It’s June 24, 2013 at 7:15 Monday morning and I stop by McDonald’s for my morning cup of coffee. I have done this too many times to count. After ordering my coffee and climbing into my truck I pick up my cell phone at 7:25 and call Kevin. I have also done this too many times to count.
We spent several minutes catching each other up on our weekends including a funny story about how he, Uncle Robert and Uncle Joe got stranded on the boat while fishing. I remember how funny Kevin thought that was. In fact, his laughter made me laugh.
After talking about fishing we talked about something that we both were passionate about; hunting. I will never forget him telling me that we need to get back in the woods a couple more times to spray some roundup and move a hog trap. We talked about coordinating with Stoney in order to use his sprayer to make our efforts a lot easier. We talked about whether Kevin should move his ladder stand back to its original spot or leave it where it was. We did what we always did; we talked.
Finally, I made it to work and remember telling Kevin that I was going to call him back because I was sure I would drop his call in the elevator. He said, “do your thing Bug.” I worked for a while then got a text from Bruce. I called Kevin back and told him that Bruce had just sent me a text with the banking information we needed in order to deposit our dues into. Kevin asked if the bank would still be open at 3:00 p.m. I told him it would and he said that’s when he would deposit the rest of his money. He said, “let me call Bruce and I’ll holler at you later Bug.” I said cool and he said “holler at me when you get off.”
These were the last words that I ever heard from him. I got a call from Uncle Robert about 3:30 informing me that Kevin was dead. I felt like Mike Tyson had just punched me in the gut. I could not believe what I was hearing. Kevin is dead! There is no way this is happening! I just talked to Kevin this morning and planned to talk to him again. This is the man that I talked to every morning. He was not just a friend, this is Uncle Kevin. This is the man who helped me get things done in the woods. This is the man who gave me some great tips about hunting. This is a man who tutored me with my vegetable garden. This is the man who went with me to pick out my ATV. This is the man who helped me setup my tree stand and helped to build my super blind. How could this man be dead?
I remember telling my daughter that I was going to give up my vegetable garden because it would be too much of a reminder. My daughter showed a lot more wisdom than I did on that day. She told me it was because of Uncle Kevin that I should keep the garden going. It would be a great testament to his memory.
After learning of Kevin’s death I sat in my truck and cried. I simply could not believe that this was happening. After I got myself composed my first thought was Uncle Joe. They were tighter than any two friends that ever existed. As hard as this is for me I cannot imagine what Uncle Joe must be going through. As much as they loved each other I knew that it was my job now to make sure that Uncle Joe knew he could call me at any time.
However it was Uncle Joe who said we should get out to the woods as soon as possible. It was his way of starting the healing process. I knew he was right. We have to get out there and continue to do what Kevin loved to do.
I will admit that sitting around the camp fire this hunting season will be dramatically different. It just won’t be the same without Kevin and his infectious laugh. Somehow we have to find the strength to do this because this is what Kevin would want. He would want us to sit around the camp fire and have a drink in his honor.
All I can say, is we will never be the same. This is a good and bad thing. We are not the same because you are not here and that’s a bad thing. However, we are not the same because you were here and that’s a good thing.
Rest well my friend, my uncle and we will see you someday soon. Until then save us a seat around heaven’s campfire.
The role of the scrape
While antler rubs are pretty simple signposts that involve only scent from the forehead glands, a scrape involves several scent sources and probably has multiple functions in deer communication and reproductive behavior.
Despite years of research by wildlife biologists, there is a tremendous amount that we don’t know about scrapes. However, in recent years we have made some important steps toward understanding who makes and visits scrapes, when they are made, and what types of information is transferred at scrape sites.
Scraping typically begins with a buck approaching a branch hanging just above his head. The buck often mouths the branch and rakes it with his antlers. Judging from the buck’s behavior, marking the overhanging branch appears pleasurable, and he sometimes seems almost oblivious to his surroundings. Clearly, the buck is leaving some type of scent on this overhanging branch, although the exact source is still ambiguous. Likely the forehead gland is involved in marking the limb, but other potential scent sources include the preorbital gland, the nasal gland, and even saliva. After the overhead limb is marked, the buck paws away the leaves directly below the limb, likely leaving scent from the interdigital gland in the pawed area. The area cleared of leaves varies, but typically a 3- foot diameter circle is common. The buck then steps forward and urinates over the tarsal glands while rubbing them together, allowing urine to flow into the pawed area. This urine leaves a persistent strong odor and may stain the soil dark even after it has dried.
