Buckmasters Magazine

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!

By Bob Humphrey

An inside look at the Whitetail Fighting Federation.

Ladies and gentlemen: Welcome to tonight's main event.

In the blue corner, weighing 248 pounds, sporting 8 points and heavy mass, the challenger: Bruiser McBuck.

And in the red corner weighing 257 pounds and sporting 10 tall tines, the reigning heavyweight champion, Old Mossy Horns.

Let’s Get Ready to R-u-m-b-l-e!

We can have a little fun with the concept of a couple of heavyweight bucks squaring off to battle for the affections of a hot doe, but to the competitors, it’s a very serious event.

Sparring and brief skirmishes are not uncommon. Real knock-down, drag-out donnybrooks are rare, but when they occur, they can be a life-or-death struggle between rivals. Let’s take a closer look at this fascinating phenomenon of the whitetail world.

HOW COMMON ARE BUCK FIGHTS?

From the time they shed their velvet, bucks begin meshing antlers with one another.

Initial interactions are casual and at times almost delicate, and could be as much a form of social bonding as a means of testing an opponent’s strength. Gradually, bucks transition to sparring to sort out a dominance hierarchy and ready themselves for the rut. Still, these early skirmishes are more of a pushing and shoving match. They rarely last long, and injuries are rare.

CONFLICT RESOLUTION

As the days grow shorter and testosterone starts to flow, things take on a more serious tenor. A typical interaction begins with some type of aggressive posturing: ears laid back, head lowered, eyes rolled back and a stiff-legged, sidling walk. Bucks also use skin muscles to make their hair stand up, presumably to make themselves look bigger. They might turn broadside or quarter toward an opponent, again probably to show off their size.

A subordinate is expected to show some gesture of submission. It can be as simple as looking or turning away. A particularly aggressive buck might continue pushing the issue, possibly even driving off the subordinate.

If the challenger is reluctant to back down, the more dominant buck might issue a stronger warning, like a snort-wheeze. He’s letting the other buck know he’s serious, and if the challenger doesn’t give in, things will get interesting.

Most of the dominance hierarchy among local bucks is established early in the fall. During the rut, however, bucks often go on excursions far outside familiar core areas. There, they encounter bucks they’ve never met. Additionally, subordinates higher up the ladder are continually testing their superiors for signs of weakness, and might eventually become bold enough to challenge a close rival.

A final warning is given in the form of a quick rush and another snort-wheeze. What happens next is up to the challenger. If he backs down, the fight is over before it started. If he stands his ground, there will be blood.

THE HIGH COST OF COMBAT

Knock-down, drag-out buck fights are rare, with good reason. Fighting is a very dangerous proposition, and there is a tenuous balance between risk and reward. A buck’s principal purpose in life is to pass on his genes to future generations. He can’t do that very well if he’s injured or dead.

Head and facial injuries are common and can include everything from gouges and torn ears to punctured eyes, skull fractures and brain abscesses (see sidebar). Additionally, head-to-head impact puts tremendous stress on the skull. If you’ve ever tried to break an antler you know how much stress is required.

Each opponent will try to match the other head-on, but if one gains a decided advantage, he might direct his antlers toward more vulnerable areas of his opponent’s body. Bruises, broken ribs and leg bones are not uncommon. Depending on where they are and how serious, puncture wounds can heal, or they can become infected, leading to further complications.

Even in the absence of obvious injury, the mere act of fighting puts a good deal of stress on a buck, particularly in warm weather. I once watched a vanquished buck wade out into a pond where it then stood, panting with its tongue hanging out. Excess stress weakens a buck, making him less able to battle and more susceptible to disease and predation.

Another rare but potentially fatal result of combat occurs when two bucks get locked up. Even if no injury occurs, the stress alone can kill one or both bucks. It also makes them easy pickings for predators.

WHAT MAKES A WINNER

If you’re inclined toward wagering on a fight, you might find better odds with heavyweight humans than deer. It seems logical to pick the oldest buck or the one with the biggest rack or body, but it ain’t the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog. That applies to deer as well, and it can influence not only who wins, but also who initiates a fight.

You might have heard the term “bully bucks.” It’s used to describe certain bucks that are particularly aggressive toward other bucks. There’s a certain amount of truth to it.

Deer, like people, have different personalities. Some are more aggressive than others. Add an extra dose of testosterone and a reason to fight – like a hot doe – and that bully buck’s personality just might reach its tipping point. Luck and circumstance can also be factors. One misstep or a lucky jab could easily turn the tables.

Knowing more about how and why bucks fight can help hunters. The sound of sparring bucks signals to all deer within hearing distance that something is happening that might be worth investigating. That’s why rattling can be an effective means of calling deer.

It’s also important if you’re managing deer. Trying to improve the age structure of your herd by allowing more young bucks to reach maturity is a practical objective. But you must understand there is a law of diminishing returns. The more older bucks in your population, the more they will fight, injure and possibly kill each other. That’s just one more reason why you should try to knock a few of those bruiser bucks out each year.

Read Recent Articles:

Know When to Hold ’Em: How to tell when it’s time to go all-in while hunting out of state.

Weather Gone Wild: How do whitetails cope with extreme weather events?

This article was published in the August 2015 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

Copyright 2022 by Buckmasters, Ltd.

Copyright 2020 by Buckmasters, Ltd