Thom Smith | Nature Watch: Battling deer were staking claim

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Q: I saw some interesting behavior in the woods behind my house the other day. I was watching a doe with her two yearlings milling around (looking for apples, I presume.) As they were moving along one of the runs, another large deer came from the other direction with quite a few deer in its herd.

As I watched, the two larger deer suddenly rose on their hind legs and were fighting each other with their front legs. It was a relatively brief encounter.

I could not get a good look to see if they were does or bucks, since I was watching through some brush and branches, and the lighting was not good. But, I believe the buck have probably lost their antlers by the time I witnessed this episode in mid-January.

My first thought was that it was the female protecting her "grazing grounds" and letting the other herd leader know that it was not welcome. Then, I thought that perhaps it was two bucks and their herd of females staking out their territory or their females. But, then I thought, rut season was probably over. Any thoughts?

— Carol Ann, Hinsdale, Mass.

A: Not having a good answer beyond a territorial dispute between two deer, I forwarded this question to Peter Mirick, the soon-to-retire editor of Mass Wildlife Magazine, who promptly informed me you also wrote to Mass Wildlife, with Bill Byrne, Mass Wildlife photographer, answering.

Pete Mirick's thoughts are:

"I think what she witnessed was a dominance/territorial dispute between two dominant females. Female deer live in family groups and clans (mothers, daughters, sisters, and their sub-adult male offspring) and different, but neighboring clans, may share some resources (such as a food plot/apple orchard) but they are very hierarchical in their relationships, and there is always some jostling for limited resources.

"If one group leader feels she is dominant, and another feels the same, the typical action is to flail away at each other with their front hooves until one player signals submission. Peace ensues, with the sub-dominant clan getting seconds and leftovers, or at least not approaching the prime feeding area until the dominant clan has had their fill and leaves."

In essence, Bill Byrne agrees, although he adds "It seems you were fortunate enough to witness a very common social interaction between deer at a food source, perhaps the apples, in this case.

"An older, larger or more dominant deer will try to displace another deer by striking at the other with its front hooves, hoping to drive it off the immediate food attraction or preferred spot. Sometimes all it takes is one leg coming down over the back of the other deer to get the subordinate deer to move on. It can be doe vs fawn, doe vs. doe, doe vs. buck, or buck vs. buck, if they have shed their antlers — and antlers are being shed at this time.

"In general, once antlers have been shed, it marks the reduction of that buck's testosterone levels and mating urges. So, most likely, you witnessed some sort of dominance or territorial display, which can happen year round."

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch@live.com or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


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