In January 2007 Dick Vance was driving through the Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee when he spotted a nice buck in a field. A little ways farther down the road he saw another buck that was tending to a doe. In a flash, the first buck cut across the road and squared off against the stud with does. An epic battle that lasted about 50 minutes ensued and Vance caught the whole thing on camera. To provide some background to this photo series, we interviewed renowned whitetail biologist Grant Woods who explains the intricacies of why bucks fight and how deer establish dominance. Woods has gathered his data through years of following radio collared deer, GPS tracking deer and observing deer behavior in pens. All photos by Dick Vance
According to Woods, it’s a myth that whitetails fight over territory. Unlike predators such as wolves or lions, deer don’t stake out territory and defend it. However, bucks will fight over receptive does.
But even in the heat of the rut, not all deer are fighters. “Deer are like humans,” Woods says. “Some are bullies … some avoid fights.” Bucks are most likely to fight at age three, just before they reach full maturity and have the run of the herd. However, this depends on age structure in the area. In some places, usually areas with extra high hunting pressure, three-year-olds are the oldest bucks in the woods, making them the dominat deer. In this case, the two-year-old bucks would be more likely to engage in a fight, trying to win their spot at the top.
Three-year-old bucks are close to becoming the dominant buck but they’re probably not there yet. “These bucks want to be on the top of the ladder,” Woods says. “They’ve been getting pushed around for the last three and a half years.”
Generally, bucks fight when they are similarly matched in body size, and the bigger bodied buck almost always wins. Antler size is not nearly as important in a fight between to bucks, which is essentially a shoving match, Woods says.
“All animals, even butterflies, establish dominance in some way,” Woods says. The most extreme way to establish dominance is by fighting. Most buck “fights” that people witness are really just sparring matches, Woods says. The deer are just feeling each other out without getting into an all-out brawl. However the two deer pictured here are in real knock-down-drag-out fight.
When deer do decide to fight, it can get ugly. A 200-pound animal that’s amped up on testosterone and armed with a heavy, pointed rack can do a lot of damage.
Despite how remarkably violent a fight between two bucks can get, fatalities are fairly uncommon, Woods says. When deer do die from a fight, they usually die well after, not during the heat of battle. When they gouge each other in the face or neck with dirt-covered antlers, it can result in infection and sometimes death. Even if a buck wins a fight, he can die from his wounds later on.
Woods says there isn’t solid data on the average length of a whitetail fight. Some last just a few seconds and others, like this one, can drag on for almost an hour. Woods says that there just haven’t been enough fights witnessed to come up with a reliable average.
An interesting fact about whitetail dominance is how cutthroat it can get. Woods says when he tranquilizes a dominant buck in a pen the subordinate bucks will immediately try to kill it. This is also true if the dominant buck gets injured or sick. Once the lesser bucks notice the top buck’s ailment, they will try to kill him on the spot.
And the instinct to kill the dominant buck is only amplified in wild free-ranging. “There’s no Mr. Nice Guy rules out there,” Woods says.
But there’s still a lot to be learned about whitetail behavior and how bucks establish dominance, Woods says. New technology is finally sophisticated enough to accurately record the kind of data biologists like Woods need. “We’re finally starting to prove and disprove some of these [theories about deer behavior],” Woods says.
According to Vance, these two bucks went at it for about 50 minutes until the challenger finally won and ran the other buck off. Click through the following photos to see how the fight ends.
Finally the challenger turns his adversary and runs him off.
Even though this buck is bloody and exhausted, he won the fight and stole his rival’s does. More Deer Fighting Galleries
Houston We Have a Problem
Fight to the Death
Check out this amazing photo series of two whitetail bucks battling for more than 50 minutes.