Tis the season for the genetic jig of the California Mule Deer, Odocoileus hemionus californicus. Yes, folks, it's the yearly dance of ancestry - that pageantal, hormonal imperative called rut.
This is my second year of being lucky enough to be around our family lodge near Yosemite for some of the fun of rut (which happens roughly mid November to late December in the western Sierra Nevada foothills). The clashes, snorts and chases make for great National Geo moments. Good thing I always carry a camera.
Rut starts with the bucks. After about 7 months of growing their weaponry (and with a system socked with seasonal hormones), the bucks come down from high country looking for the ladies, and looking to have a bit of sport to woo 'em. Yes, it's Mule Deer Monday Night Football and the does are the coy but curious fans. For they too are being driven by chemical surges.
The lovely ladies wander in (hmmm... wonder why they called them mule deer?):
BTW - the buck's antlers are amazing. While growing, they're spongy tissue covered in skin called velvet. As rut approaches, the tissue calcifies into bone, and the buck rubs off the velvet and polishes them pretty (often on our poor lilac). Then they're ready for combat. Later, once mating is over, the antler will loosen from the pedicel at the base and be shed. We've only found a few over the years, so most are probably dropped upcountry.
Good size buck with freshly polished antlers:
From what I've seen, not all the bucks fight. Only the ones near in size and tenure tussle. The little spike and first-year fork-horns tend to just hang around the periphery, watch the action and play-spar among themselves. They're the frosh and soph dorks. (Been there.) Occasionally one wanders over to a friendly big buck and drops his head for a spar. I've seen 'em. They're over fast. But the bucks seem to like it. I even saw the buck in the pic above give a freshman buck an encouraging nuzzle after a short spar, as if saying "not bad dork - you'll take me next year."
But when it's 2 big bucks, with thick necks and heavy antlers, it's a different scene. For them, it's all bis'ness. This is the superbowl. And, the winning hart gets first shot at the babes. That means it's time to go tet-a-tet and test their forks and footwork.
This is the first year I got to see a serious fight. I've seen sparring before, but never a real head-to-head, mano-a-mano buck fight. They're just like the David Attenborough versions, but better. Why? They're louder and more exciting, and you're not worried about the bucks coming through the TV when you're watching Planet Earth. When you're the one actually holding the camera, things on the screen can be... about to run you over. I was in the driveway about 50 feet away, there was some scrub oaks to one side, and it was dusk. I started to get closer, but then their 50-foot antler-clashing runs angled my direction, so I paused and took what I could get. It's really bad. Next time.
Horrible, dark, blurry video of two bucks in serious clash at dusk:
Unfortunately the video's sound can't fully convey the loudness of the horn clashes. It echoed. Like two guys striking baseball bats. Fast. And they engaged in at least a 1/2 dozen of those back-and-forth 50-foot charges. Wonder what it sounded like when two giant Ice Age Megaloceros deer clashed? Their antlers stretched 10 feet across!
Interesting note: the loser in the fight above was a slightly bigger buck, but he hit something and wounded a rear leg. I saw him limping heavily later, and then he wasn't around when the winner buck was dancing with the ladies (more on that coming up).
Two small bucks head-to-head:
Big boy buck sparring with a sophomore:
When the doe (or does) hits her 2-3 day estrus cycle (which will come back in about a month if missed), the champion buck must be crowned so he can start the next dance - dancing with the does. The champ chases the fertile female, hoping to win her favors. She keeps him interested by peeing a little bit every few minutes and feet as they walk and move and dance. Her urine is full of pheromones and chemical attractants & triggers for our boy to sniff. He keeps following. Once the lady is ready (and assuming no other more capable bucks have come along), the doe and the buck take a little "walk" away from the herd for a bit. You know, some quiet time.
This teasing tango tends to last for a couple of days...
Pheromones on the brain:
Champ smelling perfume:
Champ swinging in for a closer sniff:
Champ following doe:
Champ still following doe:
During the time the girls are frisky, the champ also stands guard. He doesn't want no dork sneaking in to muddy his waters. No way. To establish an anti-dork perimeter, he rubs his head and antlers on bushes and trees, spreading pheromones that are released from small glands by his eyes. These pheromones tell any other bucks how big and cool he is, and that if they venture further, they enter his house of pointy pain.
Champ with head in bushes - marking with pheromones:
Champ by rock guarding females/herd:
As for the results of this dance? Summer fawns. :)
Bucks, stags, harts and hinds. Male deer have been honored and featured in stories, rituals, and heraldry since the dawn of homo sapience. Even in today's popular culture, they're still portrayed with heroic imagery...
"EXPECTO PATRONUM!" he yelled.
And out of the end of his wand burst, not a shapeless cloud of mist, but a blinding, dazzling, silver animal. He screwed up his eyes, trying to see what it was. It looked like a horse. It was galloping silently away from him, across the black surface of the lake. He saw it lower its head and charge at the swarming dementors... Now it was galloping around and around the black shapes on the ground, and the dementors were falling back, scattering, retreating into darkness... They were gone.
The Patronus turned. It was cantering back toward Harry across the still surface of the water. It wasn't a horse. It wasn't a unicorn, either. It was a stag. It was shining brightly as the moon above...
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling.