Bucks rub their antlers to remove velvet and mark territory, but understanding rub messages depends on when and where the buck made them.
QUESTION: On my property in the Catskills region of New York, we see a few rubs in late September and early October, but the majority of rubs do not appear until early November. I want to know if buck rubs are primarily for the removal of velvet, or for marking territory and mock fighting to strengthen neck muscles. — Lou P.
ANSWER: Bucks make rubs for several reasons, and sometimes there is seasonality to them. As days grow shorter toward the end of summer, velvet dies and begins peeling off antlers. Bucks will rub trees and branches to help speed the process, but the real rubbing won’t start for a few weeks. These early rubs can be few and far between, but locating them can be a good indication of a buck’s core area.
As the rut draws near, a sudden surge of testosterone causes an increase in aggressive behavior. One way bucks vent their anxiety is by rubbing trees. It’s probably coincidental rather than intentional, but this also helps them strengthen the neck muscles they may need for sparring and fighting later on. They may also rub trees as a display of aggression toward another buck, rather than risk injury in combat. In the latter case, these rubs can show up just about anywhere a buck travels at this time of year, and may only be used once.
Bucks also rub certain trees, presumably to leave a scent message, similar to a scrape. Although deer are not territorial in the true sense of the word — defending a specific piece of ground — they use scent to communicate their presence and, possibly, their vigor, status and readiness to breed. These traditional, or signpost, rubs occur along their regular travel routes and often are used year after year.