My Quest to Understand the Whitetail Deer Rut… A Deer Mother’s Journey

A small buck rub near the feeding area in the canyon. A deer rubs his antlers and forehead at the base of a tree, depositing scent on the tree. Sometimes a buck will also lick the area leaving scent and may eat the bark he rubbed off.

This past month, FD and I observed indicators that the whitetail deer rut was beginning.  For those of you who do not have a clue as to what the rut is, it’s the breeding season for deer. All during the month of September, we noticed small groups of does and fawns gathering at the feeders and water tub below.  They could be seen all hours of the day, and all through the nighttime hours as well.  On a few cold, and sometimes windy nights, five or six sets of green eyes could be viewed out in the south pasture with a high-powered flashlight.  The deer would bed down there, or sometimes venture to the oak tree, just to the east, in search of acorns.  Often, we could see just as many further back in the woods at night.

Deer activity and feeding increased in September and October.  During this time, our own Daisy deer was finding her place in a small herd of does and fawns. And, she was now sporting a fine, thick, winter coat and was eating more heavily than she had all summer.

This being Daisy’s first breeding season, I found myself pouring over online articles about the rut, and referring to my favorite resource books written by Leonard Lee Rue III; “Way of the Whitetail” and “Whitetails”. These were my go-to books any time I questioned deer habits and tendencies.  Rue has spent a lifetime observing whitetail deer and photographing them.  While he is also a hunter, his “soft science” approach and expressive insight in writing is most appealing to me as a deer mother.

In contrast, I have often experienced a bit of sadness, melancholy, and even upset at reading some of the general “hunter” advice online.  I know hunter information is probably the best resource for understanding the rutting season, but this deer mother wants, and needs, an understanding from a biological standpoint.  Difficult as some of the hunter viewpoint was to read, I am thankful to know there are many hunters who truly are respectful of the deer, and who are appreciative of the gift of life associated with the meat provided.

Both does and bucks urinate frequently during the rut. When the doe urinates, the buck analyzes the pee through vomolfaction, the process of sucking urine into an organ in the roof of his mouth. The buck analyzes the urine and then discards it. It is believed that vomolfaction serves two purposes. First, it tells a buck if a doe is close to entering estrus. Second, it stimulates the buck and prepares him for breeding.

For any of you who wish to have a simple understanding of the Rut, without reading one of Rue’s books, I suggest this link, “The Deer Hunting Guide“.

Ever since Daisy was just a few days old, FD and I got in the habit of having “touch” contact with her. Brushing, grooming, picking parasites off of her, checking her hooves, and checking under her tail were common practices.  This would allow us to safely check on and treat wounds, detect digestion problems, or keep check on any unusual behavior like limping without putting Daisy in panic mode.  Most importantly, our handling of her has made it easy to put a new collar on when she has lost one.  We always want Daisy to be safe wearing a reflective, blaze orange collar.

During the rut, however, we were also curious to check her vaginal area so that we could tell when she was “in season”.  By early last week, she was beginning to show signs she was approaching “estrus”.  Her vaginal area was pink and swelling slightly.  Each day she was more swelled, and she was more aloof with us. She also smelled strongly of urine.  As I mentioned in the caption above, urination is frequently done by both the buck and doe during the rut.  I often observed Daisy urinating on her tarsal glands, rubbing the tarsals together while peeing on them.  I also caught her one afternoon walking with her nose down to the ground, emitting a low grunting noise.  Perhaps she was frustrated.

Then, Daisy disappeared for several days.  I was more than a little worried during that time. Rifle season had begun and, while I knew the neighbors were not allowing hunters on their property, I had spotted a strange man lurking around the area one evening, which concerned me enough that I called the neighbors.  They reported there had been some theft on their property the previous day, so I was a little relieved that, though this trespasser might be a thief, at least he did not appear to be a hunter or poacher!  Still, with the occasional sound of gunshot in the near distance, I cringed with each blast, sending a prayer out for the safety of my Daisy girl and her new-found herd of does and fawns.

Daisy, home after missing four days.

After being gone for four days, Daisy finally showed up.  I spotted her at her favorite stop – the corn feeder.  Unaware that she had worried her mother sick, she did not come to me as she usually does.  Instead, she nibbled away at corn, even as I approached and began to pet her.  I raised her tail.  Sure enough, she was in season.  Her vaginal area was raised and swollen.  I assumed she had been mating with a buck this past four days, and had visions of a little granddeer in my future!  I thought of Daisy with pride.  I wondered what her first rut had been like, if she enjoyed it.  Mostly though, I was just thankful to see her again.

The four-point buck I saw in the woodlands, searching for a doe. Notice how he’s panting. Bucks continuously search and chase, not taking time to rest or feed.

