks. White-tailed deer sometimes frustrate me as they chomp off my favorite flowers, but generally they are an animal I really enjoy. After all, how many other places are there where you can see such a large mammal every day of the year?
What interests so many is the obvious movement of deer as the rutting season for white-tailed deer reaches its peak - during the last two weeks of November and into December. Most of us know that bucks often pose themselves, hoping to impress their rivals and avoid physical contact. They may also engage in fights using their antlers and hooves. The fittest bucks, often having the largest racks, gain territory and become the fathers of next year's fawns. They often are the first to drop their antlers shortly after the rut.
Antlers are temporary projections, that although look solid, are honeycombed when observed through a microscope. During the spring, the lengthening of daylight signals more testosterone production, causing antler growth. Neck muscle develops to aid bucks with the additional weight of three to nine pounds. Does can occasionally grow antlers in times when they have a hormonal imbalance. During spring, deer browse heavily to replenish their fat reserves. Does use this energy for milk production, and bucks for antler production. Protein and minerals are necessary, although deer can draw from minerals they have deposited in their skeletons during other parts of the year. The deer also select plants with higher mineral content, and their stomachs can also change absorption rates of minerals.
Antler growth is linked to nutrition. Yearling bucks usually carry spikes, a single bone with no branching pattern, as their bodies focus on muscle and skeletal growth. However, older bucks can carry spikes when faced with poor food conditions. Bucks with higher nutrition can lead to larger antlers, as can genetic factors.
As their antlers grow, their fuzzy velvet supplies blood, and grows a half inch to one inch per day. By August or early September antlers are fully-grown, the bone dies, and the velvet dries and falls off. Contrary to common belief, bucks do not rub their antlers on saplings to remove the velvet, but most likely to strengthen their neck muscles to prepare for upcoming fights. Rubbing also helps relieve their aggression brought on by hormonal changes and communicates to others. Bucks rub their face as well, leaving behind a scent to advertise to other males and females. The duels that follow ensure that natural selection occurs – the strongest males pass along their genes. In addition to using their antlers for sparring, they use them for digging in early snows for food. Following the rut, amounts of testosterone decline and the bucks lose their antlers, usually in January-February, or for deer living in poorer quality habitat, even earlier.
I live among terrific deer habitat, surrounded by forest and agricultural fields, which makes for continual white-tail observations. I am familiar with the “flag” of their tail, perhaps meant as a warning, but to me is a hello and goodbye as they trot away from me across the field. This beautiful animal is just another good reason to live and hang out in the north woods.
For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and exhibits, the Curiosity Center and Brain Teasers 2, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about exhibits and programs.