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The Outside Story: The rut

Even if you're not a deer hunter, chances are you've heard of "the rut" - slang for the white-tailed deer's mating season. This event is going on right now, as is deer hunting season, making the rut a cultural event in both the whitetail and human worlds.

In spring and summer, male and female whitetails are largely segregated. Does tend to their fawns; bucks hang out by themselves or in bachelor groups. In September, the declining daylight prompts increased testosterone levels in bucks, causing them to act erratically and become less tolerant of one another. They make antler rubs on small trees and shrubs and, in the process, deposit scent from forehead glands and preorbital glands, located in dark pits at the inside corners of the eyes, onto the frayed wood. They make scrapes on the ground: a three-part act that involves scent-marking an overhead branch, pawing a depression in the earth, and then urinating on themselves over the scrape. (As the urine runs down their hind legs, it picks up musk from the tarsal glands, located on the inside of their hocks.)

The does sort of pay attention to all this in that they'll casually check scrapes and rubs, but by and large their participation in breeding season is limited. Basically, it can be summed up as: "no, no, no, no, no, yes." Bucks spend most of late October, November, and early December running themselves ragged in search of does; does spend most of late October, November, and early December avoiding bucks, save for a brief period of tending immediately before copulation. The does' monthly estrous - the time when they're "in heat" - lasts only between 24 and 36 hours.

The act itself is a pretty crude affair. The buck follows the doe with his neck extended and lowered, and the doe, for once, doesn't avoid him. Intromission is brief. Afterwards, the doe gets on with her life and the buck goes back to roaming the woods looking for another courtship. It all ends in December when a buck's testosterone level drops, at which point he'll shake his head as if waking from a daze (authorial postulate) and go back to acting like a deer.

The bucks' promiscuity makes individuals of their gender largely expendable. Five bucks plus 10 mature does in an area equals 20 fawns (give or take a few) the next spring. One buck plus 10 mature does also equals 20 fawns (give or take a few) the next spring. This is an oversimplified equation, but it gives you a general idea of how people can harvest large numbers of male deer (nearly 15,000 bucks were killed by hunters last year in Vermont and New Hampshire combined) and the herd can still grow.

Patience and perseverance are the hallmarks of a good hunter, and there are hours upon hours during deer season spent alone with your thoughts. As a notoriously self-interested species, it's impossible not to spend some of this time in your head considering the rut in human terms. When the younger men in deer camp leave for a Saturday night on the town, opting for courtship rituals over beans and cribbage with the older men, they're said to be "out chasing does," but while the analogy is apropos, it provides a skewed look at human mating trends overall.

People who have looked into the "human rut" say that we seem to have two distinct mating seasons: One, like beavers, in deep winter, the other, like bears, in early summer. A Scientific American blog reports that babies are conceived most frequently in December; in summer, condom sales spike. A recent study of Internet keyword searches confirms this notion of a bimodal human mating season, reporting that people are more likely to visit both dating and adult websites in winter and summer than they are in spring or fall.

We're wandering pretty far afield, I know. But if nothing else, this gives you something to think about while you spend long hours hiding by a buck scrape in the coming weeks, waiting for that big 8-pointer with the hormone-addled brain to walk by.

Dave Mance III is a deer hunter from Shaftsbury, Vt. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

Tagged: The Outside Story, The Rut