Many hunters may not be aware that this full scrape sequence actually is a composite of three separate behaviors that may, in fact, occur independent of the other two. Several years ago we conducted some year-round observations in our research facility and found that the overhanging branches at some of these scrape sites are used throughout the year by bucks of all age classes. We speculated that these overhanging branches serve as a kind of ‘calling card’ to let other bucks know who is in the area. Bucks tend to live somewhat solitary lives, except during the spring and summer when they form bachelor groups. But even then, group membership tends to be somewhat fluid, so having a chemical signpost where bucks can communicate their presence could obviously be important. Since then, our observations of year-round use of these overhanging branches has been confirmed by other researchers. Interestingly, many of these licking-branches become scrape sites during the rut.
Similarly, rub-urination commonly occurs outside of the scrape. While most common and noticeable in bucks during the rut, all deer commonly urinate over their tarsal glands throughout the year. Does ruburinate, on average, about once per day, typically when they rise from a nocturnal bed. Even day-old fawns urinate over their tarsal glands. The scent that develops on the tarsal gland from this ruburination likely carries information on the deer’s identity as well as social and reproductive status. (We’ll discuss this more in next month’s column).
When combined at a scrape site, the three behaviors appear to provide a host of information to any deer visiting the scrape. The overhanging branch provides a clue to who visited the scrape, pawing the ground may signal an aggressive intent and also provide more information in the identity of the scrape maker, and ruburination into the scrape further reveals who made the scrape along with his dominance status.
Although some scrapes may be made as early as September, numerous studies have repeatedly shown that the peak in scraping activity occurs two to three weeks before the peak of the breeding activity. For example, in a study directed by Larry Marchinton and myself on an unhunted area in Clarke County, Georgia, scraping activity increased dramatically during mid- to late October. The peak of conceptions (the peak of the rut) occurred during the first week of November. In that study, our surveys indicated that the density of scrapes was in excess of 300 scrapes per square mile, with the majority of those scrapes made during a 4-week period! Some scrapes in the study were pawed repeatedly for up to 3 consecutive weeks, and many that were not had fresh tracks in them for up to 2 weeks.
The high number of scrapes that we observed in this study certainly was reflective of the unhunted deer population on our site and the presence of a number of older bucks. Several other research studies have also indicated that most scrapes are made by bucks 2.5 years old or older. A study conducted by John Ozoga in Michigan found that yearling bucks made only about 15% as many scrapes as older bucks, and that scraping activity by these yearling bucks typically occurred later in the breeding season.
However, there is some evidence that even mature bucks will vary greatly in the amount of scraping that they do. Age is important, but a buck’s testosterone levels, social position, experience, and behavioral maturity also interact to promote scraping behavior. Some bucks just tend to be avid scrape-makers, whereas others are not. And, according to John Ozoga, competition appears to be important – where there are several mature, rutexperienced bucks working the same breeding range, scraping will be enhanced.
What’s this mean for the deer hunter? First, the presence of scrapes early in the rut certainly is a good sign that there may be a mature buck in the area. Second, a dramatic increase in the number of scrapes provides a strong clue that the peak of rutting activity will occur in the next 2 to 3 weeks (Which means that continual scouting during the hunting season is critical!). And, third, if you are not seeing a lot of scrapes on your hunting area, you might want to consider if you are overharvesting your bucks.
Just because older bucks make the majority of scrapes does not mean that younger bucks will not scrape or at least visit scrape sites. In a 2-year study, 2 of my graduate students (Karen Alexy and Jon Gassett) placed motion-sensitive video cameras over scrape sites to monitor who made the scrapes, who visited them, and when they were visited. The results were fascinating! Like other studies, scrapes were made and visited most frequently in the weeks just before the peak of breeding activity. When the peak of the rut hit, scrape visitation dropped to almost zero. More interestingly, Karen and Jon’s study revealed that scrapes were investigated and marked by a number of different bucks, including yearlings, during the weeks before the rut. Does also visited the scrapes before the rut peak, but not during it.
Because scrapes were visited by a number of different bucks, one might be tempted to think that scrape sites would be excellent places to hunt. However, Karen and Jon’s study also revealed that the vast majority of scrape visits (almost 90%) occurred at night. So, unless you’re hunting past legal shooting hours, you’re going to miss most activity at scrape sites.
So, what’s the purpose of the scrape? Although only the deer themselves and their Creator know the answer to this question, our studies are giving us some insight into the types of information being communicated. Certainly they play an important role in the chain of events that lead up to the peak of the rut. Bucks relay information about their presence and dominance status to each other, as well as their availability to does in the area. In other words, the scrape tends to serve as an extension of the animal itself. Does may use scrapes to help identify and select the best mate, but we also believe that the scents left at scrape sites may play a role in priming the does reproductive cycle and synchronizing estrus among does in the area. This synchronization of estrus is important as it leads to a synchronization of the fawn drop 7 months later, which will help to enhance fawn survival by minimizing the risk of predation.
So, just how good are a deer’s ears? Can they hear your muffled cough at 200 yards? Can they hear those deer whistles that you put on your truck?
