Notes from the Land: Reading Sign

By Lynette Anderson, Interpretive Naturalist/Restoration Specialist

It is the season of rut (mating) for the White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and there are many signs to look for when you are out on your next hike at Belwin Conservancy.

The most obvious are rubs and scrapes, both of which help a buck (male) mark his territory. They also send signals to the does (females) and younger bucks by leaving scent, the greatest way deer communicate with each other.

Scrapes are typically found under hanging branches, which the buck rubs with his forehead, preorbital (eye) and nasal glands, allowing scent to carry on the wind currents. Once done with this the buck will paw the ground to remove leaves and other debris, and then urinate across its hock glands and into the bare earth, leaving stronger scent.

The scrape serves as a signpost for territory and dominance. Rubs are done with only the antlers and can be found on varying sizes of trees and shrubs. Bucks rub to remove the velvet that covers the antlers as they are growing as well to leave another trail of scent.

Rubs often tell more about the size of an animal and their travel patterns than other types of sign. Typically rubs found on smaller saplings or thick-stemmed brush are made by smaller bucks; rubs on larger trees are made by bigger, older bucks.

Trails are a good sign of animal activity and can be fun to follow. It is on or near these trails that you could come across some of these other great deer sign! Look for areas of matted grass that could indicate a deer spent the night there.

When deer are in rut, the bucks are laser focused on finding a doe to mate with. They become less cautious and move about more frequently during daylight and dusk. Keep your eyes open when you’re out for a hike — and when you’re driving! — to see the deer sign all around you.