Dateline – January 2020 – Lewisville, Texas

Sparring is a big part of mating season for male White-tailed Deer. Bucks use antler dueling as a way to size each other up and establish a dominance hierarchy. These contests can be ceremonial or deadly serious, depending on how closely matched and determined each buck is.

The forest and undergrowth were dense in the place I chose for the trail camera survey conducted in support of this article. As a consequence, the feisty bucks in this neck of the woods sought out rare small clearings for their sparring contests. The results were arena-style cage matches between the two dominant males in this part of the river bottoms, and my trail camera had a front row seat.

The two biggest bucks in the forest

Over the course of the survey, the area’s two biggest bucks confronted each other a number of times. Their contests were always intense.

The baddest bucks enter the arena
They square off…
…and size each other up
Time to go toe to toe!
Impact!
…and sparring
Who will win?
That’s enough for now, but a rematch is certain
Soon the sparring resumes
It starts out slowly…
…but soon becomes just as intense as before
These two bucks are fairly evenly matched
The beginning of anther sparring contest
The mighty antlers gets dangerously close to an eye
The match continues…
…this one lasted an extended time
This is the way of White-tailed Deer during a North Texas rut

Lesser males would occasionally entertain the idea of engaging one of the dominant bucks, but their commitment was always half-hearted and they deferred readily. Instead, the less dominant bucks often preferred to stand off to the side as spectators, watching with great interest as the bigger bucks sparred.

A younger male following a master buck through the forest
The old man and the young buck square off
The two deer prepare to engage
…but this sparring is gentle. Instructional. Practice.
The younger deer knows he is outmatched
In another encounter, notice how young buck is fascinated by the action of bigger deer
He watches, enthralled, almost like a young man admiring a great athlete
The youngster becomes excited and pretends to participate
As the two older bucks renew their battle…
…the younger deer continues as a spectator.
He clearly wants to participate in some way

The desire to participate remained strong in the younger bucks, however. The smaller males sometimes played at sparring with each other in an effort to practice and polish their skills. One even engaged in a brief match with his own reflection, as seen in the shallow pool of water he was standing in.

This young buck has only one small antler.
He has just noticed his own reflection in the pool of water
He begins to engage his reflection with an invitation to spar
The young buck thrashes his reflection in the water…
…and ends up becoming quite aggressive

Scent marking is another important aspect of life as a White-tailed Deer. Whitetails are equipped with several glands to support this behavior. The metatarsal, tarsal, and preputial glands are located on their hind legs and rear torso. On the deer’s head and face you will find the preorbital, forehead, nasal, and salivary glands. Deer use these scent glands and the odors they produce to communicate with each other.

Whitetails distribute scent markings in a number of different ways, including rubbing. I believe that is what is going on in the following pictures. Some of the deer appear to be leaving scent—either via their nasal or salivary glands—and others are investigating the markings. Whatever the case, these seemingly ordinary and unremarkable branches remained of great interest to all deer passing through these bottomlands for the entirety of my trail camera survey.

A yearling investigates this unassuming tree branch
As does this more mature buck…
…afterward he leaves a scent mark of his own by urinating on his tarsal gland
Another young deer finds the scent marked branch
This one becomes quite excited
Here is our one antlered buck leaving a mark of his own
Notice how he licks his nose afterwards
Another big buck finds the odor encoded message…
…and leaves one of his own
Now, one of the big, dominant bucks stops by
Every deer in the forest seemed interested
in this one particular spot
Some of the deer licked the exposed branch…
…possibly marking with the salivary gland
Deer of all ages were interested in the scent mark
The two masters of the forest stopping by for a visit
Standing on one leg to gain the required reach