Trying to understand how well a deer hears (or sees, or smells) is an extremely daunting task. We can’t just ask them “Did you hear that”?, so instead we have to rely either on behavioral observations or some type of advanced technology. Thankfully, in the past few years, there have been a couple of research studies conducted that can give us a good idea of how a deer hears.
However, before we get to these studies, let’s think about the structure of the deer’s ears. The large external ears (or pinnae) of the deer work somewhat like a satellite dish. They help to amplify the sound (just like cupping your hands behind your ears), but because they can move independently of each other they also help the deer evaluate what is happening in all directions. We’ve all noticed how deer continually shift the direction of the ears, and simply by watching the ears a hunter can get a good idea of what the deer is thinking. When traveling together, deer often keep track of each other by listening. So, if you see a lone deer, watch its ears! If it frequently cups one or both ears to the rear, you have a good bet that there is another deer following.
Similarly, if a deer is looking directly at you, don’t be too concerned if its ears are moving in different directions. However, if it has both ears cupped toward you – you’ve been spotted and he’s trying to get all of the information he can. By comparing the signals that each ear receives the deer can accurately locate the source of a sound.
All hunters have stories that point to the acuity of a deer’s hearing ability: “I just lightly bumped my bow on the stand and that guy just bolted!” or “I couldn’t believe how smart that buck was! He heard me click off the safety at 75 yards!” But let’s put this in perspective. Deer live in the woods 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s their home. They know what sounds are normal there, and what sounds are not. They’ve heard those sounds all their life. So the crashings of a grey squirrel through the leaves or the rustle of a brown thrasher in a hedgerow are barely noticed. But the unnatural cadence of a human’s walk or a ting of metal-on-metal is instantly identified as foreign and raises suspicion. It’s just like in your home or office. Certain noises are ‘normal’, but something different or unusual is instantly identified as abnormal.
But still the question remains - is a deer’s hearing better than ours? With the large external ears you might expect this to be the case. However, two recently released studies cast some doubt.
A couple of years ago, David Osborn and Larry Marchinton here at the University of Georgia discovered an unpublished study by Mr. Arthur Stattelman who researched the hearing capability of deer confined to a sound-proof room. They compiled the data from this research and reported some interesting results. They described the study as follows: “The deer was conditioned to seek and accept food whenever it heard a sound. A machine called an audiometer was used to create a wide range of sounds varying in intensity (loudness as measured in Decibels) and frequency (tone as measured in Hertz). The intensity at each frequency was increased until it produced a positive response from the deer. When repeated over time this procedure provided some understanding of what sound the deer was able to hear. The results of the experiment are presented (in the accompanying graph) and are compared to some common sounds and the minimum hearing capability of humans and the domestic cat. Deer and humans apparently can detect sounds of low-to-moderate frequency at approximately the same intensity. A cat can hear much fainter sounds than either the deer tested or humans across a wide range of frequencies. Deer probably detect high frequency sounds slightly better than humans. These findings may shock many hunters who have formed opinions about the hearing ability of deer based on personal experiences”.
Dr. Kenneth Risenhoover at Texas A&M University, who used some sophisticated technologies to generate audiograms for 5 adult deer, recently substantiated this research. His results were very similar to those from the Georgia study: “Evoked potentials (responses) were detected and recorded at intensity levels of up to 85 dB in a frequency range of 0.5 to 12 Khz. Evoked potentials from the 5 deer tested indicated that the range of greatest hearing sensitivity was between 1 and 8 Khz, with a marked peak centered at 4 Khz.”
This research all seems to indicate that a deer’s hearing is really not that more acute than ours. They are not like the $6 Million-Dollar Man (or was it the Bionic Woman?) who could hear the bad guys whispering at a quarter-mile. Instead, a deer knows you’re in the woods simply because you are making some noises that aren’t supposed to be there!
Oh, and about those deer whistles for your truck - Based on the research at Texas A&M and at the University of Georgia, it seems very unlikely that deer whistles would be effective at reducing deer-vehicle accidents because the high frequencies produced appear to be out of the hearing range of deer. And besides, why wouldn’t they just be able to hear your truck even without a whistle?
Early summer is a time of plenty in the deer woods, but there are many dangers as well, especially for vulnerable newborn fawns. During the first few weeks of life, the fawn’s main defense against predators is to hide. Contrary to popular belief, the fawn is not odorless. However, because their scent glands are not well developed, their odor certainly is less than that of an adult.
At birth, the fawn’s coat is a reddish brown with numerous white spots. On either side of the back from the neck to the tail there are two rows of white spots that almost touch each other. There are about 30 to 40 spots in each of these rows. Scattered on each side of the fawn there are about 100 more spots of various size as shape. These spots are very vivid in young fawns, but because the hairs are not white to the roots, as the fawn grows older, some of the white is gradually worn away and the spots begin to fade before the fawn molts into its winter coat.
