Science of Deer Hunting
Dr. Harry Jacobson, a professor in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries at Mississippi State University, explains that, "Some buck fighting takes place all year round. A dominance order begins to become established immediately after birth. As six month old fawns mature, a pecking order starts to take shape. Most of the fighting, if there is any fighting at this time, involves a flailing of hooves or aggressive posturing initially until the bucks get their first sets of antlers. Once the bucks' antlers are hardened, fighting can occur in the more traditional manner with which we're familiar.
"I've seen some full-fledged, down-and-out, knock-out battles between mature bucks before the rut. In fact, about the time bucks rub out of velvet, some sorting out of dominance occurs which may prevent combat later on in the season when the rut arrives.
"But generally, the bucks are just basically playing in the pre-rut. When bucks spar, they are testing one another, and they're also sharpening their fighting skills without getting into full-fledged combat. Much of this sparring is similar to what a father and his son do when they're fooling around. Often an older buck and a younger buck will spar, and the older buck will allow the younger buck to test himself. Younger bucks begin to spar as soon as they come out of velvet as part of their maturing process. They're learning the behavior that will at some point in the future be significant to them either in breeding or not breeding."
Terry Rohm, the public relations director of Wellington Outdoors, has studied deer and deer behavior as an active hunter most of his life.
"From what I've observed in the field watching bucks before the rut, sparring is a way bucks feel each other out," Rohm reports. "Aggressive fighting doesn't really take place but rather is a push/shove match. The bucks know they've got antlers on their heads, and they're building up their necks for the rut. Or, they may be brothers or have lived with each other for most of their lives. Sometimes a push/shove match resembles a couple of kids playing."
David Nelson, district wildlife biologist for the Game and Fish Division of Alabama's Department of Conservation, observes that, "Although bucks start to spar early in the season, the fight is not a fierce one for dominance, but often dominance plays a role in it. Some sparring goes on as soon as the bucks have hard antlers. As testosterone levels begin to increase, the deer's velvet is shed, the antlers begin to get hard, and the bucks will spar."
Young bucks are like young boys in the first grade who begin to push and shove to set up who is the toughest one in the class. Oftentimes, once that dominance order is set up in the youngsters, whoever establishes himself as the toughest one of the bunch will maintain that position until the completion of elementary school.
According to Jacobson, "If a young buck is whipped one time, he is less likely to challenge again. Probably this influences the psychological part of dominance among bucks as much as actual physical size or antler size does."
Once that dominance order is set up after the bucks come into hard antlers, then the likelihood of sparring and buck fights may tend to decrease slightly.
As Nelson explains, "When dominance is established, actual fighting may subside. If a buck has been defeated by another buck, the subdominant buck may move on to another place when the dominant buck steps toward him with an aggressive posture."
Jacobson states that bucks go through a series of aggressive posturing steps before a conflict occurs. "A buck demonstrates dominance primarily through body language. When he approaches a subordinate animal, he'll usually give that animal a hard stare. If the animal doesn't then display the appropriate submissive behavior or posture, the confrontation intensifies to a whole series of displays that can end up in a buck fight."
When the dominant buck demonstrates aggressive behavior, then the challenger has to make a decision of whether to duck his head and prepare for a charge or tuck his tail and prepare to run.