By Charles J. Alsheimer,
Deer & Deer Hunting contributor
Here’s what I’ve learned about the whitetail’s rubbing behavior from more than 50 years of hunting and photographing whitetails.
Rubs Send a Message
Humans learn by seeing. Deer do, too. When a hunter comes upon a big rub, his heart skips a beat. When a whitetail buck encounters a rub of any size, it has different thoughts. Our excitement has to do with hunting possibilities. A buck’s has to do with identifying who made the rub, because their world is all about competition.
When a buck makes a rub, he deposits liberal amounts of scent from his nasal, preorbital and forehead gland on the sapling or tree. The number of rubs a buck makes in his home range depends on several factors, such as how sexually active he is, the number of adult does in his core area and the number of bucks in his home range (especially 2½-plus-year-old bucks). Simply, scent drives a buck, and the more scent they leave in their travels, the greater the possibility for an intense rut.
I’ve learned from more than 20 years of raising whitetails that every deer has its own distinct odor, which is identifiable to other deer living in their core area. So when a buck makes a rub, other bucks and does can identify which buck made the rub by the scent left on the rub. Because of this, it’s not uncommon for several bucks to work the same rub within hours of each other to share their identity and dominance.
Few things get a hunter more excited than seeing a huge rub on a tree more than 4 inches in diameter. In more than 90 percent of the cases, such rubs are made by a mature buck. I say this because in more than 40 years of photographing whitetails, I can count on one hand how many times I’ve seen a yearling buck rubbing a tree more than 4 inches in diameter. Given a choice, yearling bucks opt to make rubs on saplings and trees smaller than 2 inches in diameter, with a heavy preference to trees less than 1 inch in diameter.
Mature bucks rub to leave scent on anything from pencil-sized saplings to 1-foot-diameter trees. Some of the rubs mature bucks make on bigger trees will develop into what are called traditional sign-post rubs. These are rubs normally 4-plus inches in diameter (at waist level) along habitat edges and trails and are worked by bucks year after year, usually until the tree dies from being rubbed so much. In nearly every place I’ve ever hunted or photographed, I’ve found such rubs, and most are very impressive.
During my career I’ve photographed bucks making rubs on goldenrod stems, corn stalks, fence posts, telephone poles, a variety of tree species and even a photographer’s tripod.
Preference and Location
During the past 40 years, much research has gone into the species of trees bucks prefer to rub. My experience has revealed that species preference is region specific. Here in western New York, bucks tend to prefer smooth-bark trees, which also happen to be their preferred browse species. As a result, apple, aspen, cherry, hemlock, black locust, red cedar, red oak, staghorn sumac and soft maple make up most of the rubs in my area. In addition, saplings and trees with no branches for the first four feet are preferred most often.
In 1995, my family built a 35-acre enclosure on our farm to study deer behavior. Since then, I’ve conducted several studies to see if the enclosure bucks have a rubbing preference for certain tree species. By cutting 7- to 8-foot saplings (2 inches or so in diameter, of various tree species) and placing them 1½ feet in the ground, I’ve determined that the aroma given off by a tree species plays a significant role in rubbing preference. When given a choice, the bucks in our enclosure almost always rub, in this order, staghorn sumac, apple, black locust, hemlock, red cedar and aspen before rubbing on maple, red and white oak, or American beech. However, it should be pointed out that if a buck is in the mood to rub, it will rub on any tree species, regardless of whether it is alive or dead. For example, there are several wooden fence posts in the enclosure that are rubbed each fall. And one of the biggest rubs I have ever seen in the wild was on a 6-inch diameter fence post in Saskatchewan.
Most rubs will be found in travel corridors, along field edges, next to fence openings or logging roads, or along breaks in habitat, such as where a swamp butts up to open hardwoods. An exception might occur during a fall in which there is a heavy acorn crop. In heavy mast areas, rubbing will occur wherever acorns are falling.
When their velvet is peeled, bucks begin making rubs randomly throughout their home range. As the rut nears, rubbing frequency intensifies along trails, ridge lines or areas through which bucks commonly travel. If an area’s antlered-buck-to-adult-doe-ratio is balanced, competition will be great for breeding rights. In such locations, rubbing sign will seem to explode during the two- to three-week period before peak breeding. During this time, bucks have a tendency to check out fresh rubs to determine who made it, and it’s not uncommon for them to rework the rub. Also, it’s not uncommon for does to check out rubs and smell, lick and rub their foreheads and necks on rubs during the weeks leading up to breeding.
When the breeding phase of the rut explodes, breeding parties form when several bucks are vying to breed the same doe. Such a setting might find an estrous doe bedded, with a dominant buck standing or bedded nearby, while subordinate bucks circle the pair from a distance. Throughout the doe’s 24-hour estrus period (when she will be bred) the breeding party might not move 100 yards. During this time, many scrapes and rubs will be made by dominant and subordinate bucks as a way to show each other their dominance. Every time I’ve photographed such an event or checked the sign left behind, I’m amazed by how torn up the area appears and how many rubs have been made in a relatively small area.