All About Scrapes And Rutting Bucks

Tommy Kirkland | September 30, 2023

This image of a buck working a scrape was taken by the author Tommy Kirkland. Tommy is a professional wildlife photographer who spends countless hours in the woods observing deer as he gets his remarkable images, including all of those in this article and many that appear on GON covers.

Along the forest edge, a whitetail buck hesitates beneath the overhanging branches of a pine tree. Then with ease, the buck stretches his head and neck upward toward a particular limb and begins to rub his mouth and forehead upon the limb. Closing its eyelids, he resumes this behavior with the area surrounding this sense organ, as well. Suddenly, he slams his hardened antlers into the battered pine limb—vigorously twisting it rack back and forth as though engaging a duel with another white-tailed buck—simulating an antler fight during the rut.

The fury of action comes to an abrupt halt. Standing motionless, the whitetail momentarily gazes off into a distant field, and then slowly lowers its head and upper body while extending its left foreleg and front hoof outward. With a steady motion, he paws the ground just beneath the pine overhang, and then repeats this natural function with his right foreleg and hoof.

Back to a dominant stance, the stag brings its hind legs together. Slowly, he rubs the tarsal glands together while simultaneously urinating upon these secretory organs. The buck’s scent is now deposited into the pawed area—directly under the overhanging pine limb. Wearied, yet instinctively persistent, the buck resumes its quest to procreate—displaying the unique array of behaviors known as scraping.

Once the days begin to shorten and whitetail bucks increase their levels of testosterone along with the shedding of dried velvet from their antlers, the process of pre-rut behaviors kicks in. One of the most executed behaviors of scent communication is the scrape. This is a form of deer correspondence used predominantly by male deer to pronounce hierarchy/dominance to other bucks in the vicinity that are competing for estrous does, and the scrapes serve the purpose of attracting females for breeding.

The Licking Branch 

The actual scrape site is an oblong/egged shape area where bucks have pawed leaves and debris away—exposing the topsoil dirt. Yet just before pawing the ground, rutting bucks, though not always, will usually initiate scrape behavior by vigorously rubbing their head and antlers on an overhanging tree limb close to the ground. Bucks aggressively target maples, pines, hemlocks, hollies, buckeyes, oaks and the like during the pre-rut days. It is believed that this brushing of the head and antlers helps to deposit the buck’s scent from the forehead glands.

Salivating from the mouth is also performed on the overhang tree limb—commonly known as the licking branch. Bucks will also bite the limb, breaking it to the point of exposing the interior wooden limb. Deer biologists and seasoned hunters have discovered that when a buck snaps and twists the overhang tree limb or clusters of limbs the broken tips absorb the animal’s scent. This works to establish communication amongst whitetails.

If the overhang is higher than 6 feet or so from the ground, certain bucks will stand upright—balancing themselves on their rear legs while simultaneously using their mouth and antlers to pull the overhanging branch downward. When this acrobatic feat is accomplished, the ground below is usually pungent with scent—freshly marked by other bucks and does in the vicinity.

The debate among wildlife biologists is still ongoing about which glands and to what degree each serve in scent marking overhanging branches. A buck’s forehead gland produces a somewhat oily substance when the antlers are thrashed and rubbed into the overhanging limb. As to whether the preorbital gland located in the front eye pit actually contributes to scent marking is still a subject of debate among some experts—despite that bucks have been observed countless times rubbing this gland upon overhangs. It appears to be more of a tear duct than a gland releasing pheromones. All these chemically released substances attract and instigate responses from other deer.

Recent studies by biologists have discovered that the nasal glands do produce pheromones and serve a large role in scent-marking behaviors upon overhang branches and limbs. Again, combined with other physical acts such as rubbing, biting and salivating, hence the term “licking branch” is usually the first whitetail action in scraping behavior.

The Ground Scrape 

Once the white-tailed buck has completed his ritualized act of scent marking an overhanging limb, he then attacks the ground just below the branch—aggressively using his sharp front hooves to paw away leaves, grass and decaying debris; thereby exposing the rich topsoil. As the buck removes the earth’s first layer with a steady sweeping motion from his left and right forelegs, scent is deposited in the fresh dirt from the interdigital glands located in between a buck’s hooves.

Ground scrapes with the overhanging licking branch are commonly created along woodland “edges” where low-hanging tree limbs grow over fields and food plots. Yet these sites can also be marked anywhere where there is a reachable tree limb along travel routes and corridors—often in the midst of woodlots and forested areas.

