It’s that time of year when everything seems to be slowing down and getting ready for a long winter’s rest. However, not everyone is ready to settle down for the season. Unlike the majority of our local animals, white-tailed deer have just begun their most active time of year. Mating season begins in mid-October and peaks towards the end of November. During this time, female does announce they are ready to mate by vocalizing a breeding bellow, which is why this hormonal state is commonly referred to as the “rut,” from the Latin for bellow or roar.
The increasingly shorter amount of daylight in autumn triggers several changes in white-tailed deer. Antlers that bucks have been rapidly growing since April, at an average rate of 1 to 2 inches per week, will stop growing as the blood supply is cut off from the fuzzy skin, called velvet, that covers them. The first sign of rutting behavior happens shortly after males shed the velvet from their antlers in September. Bucks partake in low-intensity sparring to practice and size up the competition in preparation for serious matches later in the season. Deer also change their coat from a reddish brown in the summer to a thick grayish brown for winter. As the seasons change, the shifting hormone levels of bucks and does drive their mating behaviors. There are three main phases throughout the rutting season: the seeking phase, chasing phase, and the breeding phase.
The seeking phase runs from late October to early November. During this time deer are all on the move trying to find potential mates. Their seeking involves reading and leaving messages for each other in the environment. Primarily bucks will create rubs on trees and scrapes on the ground to invite does into the area. Deer have seven glands that are used primarily for scent communication. They have glands located between their toes so when they scrape the ground a concentrated scent area is created. There’s another gland on the top of their head, which gets hyper-activated in bucks during the rut, so they can rub their head on trees, leaving a visual as well as olfactory message.
Deer are not the first animals that come to mind as having an extremely good sense of smell, but in fact it is highly developed. The nose of a white-tailed deer has up to 297 million olfactory receptors! Compare that with dogs that have 220 million and humans that have a limited five million. Their keen ability to smell is an integral part of communication with one another, as well as being their main line of defense against predators.
The next phase is the most exciting from an observer’s standpoint, although male bucks in particular can become aggressive and even dangerous during the chasing phase. From early to mid-November, males actively follow and charge every female they encounter. This goes on for days or weeks until they finally find a doe receptive to breeding. At this point from mid-late November the breeding phase takes place. A single male deer will try to mate with as many responsive females during the mating season as possible.
White-tailed deer have a gestation period of 6-7 months for the single or twin fawns that are born each year. Breeding at the right time in the fall is important because it provides that the offspring will be born in May or June when they’ll have the maximum chance of survival.
Throughout the year, even here in the city, deer are frequently seen strolling through neighborhoods and backyards. Their majestic beauty is enjoyable to watch and their visits are cherished. However, it’s important to remember that like all wildlife, deer are best observed at a distance, especially this time of year when they can be confused and unpredictable. To avoid negative encounters, don’t approach them, try to feed them or interfere with their behaviors. Also when driving early in the morning or after the sun goes down be sure to take extra caution of deer crossing the roads.
Learn more about deer and other backyard nature at the Kroening Interpretive Center, which is open all year and has lots of fun, free activities for all ages. Join us for a public program on the weekend, check out a free nature activity backpack, or borrow a pair of binoculars and see what you encounter in nature.
Explore the outdoors with your little one by registering for our new play group series -Nature Nuts- for children under six and an accompanying adult. Each series includes four sessions on Fridays from 11:30-12:30.
November Free Public Programs (all ages): Nov. 4 – Early Birding: Search for birds while on a naturalist-guided hike. 9-10:30 a.m.; Nov. 11 – MN Prairie Story: Tour our restored prairie with a naturalist. 1-2:30 p.m.; Nov. 18 – Decomposer Exposure: Explore decomposition and the creatures that make it possible. 1:30-2:30 p.m.; and Nov. 24 –Nature’s Black Friday Fun: Hike the park, build a fort, go on a scavenger hunt, play games and more! 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Find registration for these programs and more at minneapolisparks.org or call 612-370-4844 for more details. Like us on Facebook to stay in the loop about what is happening at your park!
Written by Kelley Ekstrom, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board Naturalist at North Mississippi Regional Park