Monday, December 9, 2013
By Bob Humphrey
A stirring in the understory caught my attention as a sleek doe materialized from under the dense green foliage. Her thin, long-haired coat was as red as a fox, and her face looked thin. Almost bare. My heart raced as I clipped my release onto my bow string and tensed the muscles of my arms and shoulders preparing to pull back the string and take aim.
I'm not sure why, but I elected to pass the shot. The doe, still in her summer coat, would have made for a fine trophy, the rarity defined by the rufous color of her coat. But I was content merely to watch her go on her way.
Early September is a period of transition for many game species, particularly white-tailed deer. Their summer coat of fine, reddish-brown hairs contrasts sharply against the verdant green of summer foliage but will soon be replaced by a much denser coat of dull gray, hollow hairs that provide insulation against the coming winter and help the deer blend into a much bleaker environment.
The transition is even more noticeable for bucks. Since early spring they've been sporting an ever-growing crown of antlers -- among the fastest growing tissues in the animal kingdom. Some time around the end of August or early September, those antlers go through a process called mineralization. Physiological changes occur, and the live, growing tissue filled with blood vessels turns to bone. Circulation to the soft, velvety covering is cut off. The velvet dies and peels off. Sometimes it is helped by the buck's vigorous rubbing. Within a day it has become a crown of dead bone.
Behavior also changes. Until now the bucks have been living fairly sedentary lives, spending most of their time in a relatively small core area. They're often found in the company of other bucks, in loose assemblages called bachelor groups or bachelor herds. Individuals may come and go, but it's not uncommon to see several bucks together entering a field at dusk.
The sudden surge of testosterone that contributed to the formation of hard-bone antlers also makes bucks less tolerant of one another. It begins with casual shoving matches and almost gentle meshing of antlers, but the bouts will become increasingly more serious and aggressive. A dominance hierarchy or pecking order is established as older bucks drive off younger ones.
The bucks, both young and old, are eager to test their new headwear out on saplings and tree trunks. Rubs start showing up along regularly traveled routes. Hunters seek these out in hopes of intercepting an unsuspecting buck.
Another thing that changes is diet. The rapid growth of a buck's antlers and a doe's nursing fawn emphasized the need for a high protein diet. As antlers die and fawns are weaned, those needs shift. Now, both bucks and does sense a sudden urge to begin laying on fat for the coming winter.
Increasingly they seek out foods high in fat and carbohydrates. These include soft mast like apples and hard mast like acorns and beech nuts. And sugars.
As the first frosts hit, the leaves turn color. Green chlorophyll is replaced, starches turn to sugar, and like velvet, the deciduous leaves die and fall to the ground where they're quickly gobbled up by passing deer.
But the land can only support so many deer. Soon the bottleneck of winter will come when food is most scarce. That's why fall is the season of harvest. Like weeding a garden, removing a surplus of deer from the population increases the chances of survival for those that remain. Some will fall to hunters, others to predators. The rest will prepare for yet another period of transition, from fall to winter.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at: