Deer Dynamics: Signposting

Effectively reading signposting activity is crucial for hunters to pattern whitetails.

Along the forest edge, a whitetail buck hesitates beneath the overhanging branches of a pine tree. Then with ease, the animal stretches its neck up toward a particular limb and begins to rub its mouth and forehead on the limb. Closing its eyelids, it resumes this behavior on the tree.

Suddenly, it slams its hardened antlers into the battered pine limb and vigorously spins its rack back and forth as though engaging a duel with another buck.

The fury of action comes to an abrupt halt.

Standing motionless, the whitetail momentarily gazes off into a distant field, and then slowly lowers its head and upper body while extending its left foreleg and hoof outward. With a steady motion, it paws the ground just beneath the pine overhang, and then repeats this natural function with its right foreleg and hoof.

Back to a dominant stance, the stag brings its hind legs together. Slowly, it rubs the tarsal glands together while simultaneously urinating upon these glands. The buck’s scent is now deposited into the pawed area, directly under the overhanging pine limb, which is also holding its scent. Weary, yet instinctively persistent, the buck resumes its quest to procreate — displaying the unique array of behavior known as signposting.

As the days begin to shorten, both new and old signpost trees are targeted for scent communication, especially if cooler nights are setting in. For the most part, it is mature, dominant bucks that are executing rubs and scrapes.

However, when scouting for signpost activity, hunters shouldn’t assume that the majority of deer sign is from big bucks. Although the height of a rub and number of marked scrapes tend to indicate larger deer, it’s not always so.

Most signpost activity unfolds at night and into the early morning hours. A buck’s signposting can be so intense that unless he is sighted or busted on a trail cam, one can be led to believe that a mature 140- to 150-class buck is tearing the woods apart. Yet, in reality, the marks could be from a younger buck trying to establish dominance.

Persistent 2½- to 3½-year-old bucks can work havoc on the trees with a small set of antlers. They can also ground paw scrape with vigor. Take a young buck with a fight disposition instinct heightened, and he’ll give the impression of a mature monster roaming the woodlands.

Though this isn’t always the case with deer sign, it does unfold. And of course, the younger buck’s signposting can be in conjunction with mature bucks that are battering the same woodland trees as well. All age classes of bucks will scent mark certain trees. Even spikes work scrapes and rubs on trees targeted by adult bucks.

Although most signposting starts to escalate in late October and on into November for most southern regions, some bucks just after velvet peel will slowly begin to work rub lines and pronounce their presence through scent communication. If nutrition, water, cover and females are within the vicinity and the bucks remain undisturbed, this habitat becomes a centralized locale for initiating rutting activity. Of course, there are variations to the timing of these behaviors due to weather, nutrition and region.

If does are within a buck’s summer range, trees battered during the velvet shed could very well become signpost markings for pre-rut and rut behaviors.

Once a buck consistently asserts itself with scent communication on the trees, the pre-rut in most locales is in full swing. If does are nearby, he may just traverse a little of the landscape, typically moving in circular routes. By staying within a concentrated locale that provides all a whitetail needs, a buck can continue to conserve energy and maintain good body weight.

However, there are accounts of bucks totally abandoning their late-summer and pre-rut routines, only to travel to traditional rutting grounds. When this occurs, the signpost sites become dormant, unless another buck moves in. If rub and scrape activity diminishes, then the buck that had been making the sign very well could have ventured to another property.

If other top contending bucks trek into the same vicinity, they too will start serious rubbing and scraping activity. At times these non-resident bucks, coming from different locales, will also mark previously rubbed trees or scrapes created by other dominant bucks, as if to say, “Here I am, and I’m tougher than you.”

Scent marking also pronounces a buck’s presence to female deer.

The visiting bucks will create new rubs and scrapes. Once this occurs, it is impossible or extremely difficult to decipher who’s doing what in the woodlands — unless the area is under light hunting pressure and observations and trail cams are working double time.

Being that there is no typical trend to signposting behaviors, reading and trying to understand the complexities of scent communication is a challenge. Yet with time and patience, sometimes a pattern like a consistent rub-line unfolds — aiding in the placement of a stand. If bucks are marking the same trees and using the same modes of travel, eventually one is going to become visible for a clean shot.

Besides weather, other factors strongly influence buck behaviors and signposting — especially buck-to-doe ratios. When antlerless harvest is done properly, ratios of deer can balance. It is believed that fewer females automatically shortens mating times, and rubs and scrapes are usually done with more vigor and can be quite numerous.

With fewer does in a given area, bucks may traverse vast areas in search of estrus does. Signposting activity may decrease where it once occurred frequently simply because the bucks are now spread out. Eventually they will circle back, unless they are tending estrus does or beaten down by more dominant bucks.

There is so much more to the whitetail’s world, and even though we will never fully comprehend whitetails, today’s tools combined with old-fashioned time spent outdoors can enhance one’s knowledge about deer.

In turn, hunters will continue to develop and appreciate this game animal, becoming more effective in outwitting deer roaming the state, especially when the rut finally gets under way — next month’s topic.

About Tommy Kirkland 24 Articles
Tommy Kirkland aggressively pursues whitetails with camera and extensive observational work on free-ranging deer. He is a novice turkey hunter; and his articles and photos have been featured in many outdoor publications.

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