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Buck rub scar grows

This Aspen shows scars from when it was young and used as a buck rub. 

During the fall rut, bucks battle with small trees and shrubs. They use flexible woody plants that give and take when attacked and that helps strengthen deer neck muscles. Deer are easily agitated during the breeding season. A local newspaper reported a person being gored and killed when he entered the pen with a pet deer. 

Buck rubs on saplings announce a sight and sound presence. Deer trails meander through forests, fields, and shrublands where small trees show evidence of being scraped or destroyed by antlers. During summer, antlers grow when calcium and phosphorous are deposited from blood vessels in the “velvet” skin that covers them. A common shrub growing in the area is called staghorn sumac because its branches have a soft tan velvet covering like the soft skin growing on antlers. 

By fall when antlers are fully grown, blood vessels in the velvet skin begin to dry and itch. Deer rub the itchy dying skin against small trees or shrubs that are usually less than two inches in diameter. Larger deer might rub flexible woody stems 3 inches in diameter or sometimes larger. With short tempers, deer spar with woody plants in preparation for breeding. They strip life giving bark from plants. Many scarred stems survive. Now that winter is behind us, we can find buck rub trees and shrubs before spring obscures stems with leaves. 

Resilient plants strive to live. If the phloem and xylem in the bark cambium carrying water and nutrients is not completely destroyed, the sugars and nutrients continue to flow to roots and upward in spring stems. 

The tree will continue to grow and scars will become more evident. We find similar evidence of bark damage when someone carves initials in bark. If the damage is not too severe, the tree lives and the initials increase in size as the tree ages. Accompanying photo 1 shows an aspen that was used as a buck rub when it was small. It survived and grew. Today, we can see the growing dark scars and smoother lighter undamaged bark. 

Ranger Steve is shown here measuring the diameter of a tree trunk that was used as a buck rub years ago. 

Photo 2 shows me using a “diameter at breast height” (DBH) measuring tape. The tape is marked every 3.14 inches to represent one inch in diameter. Pi is 3.14 inches and when circled so the tape ends touch, it equals one-inch diameter. The reason DBH refers to diameter at breast height is because that is the standard height of 4.5 feet foresters use when conducting forest surveys. Make a DBH tape at home with kids using adding machine tape rolls. Remember each 3.14-inch marking equals one-inch diameter when the tape is wrapped around a tree. Create the tape long enough to measure large trees. Measure trees in the yard and neighborhood and identify which species are the largest and oldest.

I am pictured measuring the diameter of the lower trunk because that is the height where the buck rubbed his antlers. They usually scrape velvet from antlers between one and two feet above ground. One can somewhat determine how large a deer is by the height of the buck rub above ground.

Notice how wide the scars have grown with tree size over the years since the buck rubbed antlers on the sapling. The DBH for this scarred tree is now 9.5 inches in diameter. Bucks will not use a tree this large as a buck rub. 

There are many activities for families during this time when classroom education has been replaced with alternatives because of Covid-19 closures. Teachers are working long hours to engage students with remote education opportunities that blend science, language arts, math, social studies, art, music, and more. Education continues but requires parents willing to work with kids to engage them in fruitful learning. Teachers regularly work long hours but the current remote education challenge has extended their work week hours. 

Nature niche education is good for integrating meaningful multidisciplinary real-world applications outdoors. It can include exploring the neighborhood for buck rubs, learning a variety of musical bird songs, discovering the tempo of frog calls, drawing tree growth silhouettes, investigating insect pollinators and writing narratives. Now is a wonderful time for rich integrated learning where parents and children learn together with teacher remote guidance.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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