The ritual has begun. Antler growth has reached its peak, and velvet shedding occurs on schedule. One by one, whitetail bucks transform from velvet racks to hardened, blood-stained antler tines as their new headgear.
A low ceiling of clouds blankets the field and woodlands, and although the autumn season is near, the humidity indicates otherwise. Easing over a small hill, two old bucks are sighted. They stand alert and ready to flee.
The telephoto lens quickly identifies them. One is a highly skittish buck. Having already molted his summer coat and peeled his velvet, he instantly takes to flight. The other is an old buck still in velvet with molting slowly under way. He follows the previous buck and takes to the dense timber.
Finally the aged deer slows down, tolerates the camera and resumes his morning routine for nutrition. A view of his rack reveals a crack in the velvet to the underside of his left main beam. Blood is visible.
Within moments, the dried velvet irritates the buck, causing him to take his antlers to a tree. Intense rubbing motions unfold as velvet shreds off with blood.
Suddenly, the old buck stops and swiftly darts away, vanishing into the forest. The telephoto lens locates the frenzied buck. Hordes of pesky, biting insects are swarming him due to the dripping bloody velvet.
By instinct to rid the bloody velvet and not to attract predators, the old buck rams his antlers into the limbs of a small hemlock tree. Thrashing to and fro, he breaks limbs as more and more velvet shreds away. Like a banana peel, the velvet dangles as the buck swings his head in an effort to bite and chew the velvet.
After roughly 40 minutes of fast and furious behavior, now only a few thin strands of dried velvet remain. His transformation from a velvet-antlered buck to a pre-rut breeding machine with a polished rack of hardened antlers is complete.
As the days shorten and cooler weather takes hold, changes to the whitetail buck’s pituitary gland create hormonal alterations. With antler growth complete, blood stops flowing to the rack. Velvet tissue dries and cracks, and shedding begins.
Most velvet peeling is accomplished within six hours. However, some bucks have a longer process — up to 24 hours. Also, all bucks in an area do not remove their velvet at the same time. Free-roaming whitetails have been observed peeling the velvet at almost the same time each year. This near precise timing is most likely due to a buck’s hormones and other biological time clocks not fully understood.
Even though most mature bucks peel velvet first, due to higher levels of testosterone, younger bucks have been known to complete the process before older deer. This is especially true if 2½- to 3½-year-olds with good potential are instinctively trying to place themselves on the ladder of whitetail hierarchy.
Yet despite when bucks shed their velvet, biologists attribute this process to decreasing photoperiod. With the onset of fall and shorter duration of daylight, surges of testosterone complete the antler growth, stimulating the velvet shed.
Of course, whitetails up north usually remove velvet prior to southern whitetails. Typically, northern deer go through velvet peel in late August to early September, whereas southern bucks rid velvet in mid to late September and even into October. Of course, there are variations in the South due to the habitat and nutrition.
Bucks in summertime bachelor groups almost always go their separate ways to batter the trees. They may temporarily regroup after velvet shedding is complete, but it is usually short-lived. Bouts of aggression and buck dominance really begin to escalate after the velvet shed.
Bucks that peel the bloody tissue just after sunrise or even during the day stand a much better chance of avoiding nocturnal predators like coyotes. Whitetail bucks that rid velvet during the night are highly vulnerable to attracting predators simply due to the blood. Even so, the overwhelming majorities of whitetails shed the velvet and survive the pursuit of carnivores.
At times, small specks of dried blood can be seen on trees battered by bucks, and although most velvet shedding occurs at random, the specks of blood are strong indications that bucks do occasionally peel the velvet tissue on trees associated with old rub lines and travel corridors. This brings into question if the velvet transformation is the beginning of the pre-rut.
Even though a buck’s signposting activity of tree rubbing, scraping and lip curling is more intense during the pre-rut and rut, clearly their instinctive impulses to procreate do begin with the velvet shed.
With antlers polished, bucks start to rub trees in and near feeding and bedding areas. They will also, just after the velvet peel, start to scent mark by licking branches. Although they do scrape the ground and perform rub-urination just after the removal of velvet, most signposting activity at this time is associated with lip-curling doe urine and marking scent on overhanging limbs along with half-hearted tree rubbing.
For bowhunters who start their season in September, learning the timing and locations of velvet shedding can be significant in patterning whitetails. Though bucks usually return to a late-summer routine after peeling velvet, some do at this time slowly begin to establish rub-lines as well as seeking out doe core areas.
Here the early stages of pre-rut are in play. Of course, this early pre- rut activity is sluggish, and will vary depending on the particular deer and its hormones as well as the region, habitat, buck-to-doe ratios and nutrition.
If one is able to assess a buck’s late-summer and early pre-rut routine, then the likelihood of making an early season harvest is increased. With today’s benefits of trail cams, binoculars and good old scouting and observation techniques, the intimate patterns of a buck can be assessed as he makes the transformation from soft velvet to hardened antlers ready for battle.
As whitetail bucks gear up for pre-rut and rutting activity, their diverse and complex scent glands are going through hormonal changes. These glands are critical for rut breeding behaviors through deer-scent communication — next month’s topic.