Woodland Social Media

Every act of communication is a miracle of translation.

~Ken Liu

I recognize a buck scrape in our woods when I see one. It is a bare patch of earth with lots of hoof scrapes and deer tracks under an overhanging low limb (usually an evergreen). One or more twigs are often broken from the buck thrashing about. This behavior and the commonly seen bark rubs on tree saplings are two important ways that bucks communicate with one another. It is like a bulletin board in a storefront, one loaded with local business cards. The bucks leave their calling card through various glands on the head and through marking and urinating on the now bare ground beneath the overhanging branch. While any deer passing the area may stop to check it out, most buck scrapes appear to be created and used primarily by male deer, and mainly in the time leading up to and during the rut.

– Bare ground under a low overhanging American Holly branch is a sure sign of a buck scrape (click photos to enlarge)

– The only scrape on our property not under a holly branch. This large patch of bare ground is under an American Beech branch and comes with a bark rub on a nearby sapling.

But now I have found something that may qualify as a so-called community scrape. This is a location that has significance to all the deer in an area and is a major communication sign post – a social media bulletin board for the deer. My first connection with this site was last year when I placed a trail camera on it. It is a part of our creek that is just upstream of a huge log jam created when a large hickory fell and took a few other trees with it. I recorded what I thought was an odd phenomenon of a doe pulling on holly leaves on a low branch. During the couple of weeks the camera was there it caught a few deer doing this same thing. I was puzzled because I didn’t think anything would eat those spiny leaves.

Last month, I put another camera in that same location and started seeing both bucks and does stopping and interacting with the same holly branch. But this time, I could tell they were mainly just rubbing their heads and faces on the branch, not trying to eat the leaves. Below are a few of the videos.

A large buck rubs his scent on the overhanging holly branch

— Another buck checking in on holly media

It is hard to tell in these videos, but a behavior that is described in research is deer using the “licking branch”. They chew or lick a particular branch as part of the ritual. I certainly have seen a broken twig or two at these various scrapes and have seen photos of bucks using their tongue to touch branches at a scrape, but I can’t tell for sure if there is any of that going on here.

— Two bucks interact with the holly

— More checking in at the holly station

There were a couple of times that deer interacted with one another at the holly station. Here’s a quick clip of one.

— This is what happens when you send a mean tweet on deer social media

You may remember the crazy deer from an earlier post that ran around, jumping, twisting, and pawing in the creek. I think this last clip is that same deer. One reason I didn’t notice the significance of this holly branch is that it is over the creek, so there is not the usual sign of bare ground underneath (when the creek dries up it is just the dry ground line anywhere else along that stretch of stream bed). Here is that deer interacting with the holly several times and acting a bit goofy again. I wonder if part of the reason for its antics is the chemical messages at this site?

— Our exuberant deer spends a lot of time on social media. The camera has recorded other individuals standing up at the holly branch (perhaps to to get better reception?)

I stuck my nose into this branch to see if I can detect any odors, but it seems that I just don’t have the right receptors. It stands to reason that if I don’t understand some of my species’ social media messages, I wouldn’t understand those of our neighborhood deer. But I’ll keep watching and trying to figure out what they are saying.

18 thoughts on “Woodland Social Media

  1. Watching the deer leave their messages/scent, reminds me of watching dogs walking down my street. I always have a pile of sticks ready for pick-up and that is a favorite spot for dogs to check for messages. They smell and then they add their message by pissing on the pile of sticks. They must be very stinky and full of information and insights.

      • Mike, I always enjoy reading your blog and then send it on to friends here, in Boston, NYC, and Snohomish. So thanks. Now that you are retired (obviously still VERY busy), it would be great fun to get together for a hike and lunch right here in Carrboro, or I could come out to your place. I have good morning availability and Monday is my best day. Five days a week (partial days) I have my grandkids, and I am very politically active through my church, UU Community Church of CH, on Medicaid Expansion and Reproductive Justice. I’m also very active on issues to do with Bolin Creek and Forrest and walk there frequently and have for over 40 years.

        Let me know your availability and possible interest to get together.



      • Sounds good, Melva. My schedule is a bit crazy the next couple of weeks but would love to come over one Monday and hike Bolin Creek and learn more about that area. Get in touch via email and we’ll arrange something.

      • OK. I’ll be back in touch in late April. Let me know your best email address. I look forward to seeing you.

        I am very proud that EENC is still going strong. Thanks for being an important part of the initial leadership group. I still have many fond memories.



  2. This is so interesting! Thanks, Mike. It seems similar to how my dog finds many interesting things to sniff at, but only a few cause a prolonged interest and an action like really intense snuffling or leaving a pee mark. Language comes in many forms, and most are likely more sophisticated than we might assume.

  3. I’d stick with trying to figure out the deer’s social media versus our own. Using your olfactory sense was a good approach, however, you might want to avoid branch licking.

  4. Hi Mike,

    Neat observations. We have seen something similar and wondered why the deer was up on his hind legs. I’ll have to watch more closely next time.


  5. We’re in Fearrington with a small tree stand out back. I’m going to trek through (mind the copperheads) and see if we have what you’re describing. The does and fawns feed on our Close so maybe there’s some buck activity.

    • I need to put a camera on the other three scrapes on our property to see how active they are. Most buck scrapes are supposedly used primarily during the Fall rut, but community scrapes are year round I have read. Good luck.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s