Deer study was among the favorite activities for students of all ages in the late fall at Lowry Nature Center in Carver Park Reserve in Waconia.
I must have led that activity hundreds of times, and I gained many insights along the way during my years as a naturalist through the 1970s and ’80s.
In November, as the students and I walked the nature center trails, we would find deer rubs and scrapes. Back in September, the bucks started to rub their antlers against young saplings, removing the velvet from the antlers and leaving scars on small tree trunks. They continue to rub long after the velvet is gone, no doubt to mark the edges of mating territories with a scent from a specialized gland on their foreheads.
By the middle of October, deer have begun their mating season in earnest. Rubs and scrapes of the rutting males are evident in the woods. A buck may scrape an area of ground less than a square yard with its hoofs, marking the scrape with urine and scent from glands on its hind legs. The scrape is a sign to other males that the territory is occupied and to females that an interested buck is nearby.
Into November the competition intensifies. Disputes between males takes the form of aggressive displays and foot-stomping, sometimes followed by threats and headfirst rushes. On occasion, two bucks can actually crash antlers in a battle of physical supremacy, though such bouts rarely last more than 30 seconds.
Mating season is done by early December. Most bucks shed their antlers in January or February, and will begin growing them again later in spring. Does give birth to one to three fawns at a time, usually in May or June, after a gestation period of seven months.
The students and I always found fresh deer tracks in the mud or snow, trails leading off in many directions, scat piles, and browse marks. Most often we didn’t spot a deer, but the students always had the feeling that we were in deer territory, and that was exciting to them.
Jim Gilbert’s observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota.