To understand the importance of all aspects of a rub made by a buck it is important to first take an in-depth look about why and what a rub represents to deer. Clearly, finding a rub certainly alerts one to the fact that a buck or bucks are present in the area they are hunting. A more useful aspect of a rub can help a hunter in determining the exact travel routes a buck is taking to and from bedding and feeding areas.
For example, let’s say you have placed your treestand or ground blind in a place where there are some rubs. You quickly deduce that the bedding area is located behind or in front of your stand. You also know in what direction the feeding sources are (corn or soybean fields, apple orchards, acorn, or crops fields). Find a few rubs that are made in a line. As if you were a deer, bend down and face one of the rubs, looking ahead. You should see a few more rubs that would have been made by the deer as it was heading toward either a feeding area or a bedding area. Let’s say you determine that this line of rubs is heading toward a feeding area. If you look 30-40 yards to the left or right of your original line of rubs, you should find another line of rubs on the opposite side of the trees. This line of rubs is probably made as the buck is on his way back to his bedding area. Now you know when the rubs have been made and the approximate time of day when the buck has been traveling in this area.
Anytime you’re scouting or stalking through the woods or walking to your stand and you spot a rub that is facing you. Walk above the rub about 25 yards or so and turn around and face down the ridge or back in the direction you just came from and carefully look around either side of the rub you first discovered. You will notice other rubs made on the opposite side of trees that are facing you. What you have just established are a buck’s preferred morning and evening travel routes as he moves to and from his bedding and feeding areas. This may seem insignificant – but the sign can help a hunter conclude where to set up a stand based on the time of day of evening that the buck is actually using one trail or the other, thereby maximizing their time afield instead of hunting a spot that a buck may not be using. Of course, this tactic works best during archery season. As the rut begins in earnest all bets are off on where and when a buck will show up with any consistency.
One of the most prevalent misnomers about rubs is they are made to remove the velvet. Frankly, rubs are not primarily made to remove the velvet. There has always been a long-held belief that a buck rubs off his velvet because it is “itchy.” Over my 45 years of videotaping, observing, and hunting whitetails I have discovered what most seasoned hunting veterans and biologists know, and that is, most velvet falls off a buck’s antlers by itself. What rubbing does occur happens because some of the velvet hangs off the antlers before falling off and it is annoying or disturbs a buck’s view and so they rub it off as quickly as possible on any available shrub, tree etc.
But those are minor points when it comes to understanding the importance of rubs and what the represent to deer and more critically to you – the hunter. Being as well-versed as you can about all aspects of rubs and what they really mean and signify to deer will not only make you a better deer hunter, it will improve your hunting success ten-fold. In a deer’s world a rub is an important social signpost to both the local herd of bucks and, equally important, to transient bucks who enter areas outside of their home turf. Rubs of the season are used by ALL bucks that encounter them to express their individuality, social status (where they rate on the pecking order ladder), age class, current rutting condition and much more. This is true of both bucks and does. Female deer will often visit rubs to leave their calling cards as well. I will discuss more about this later.
An individual buck uses a wide variety of visual, aural and pheromone odors at a rub to express himself to other deer. The pheromones he deposits on a rub come from a wide variety of glands and organs and include scent from his saliva, urine, feces, an organ in the roof of his mouth, his penal sheath, preorbital gland and more. Each gland or organ releases specific pheromone odors that “say” to other bucks and does – hey it’s me Joe! Other deer smelling the rub (or scrape) will detect (by the odors left on the rub by a buck) all they need to know about him and especially where he ranks in the male pecking order.
Between the time the velvet is removed until the onset of the rut, a buck does little rubbing. Once a buck’s adrenalin begins to kick in, however, and the rut isn’t far off, he begins to rub his antlers in earnest – not to primarily strengthen this neck muscles, but rather to leave a visual and olfactory sign post to all other deer instead.
Over the dozen years or so biologists and researchers know more about rubs than they ever did before. While it was once believed that rubs are made by all age classes of bucks – it is now known that most rubs seen in the woods are made by bucks 2.5 years old and older. As I just mentioned, the old ideas that a buck rubs trees mostly not to remove velvet or strengthen his neck muscles to prepare him for the rut and is simply out-of-date. While this adage is true to a degree, it isn’t totally accurate. A buck makes a rub for more important reasons.
But be aware that nothing about behavior in the world of whitetails is written in stone. That means not every rub you find was made by a 2.5-year-old buck or by a more mature buck, but the odds are good that most rubs are made by bucks 2.5 years old or older.