The fawn’s coat is well suited for hiding in the forest. Sunlight filtering through the leaves casts a dappled pattern that matches the fawn’s coat, making it almost invisible. However, the spotted pattern is not good camouflage in grassy areas where newborn fawns can be easily spotted.
For the first few days to a week, newborn fawns may spend 90 to 95 percent of their time bedded, although they may stand occasionally to stretch or to shift bedding sites. When bedded the fawn will either lie curled in a tight circle or rest with its head up alert for danger. While resting, the fawn has a rapid heartbeat (more than 175 beats per minute) and breathes about 20 times per minute. However, when frightened, the fawn drops its head and folds its ears back. The heart rate drops dramatically to around 60 beats per minute and breathing becomes shallow and slow. In this state of ‘alarm bradycardia’, the fawns usually will not move even when touched. Clearly this behavior is an adaptation to reduce the chance of detection by predators. By about 1 week of age, fawns will run when discovered and their agility and speed will quickly outdo even the most seasoned athlete.
Does do not stay with their bedded fawns, but typically remain in the general vicinity ready to come to the defense of their newborns. In fact, mimicking the bleat of a fawn at this time of year often can bring a doe running. A doe doesn’t seem to be able to distinguish the call of her fawn from that of other fawns, but rather relies on the fawn’s scent for identification. At times, the bleat of a strange fawn will cause a doe to check on the welfare of her own fawn.
After the first few days, fawns will begin to follow their mothers for short distances and begin exploring their world. However, during the first 4 to 5 weeks they still remain bedded for most of the day. At this stage of development, fawns begin to choose their own bedding site by wandering off some distance from their mother and lying down while the doe continues to feed. Often, the doe does not know the exact location of her bedded fawns. Although the doe may use her sense of smell to help locate her bedded fawns, usually she simply returns to the general vicinity where she left the fawn and gives a low intensity ‘maternal grunt’. In response the fawn jumps up and runs to the doe, and may utter a soft mew. If the fawn fails to respond, the doe walks around in the area and grunts more intensely.
Does nurse newborn fawns about 4 to 6 times each day, although some may nurse more frequently. Young fawns may only consume 3 or 4 ounces of milk at each nursing bout, but older fawns may take 6 to 8 ounces. Deer milk is more concentrated and has a higher fat content than cow’s milk, which explains why cow’s milk is a poor choice for raising fawns in captivity.
While nursing, the fawn appears visibly excited. Often the fawn bumps the udder with its head to stimulate milk flow. While nursing, the tail is elevated and wagging, and the fawn may emit a subtle nursing whine. While the fawn is nursing, the mother vigorously grooms the fawn, particularly around the anal and genital areas to stimulate urination and defecation at the nursing site. The mother may consume droppings of very young fawns. After about 2 weeks the fawns no longer needs this stimulation to defecate and doe stops licking the anal region, although grooming of other regions continues.
At about 2 weeks of age fawns begin experimenting with tender vegetation. By watching its mother feed, and by experimenting on its own, the fawn soon learns what foods to select. After about 2 months of age, the 4-chambered stomach is fully developed and the fawn likely could survive without its mother’s milk. However, fawns will continue to nurse until they are 4 or 5 months of age, or longer if the doe lets them.
As with many social animals, play is a very important part of a fawn’s social and physical development. Play helps fawns strengthen their muscles and reflexes that are critical for escaping predators. During play, fawns dash about in tight circles around their mother, and may toss their head, buck, or jump. Often a fawn may engage its mother is a short time of play. On many occasions I’ve seen a fawn run around its mother, stop in front of her and solicit her participation by backing up and shaking its head in shoulders from side to side as if to say “Com’on mama, chase me!”. In many cases the doe will oblige and participate in a quick game of chase.
When playing together, fawn games are suggestive of many children’s games like tag. I’ve even watched fawns by a riverbank running up and down the bank and splashing in the river playing a game that reminds me of “King-of the-hill”.
Even more than physical development, play helps fawns refine behaviors that will allow them to establish their place in the social order. Mock fighting, aggressive postures, and scent marking are all part of fawn behavior. Although a doe fawn’s social status later in life often is inherited from its mother, this social integration is also critical to determine who obtains and defends the choice fawning or feeding sites. For males, play provides the foundational skills for the development of behavior that will allow them to successfully compete for breeding rights later in life.
By fall, does have provided fawns with all of the skills necessary for survival. While female fawns will almost certainly remain with their mothers until the following spring or longer, male fawns become much more independent of their mothers. During their first fall, or at least by the following spring, young bucks typically leave their mothers to join with other young males. These dispersing males may establish new ranges some distance from their natal range and at this point they are ‘on their own’.