The next morning, while having coffee and checking my email, I thought I saw something blaze by my computer room window but, looking out, I saw nothing.  A short while later, my three little house dogs, the “Chindrin”, began barking up a ruckus at the front windows. I investigated, but found nothing unusual .  Finally, just before noon, I got a call from my mother-in-law, telling me she had seen a “deer with antlers” on our driveway, and had shooed it back this way to the woods.  Grabbing the camera, I took a walk around the property, even venturing back in the woods a little way, but did not see the antlered deer, or anything else.

I realized if there was a buck around, I would have to keep a closer watch on the property. So… I decided to iron.   I always set up my ironing board at the sliding glass doors in our bedroom where I can see down to the feeding area below the slope.  I generally watch a silly chick flick while ironing… some of these movies I’ve seen a dozen times.  I watch for activity in the canyon down below, while mostly attending to my ironing, but glancing at the canyon and then to the TV.  I had been pressing clothes only ten minutes when, glancing out the glass door, I saw the rear end of a large deer as it leapt over the neighbor’s fence!  I ran for the camera and headed to the area where I had seen the deer go.  Was it Daisy?  It didn’t look like her hind quarters, but I could not be sure.

I waited quite a while but, not seeing anything in the distance, went back inside to resume my ironing.  Just a few minutes later, I saw a buck in the canyon below!  He was trotting, head down, as if sniffing the ground, and was heading west, along our fence line.  I shut down my ironing operation, grabbed the camera with the zoom lens, donned my camouflage jacket, and went to the back porch.  I waited, and waited…  and waited.  I snapped photos of some crows… and squirrels… and one little bird.  I became bored. Sometimes wildlife photography requires great patience.  But, it was a warm day and I was hopeful to see this young buck a bit closer.  I was hungry for some interesting photos!

The bucks plight to find the doe he is tracking, leads him all over the woodland and the nearby pecan orchard.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait too much longer. I heard snapping branches and the crackling of leaves coming from the pecan orchard to the north.  The sounds seemed to be coming from a fenced area with wild, thorny cover.  Deer often cross under the fence at this point. Suddenly, like a horse out of a starting gate, Daisy flew over the fence!  With no hesitation, and head down low, she took off to the south, running over a hill I did not normally see her use.  And, I thought, how strange of her not to stop for corn, her favorite snack!

Well, I can tell you it did not take long for me to see why my girl was running.  The buck, a young four-pointer, was in pursuit!  He stopped at the fence, nose down and sniffing, I heard him give out a deep, long, low grunt.  If I had been closer it would have worried me. To me, the grunting was a menacing sound, not friendly at all.  Then, up over the fence he went,  nose down, grunting and following the same strange path Daisy had taken.  Oh dear!! My girl was being pursued by a love-struck buck!

Daisy making tracks in an odd direction. I barely managed a photo of her from the time she jumped the fence until she disappeared over a hill!

I continued to watch from my perch on the back porch for a long time, but saw nothing to the south or in the woods below.  After an hour, I gave up and went inside.  Everything had happened so fast that I had only a few pictures to show for the activity.  I found myself feeling rather confused.  I thought that Daisy surely had been bred during the four days  she had been gone.  After all, how long could this chasing go on?  By the looks of things the last time I had seen Daisy, her vaginal swelling appeared to be subsiding.  Surely her time of estrus was over?

I kept watch all afternoon and into the evening, looking for my girl, but never saw Daisy or her beau.  I wondered how far the buck had chased poor Daisy.  He had been panting, standing at the fence when I saw him last.  Surely he would wear out after a time.

As the evening wore on, I opted to read more online articles about the rut.  I discovered, after some research, that as long as there was hope that a doe was in estrus or approaching estrus, the buck would pursue her.  Usually, they will breed during the twenty-four to twenty-eight hours when the doe is in full estrus. During this time, the buck stays with the doe, tending to her for the entire period. Mostly, this is to assure no other bucks bother his doe.  After that time, he leaves her, in search of another doe in estrus.

The young buck searching for Daisy. By this point he’s grunting heartily, and often has his nose to the ground to pick up her scent.

That night, as always, I went out to the back porch with my flashlight to see what might be at the feeding station below.  I saw the two little button bucks that hang with Daisy much of the time.  They were alone.  Likely, their mothers had run them off and, being bucks, they were left to hang on the fringe, away from the territory of larger bucks.  They would not be allowed to join their mothers until after the rut.  I scanned the south pasture where sometimes we see does bedded down.  Just near the blackberry bushes, I saw the familiar blaze orange, reflective collar flashing back at me!  Daisy often beds down near these blackberries.  The bushes provide her a prime location from which to watch the woods, the house where “her people” live, and to observe activity on the street beyond.  I believe it is a comforting spot for her, not far from the pen where she grew up as a little orphaned fawn.

The buck takes off finally, in the direction I last saw Daisy run. He’s on her trail, not far behind!