The most crucial aspect of a rub is as I mentioned above that it serves as both a visual and olfactory signpost between bucks of all age classes. A buck spotting a newly made rub is naturally drawn to it to discover who made it and to leave his pheromone scents on the rub as well. It is instinctive behavioral trait.
When a buck makes a rub, he does so with purposefully acting out several behavioral mannerisms. First, he approaches the intended tree and stops short of it by several yards and pauses to urinate. As he does so his urine flows over his tarsal glands and mixes with the odor emitting from them as it falls to the ground. When he finishes urinating, the buck squats slightly and squeezes his rump muscles causing pressure on his pre-pucial gland (which is an exocrine gland that is located within the penal sheath) which then emits a fluid unique to the buck that falls to the ground.
Next, he approaches the tree and before doing any rubbing at all – he sniffs the tree several times and then licks the area repeatedly. By doing so he deposits scent from his Salivary Glands located inside the mouth. These glands contain enzymes to help in digestion. The enzymes in the saliva also contribute to the scent left on the tree the buck is about to rub. They use the same glands when making scrapes and depositing salivary gland scent on overhanging branches and licking sticks.
By licking the tree, the buck is not only depositing scent from his saliva glands but also from a diamond shaped organ located on the roof of his mouth called the Vomeronasal Organ. This organ serves some of the same purposes as the nose. It is used primarily to take in estrus odors and precisely evaluate the status of a doe via her urine. The buck does this by making a lip curl, or Flehmen gesture. The buck will curl its upper lip and suck air into its mouth so that what ever odor it is sniffing makes contact with the vomeronasal organ. Analysis of urine through the vomeronasal organ may help to synchronize the breeding readiness between bucks and does and ensure that both sexes are in peak breeding condition at the same time.
After licking the tree, the buck will sniff it several times. It is not known exactly why the buck sniffs his lickings, but I suspect he sniffs it until he is satisfied that he has deposited enough scent from his Salivary Glands and Vomeronasal Organ.
Then he rubs his forehead skin hard against the tree several times. Again, he does this to deposit scent from his forehead glands which are in front and behind the antlers. These glands get considerably larger and emit more secretions during the rut. The more mature a buck is and the higher he ranks within the social status the more glandular secretions he will produce.
There has been a lot of documentation regarding the forehead gland and its use for communication purposes. The forehead glands secrete an oily substance which darkens the area on the frontal lobe portion between the antlers which is darker and more noticeable on mature bucks. This purpose of the forehead gland is two-fold. Some biologists feel it is mostly used for marking purposes when making rubs on trees. The oily secretion from the forehead glands contain a particular olfactory genetic calling card that indicates social status and hierarchy amongst the other bucks and does. Typically, a buck higher in the pecking order will make rubs with more frequency to announce his presence and stature. It has been said that the pheromones contained within the forehead gland are used to “kick start” or “announce” the coming of the rut. The forehead gland is just another gland a buck uses to leave his individual scent on a rub or overhanging branch at a scrape. Interestingly, over the years, I have witnessed does investigating and licking the area of a rub that a buck has worked over with his forehead glands as well.
As you can see by now, a rub is “alive” with a variety of pheromone odors left by each gland. But a buck is not finished leaving glandular pheromone scent markings on a rub – not yet. Finally, he will actively rub with his preorbital, or lachrymal, glands that are tear ducts located in the front of the deer’s eyes. There are sebaceous and sudoriferous glands located at the rim of the preorbital. The sebaceous glands produce a fatty substance called sebum that lubricate the area and keeps it from drying out. The sudoriferous glands produce scent or pheromone.
I have seen countless bucks rub trees, brush, branches, and other vegetation while angling their heads to make sure their preorbital gland made contact with what they were rubbing. I can only assume that they did this with purpose to leave a pheromone at the spot they rubbed with their preorbital gland. I have noticed this on numerous occasions when seeing a buck make a rub. I have also seen it when a buck makes a scrape and then carefully rubs, licks, chews, and passes his preorbital glands on an overhanging branch.
So, there you have it – the real facts about what a rub represents in the world of the whitetail. It is most definitely a visual and scent laden signpost to communicate a variety of messages to other bucks and does by the deer making the rub and those who refresh it.
It should be noted here that the long-held belief that a buck makes a rub and he is the only one to check it or refresh it with scent. All rubs and scrapes are checked and sometimes refreshed by both other bucks and does. They do so to leave their personal pheromone messages as well.