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Flailing Whitetails

Tommy KirklandText & Photos by Tommy Kirkland

-- With the slow arrival of spring, the land begins its green-up. Instantly, deer herds converge on tender sprouts of vegetative growth. Yet, the availability of nutritious food is scarce. Being within close proximity of one another, it doesn't take long for conflicts to ensue through aggressive body posturing and the hard physical contact of flailing ...

Photo: When deer of equal status meet, flailing can occur and becomes a test of endurance.

As the dew moistens the clover, two antlerless bucks feed nearby upon an enriched area. Suddenly their ears fold back as the two tilt their bodies toward each other and display a slow, rigid walk known as sidling. Then with ease, the bucks stand upright on their hindquarters, balance themselves with their rear legs and begin to vigorously swat with their sharp front hooves and legs.

The scene resembles a boxing match as the encounter intensifies. Pop and thump sounds echo as the aggressive swatting continues. Amazingly, the bucks are able to maintain their balance in this upright position for more than 20 full seconds. However, before an injury is inflicted, they stop.

Their outburst of aggression is known as flailing and has just set the stage for not only the struggle of nutritional competitiveness, but also the unfolding of dominant hierarchy. Flailing is a unique act of whitetail behavior that takes place between bucks competing for food and top status. It also manifests with female deer - particularly in matriarchal herd dominance and when parenting adult females confront an intruding female or when they are ready to outcast male offspring - triggering yearling dispersal. 

Tommy KirklandPhoto: The deer that instigates flailing is usually the victor. Flailing deer can also lunge while standing upright in an effort to swat with their sharp front hooves.

Besides two bucks clashing furiously with antlers during the rut, flailing is by far one of the most dangerous and exciting of whitetail behaviors to witness. It commonly occurs throughout the year with doe herds. As for bucks, flailing is more prevalent during the spring and summer months, although there have been a few extremely rare bouts between bucks with hardened antlers.

If a particular deer, be it buck or doe, possesses an assertive disposition, this animal is more inclined to instigate flailing and become the deer with hierarchy status. The defeated whitetail that displays subordinate, submissive behavior after the flailing encounter avoids injury. Evasiveness is an instinctive mechanism for survival. Eventually the loser may achieve dominance through a rematch with deer it has flailed with beforehand.

Tommy KirklandWhitetails will usually reveal certain physical gestures before flailing takes place. The most common signs of aggression are ears folded back, sidling with circular motions and ruffled fur. If these signs of intimidation go to the next phase and the deer stand upright, they will flail - swatting with their sharp front hooves.

Photo: Older bucks will periodically exert their dominance over younger bucks as seen by physical gestures such as the head and neck raised high with the ears folded back.

While you're afield, keep an eye out when whitetails congregate and they may suddenly flail. Along with competitiveness for nutrition and dominance, whitetails are put to the test by other species when it comes to survival, the encroachment of predators - a topic for the next installment at Buckmasters.com.

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