Near midnight, I went outside one last time to check the canyon.  Sure enough, the two little button bucks were back again.  I felt sorry for them.  What a confusing time it must be, being run off by their mothers and left all alone.  I swung the flashlight over to the pasture, and there was Daisy’s green eyes reflecting back at me… but wait! Where was her orange collar??  I moved the flashlight, scanning a bit further, and there was my girl, facing me!  But I could not make out the other deer who’s eyes had first reflected my light. Sneaking back in the house (the deer will spook if I make too much noise on the back porch), I grabbed the binoculars.  While using one hand to shine the flashlight on the first deer, and the other hand to hold the binoculars (not easy to coordinate I might add!), I saw antlers on this one!  The other deer was Daisy’s young beau! He was facing the alley and Daisy was facing our house, keeping watch together.  The buck was tending to his doe.  She was his to protect.  Young as he was, he instinctively knew that this was his role.  To ensure the carrying on of his genes, to tend to this young doe who would carry his offspring.

I went to bed that night in awe of the mystery of life and the ways of nature.  I had dozens of questions to ask Daisy about this experience but, alas, that could never be.   Instead, I would have to trust that nature would take care of everything, and that life would be as it was intended.  Still, as I looked out over the pasture, seeing the two small shadows bedded down in the distance, I prayed for a little miracle… that the circle of life would continue another generation and that I would be privileged enough to experience its wonder.

© Day by Day the Farm Girl Way…

Daisy’s beau, standing atop the slope.

23 thoughts on “My Quest to Understand the Whitetail Deer Rut… A Deer Mother’s Journey

    1. Thanks for the prayer for Daisy. I just took the flashlight out and saw 2 does and 3 fawns down feeding tonight. No sign of Daisy and she’s been gone 2 days now. I just pray a lot these days.

      I am so thankful for a great zoom lens. It really helps me capture wildlife in its element, without disturbing.

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    1. Thank you so much! It is worrisome. At night when I go to bed, I just pray, and then try to let my worries go. It has been quite an adventure with Daisy in our lives… and I wouldn’t trade it for all the world!

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  1. Daisy has a fine looking young beau looking after her! Thank you so much for writing these. I love hearing about Daisy and about the wildlife in general.

    Sue

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    1. Thank you Sue. It’s been fascinating to watch the changes in Daisy recently. She’s been missing again, which is always worrisome, but I just pray a lot and keep the feed out for her return. All of the deer act differently during this time. I try to accept the changes even though it’s difficult for this human mama!

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  2. C’mon littlesundog, she’ll be back. We both know what she is up to; for instance, I remember being in my teens, twenties, and thirties and well You do too right?. . . Well, this is a family blog so I’ll stop here, LOL. As we say in our house “if we acted now like we did then, we would get absolutely NOTHING done” (BIG HORMONE RUSHING GRIN).

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    1. Ha ha ha!! Well, I know what she’s up to, but I do worry about a busy road just 1/4 mile from here. She has been observed crossing it at a leisurely pace. Thankfully, most folks in the area know about her and look for her. Now that the rut is in full swing, all sorts of deer are running amuck. I pray for the safety and well-being of all of them!

      And, you are right… she was back this afternoon. My back was a little sore so I laid an old quilt down near her (facing the opposite direction as the deer do to keep watch from all directions). I read a book and we both dozed. She was VERY sleepy! It was a wonderful afternoon to spend with my girl!

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    1. Thank you Arindam! I am very fortunate to live in such a place where beauty abounds, and I have a special little deer to pose for me! I am glad you enjoy reading about my little corner of the world.

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    1. I figure it will be sometime in June IF she conceived. I had a report just this morning that she was seen with that little buck in pursuit of her this weekend. The poor girl can’t get a break!!

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    1. Lynda, you KNOW I’m excited. I have word from two neighbors down the way that the buck was still pursuing Daisy over the weekend. I checked her yesterday and she’s no longer in estrus. If she didn’t conceive this time, there’s a second rut in 28 days I think. I’ll have to be a nosy mama and keep checking!

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  3. How lucky you were to be able to observe the behaviour of the deer during the breeding season. Your emotional attachment to Daisy has added another layer of drama to the whole event.
    I am interested to observe how the colours of the woodland have changed with the changing season.

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    1. Margaret, the woodland color didn’t last long this autumn as the winds blew for nearly a week, bringing the leaves down at a rapid rate. I still find stark beauty in the willowy trees of the canyon, though. It is easier to spot wildlife, especially the birds of prey.

      I was elated to be able to photograph some of the chase during Daisy’s first mating season. It was really quite interesting and beautiful.

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  4. It is so evident that you are completely in your element! Your little piece of land has brought you in touch with the beauty of nature and all it has to offer; especially with your beloved Daisy Deer. I can’t wait to see what spring might reveal for Miss Daisy (and you)… some grand-dear, maybe?

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    1. Strange that I was meant to mother fuzzy, hairy, and furry critters in this life! Who ever thought of having “granddeer”? It’s a wonderful thought, but I fear I will worry about Daisy and this firstborn all through the pregnancy, birthing and struggle to survive in the wild. Does a mother’s worry ever stop? I think not! I am sure I will rely on your advice and encouragement in the months to come… after all, you are a more experienced mother!!

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