On the other hand, there may not be a typical pattern to scrapes. As bucks roam the land in search of females, they may just ground scrape in the vicinity of females. For example, when deer move through vegetation such as old-growth fields, or woodland vegetative under-story, scent can be deposited from a female’s tarsal glands, inter-digital glands and genitals on the foliage. Once bucks pick up on female scent, it can trigger them to unexpectedly and aggressively ground scrape.

Ground scrapes can be at random without an overhanging tree limb; and are typically associated with a female scent trail. Ground scrapes in fields and plot areas tend to be smaller due to the grass being harder to kick up. Pressured bucks are also more cautious in open areas. In turn, they do not focus much on the scrape itself—leaving very little evidence of their activity.

Rutting bucks can also ground scrape at the base of a tree that has been previously rubbed by antlers. Not only is there a visual sign from the tree rub; but scent can be aromatically released from the tree rub, as well. Here, bucks can be instigated to tear up the ground at or near the rubbed tree base.

Ground scrapes done in this fashion are most likely associated with reinforcing scent in conjunction with the rubbed tree. Of course, the particular buck ground scraping may have also been the buck that rubbed the tree. If not, and the tree was rubbed by a rival buck, then the buck is stimulated to pronounce his presence and indirectly challenge the buck that marked the tree.

Ground scrapes explode when rival bucks sight one another. Just the sight of another buck can send dirt flying. Not only is scent communication taking place; but the ground scraping also serves as a visual show of dominance amongst rutting bucks, especially if younger bucks are on the scene.

Rub Urination 

Now that the frenzied stag has completed his fury of raking the ground apart, he instinctively displays his calling card by performing “rub-urination” upon the tarsal glands—located on the inside of the hind legs. The tarsals are believed to be the primary glands that identify and distinguish individual whitetails. The scent from the tarsals is a major form of communication from whitetails to instinctively recognize one another by smell.

Without humanizing (anthropomorphism) deer, it is similar to how we humans identify each other through distinct physical features in our facial features, as well as by name. The scent from the tarsal glands and the rub urination behavior undoubtedly helps to reinforce communication between both males and females.

Complex Scent Communication 

Scrapes serve as a visual and olfactory signpost; and function similar to antler rubs on trees—helping establish scent communications between deer. In addition, although these animals are driven by inherent habits, there is a host of variations and individual behaviors when it comes to scrapes, creating complex and sometimes unpredictable behaviors.

Numerous studies have discovered that there is not a definite pattern for scraping behavior, and hunting over or near freshly scraped areas “may” not be the best sites for bagging a buck. Research also found evidence that dominant bucks did not hinder younger bucks and yearlings from working scrapes; and bucks of all ages can visit and work the same scrape.

At times, certain rutting bucks will just scent mark an overhanging tree limb and not continue with the classical ground pawing and rub-urination. Bucks may also just perform pawing behavior and rub-urination underneath an old overhang without licking it, or they may rub their antlers into a tree, followed by licking the rub and then pawing the ground at the base of the tree. Here, scent was worked through antler tree rubbing and ground pawing without the performance of a licking branch or rub-urination upon the tarsal glands. This host of unpredictable behaviors likely signifies not just a broken pattern of scent communication, but pre-rut aggression as bucks become more and more agitated with each another. Simply, and in theory, some bucks are already in overdrive to the point that scent communication does not follow the normal routine.

Whitetails have been observed performing a licking branch, yet when interrupted by the presence of a rival buck, dominant bucks quickly and vigorously pawed the ground. Stopping all scrape behaviors, these particular bucks aggressively moved toward the intruder. Bucks may also just unexpectedly bed in the scrape after working it. This bizarre act is most likely due to physical exhaustion but could also signify some type of dominant hierarchy behavior.

Females perform scent communication and do investigate scrapes, but not to the extent of males. They urinate on their tarsal glands and in some cases on or near visible ground scrapes. They will also work a licking branch, particularly if mature bucks are trimming the trees. As for pawing ground scrapes with their front hooves, I myself have never witnessed it; yet there are a few handful accounts of hunters seeing females rake the ground.

There is no set pattern of what to expect when a whitetail buck goes to tearing up the woodlands. Most of these scrape behavior variations remain speculative. Yet despite the complexity of scrapes, consistent scrapes usually indicate that bucks are usually moving in circular routes, revisiting the same scrape within a day to three-day period. However, as testosterone increases and bucks become more belligerent, scrapes are generally targeted less often as dominant bucks shove out the competition as the pre-rut transitions into the rut.

Deciphering scrapes and the degree of deer activity without the benefits of trail cameras can be challenging at times. Yet even with modern technology in play, deer behaviors at one scrape site will vary from another. Even so, when you are scouting your property or hunting lease, consistent, fresh scrape activity clearly shows that bucks are staying within the vicinity—adding to the excitement of harvesting a whitetail!

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