Text & Photos by Tommy Kirkland
-- As the hunting season begins, communication among whitetails increases through activity known as scraping. This natural function is vital for whitetails to set the stage for successful breeding. Although there is a standard pattern that bucks follow in establishing a scrape site, at times the animals defy normal instinctive acts and perform scent signposting that has no definite routine - challenging today's hunter in his or her assessment of reading deer sign.
As day breaks over the eastern horizon, a dominant buck makes an exodus to move beyond the cultivated food plot. Nearing the timber's edge, he stops just beneath the overhanging limb of a pine tree. Stretching its head and neck upward, the buck attempts to reach the sagging tree limb.
Suddenly, the buck rises completely upright on its rear legs. Then while maintaining balance, the buck bites the limb and vigorously pulls it toward the ground - simultaneously returning to a four-legged position. The pine limb breaks, yet not completely. It's now dangling and within easy reach for the whitetail.
Posed with an assertive disposition, the buck now begins to ram its antlers into the limb - rubbing his forehead, face, nostrils, and mouth upon it. The action intensifies. Twisting the polished rack to and fro, the male appears as though it has chosen the pine as a punching bag in preparation for antler clashing with rival bucks as the rut nears. Finally, the fury stops. Scent from several glands has now been deposited upon the beaten pine.
This act of a buck's scrape, known as a "licking branch," drives the whitetail to another scent communication function. Taking its head toward the ground, beneath the overhanging licking branch, the buck extends its right foreleg and vigorously paws leaves and debris. Topsoil dirt has been exposed by the buck pawing an area just beneath the licking branch. Here, the male deer releases scent from interdigital glands in its front hooves to establish the actual scrape site.
Performing the final act of a typical scrape, the rutting buck brings its legs together and urinates upon its tarsal glands into the pawed ground. The buck gradually rubs these glands while urinating upon the ground - ensuring that its scent is established. Now, more scent is deposited into the scrape site.
The typical pattern of a signpost scrape has been completed. The male deer starts with the licking branch; then begins pawing the site and concludes with tarsal gland urination - commonly called "rub urination." With this scrape site completed, the whitetail resumes its endeavors to breed and seeks out other areas to execute deer sign.
Undoubtedly scrape behaviors and their marks upon the land play a major role in scent communication for whitetail hierarchy and breeding and are an important aspect of pre-scout still-hunting techniques. Yet, despite all our determined efforts to understand whitetail scrapes and how all of the complexities fit together into the rut, there are a host of unique and diverse unpredictable behaviors with these animals.
Although the normal routine for a buck performing a scrape is to first establish a licking branch, paw the ground, and urinate on its tarsal glands, white-tailed bucks will break this typical pattern - acting out just one or two of the three behaviors. For example, a rutting buck may approach an old marked tree rub and instead of rubbing its antlers on the tree, the male will paw the ground at the tree's base. So instead of pawing a scrape beneath an overhanging lick branch, bucks can just paw the ground at the base of an old rubbed tree and may or may not urinate upon the tarsals. Here, a scrape was laid and it is important when scouting to examine all deer sign - regardless if it looks old and unused.
Scrapes by pawing can also be established in open fields or in wooded areas without an overhanging licking branch. This is where one must look for signs out of the ordinary.
Bucks, both in the pre-rut and the rut, can work a licking branch and not paw the ground nor urinate upon the rear tarsal glands. When stalking through the woods, keep a keen eye for thrashed, broken limbs just a few feet above the ground. Though the ground wasn't pawed, whitetails have still left their mark in this unpredictable broken pattern of scraping - targeting small tree limbs. They will also approach a previously marked overhang limb and instead of twisting their antlers into it, they will just paw a scrape beneath and may or may not urinate the tarsals.
With the rise in testosterone and shorter days, the bucks are instinctively driven to make scrape sites. These areas, being a form of scent communication, are utilized by male deer to proclaim their presence to rival bucks; and it is believed that scrapes serve in breeding selection as does distinguish different bucks through scrapes.
Scrapes can occur just about anywhere, but are usually performed along the edge and in the woodlands. As for the trees targeted for scrapes and licking branches, bucks can attack just about any tree, but tend to strike pines, hollies, hemlocks, maples, cedars, and oaks.
Scraping activity can be unpredictable and erratic without any definite pattern. When this occurs, reading deer sign and trying to decipher their activity and movements will become a bit more challenging. Even so, scrapes show us the degree of buck activity and its intensity. It can also give hunters an idea of how the rut may evolve - adding to the excitement of bagging a whitetail during the heat of the rut - the topic for my next installment here at Buckmasters.com!