Posted on March 13, 2012


“Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.”

–                                                                                  Winston Churchill

The huge buck I was photographing suddenly came to full alert. His posture tensed as he began to intently stare in the direction from which he’d originally come. I took curious pause from behind the camera to see what had this buck’s attention. I could see nothing and even after several minutes of alternately switching my focus from the statuesque buck to the direction he continued to be transfixed upon brought no revelation.

But I knew something was out there on the periphery of my sightline and just out of earshot; something that this buck intuitively knew was approaching. And then, as is so often the case with whitetails, another deer materialized; and not just any deer, but another buck, which was comparatively smaller in both heft of body and antler size.

As the diminutive buck unabashedly closed the distance between himself and the bruiser that still had not moved a muscle, the hair on his back bristled and his ears lowered as he emitted a long, vocal snort-wheeze. “Wow,” I thought, “I’m going to have the opportunity to photograph a fight.” But, in sizing-up these two prospective combatants it didn’t seem possible that the smaller framed buck had a ghost of a chance.


As it turned out, I was proven wrong. Mark Twain was right when he wrote, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” The big boy finally lowered his ears in preperation for the inevitable. Stiff-legged, the two gladiators slowly circled each other. With muscles taunt and eyes intent, the synchronized posturing abruptly ended with the loud, forceful smash of antlers meeting antlers.

What was just a simple docile setting of a buck minding his own business only a few moments ago now turned into a full-fledged battle scene. The fight was intense. Forest debris being strewn in all directions, limbs busted, saplings torn and twisted as the bucks jockeyed for position. Sporadic grunts amidst the clashing antlers resonated within during this metaphorical cage match.


And then, as quickly as it had started it was over. The larger buck disengaged, turn tail and ran for his very life. The smaller buck chased him for a short distance before stopping to claim victory. As he stood panting in an attempt to regain his normal breathing pattern, I marveled at what had just transpired.

How was this possible, a smaller buck defeating a much larger specimen on his own turf? Simple, this buck clearly demonstrated attitude, which is defined, “A position of the body or manner of carrying oneself.”




It has long been believed that age, antler size, body weight and physical condition are the combined factors that determine dominance amongst bucks. And in turn the assumption is made that only those males will get to sire fawns. But what if that were not entirely true? In light of this real life drama I witnessed and a recent study conducted at Mississippi State University Deer Lab, our preconceived notions regarding dominance and breeding opportunities may well be questioned, revealing something more than what we considered obvious.

“As it turns out, what these studies show us is that the relationship between social dominance and buck breeding success may be more complex than we used to think it was. Surprisingly, dominance does not always equate to breeding success, because bucks of all ages and dominance ranks may successfully use alternative breeding tactics. And, guess what? These alternative tactics do not necessarily rely on dominance.”

So what really matters? According to Drs. Demarais, Strickland and Jones, research biologists at MSU Deer Lab, “The assumption that breeding success is reliant on physical factors like antler size and body weight isn’t completely true. Influenced by physical factors? Absolutely. Solely dependent on physical factors? Not so!”

They go on to say, “Recent studies seem to show that our association of a mature age with breeding success actually has more to do with the fact that age is quite closely tied up with physical characteristics such as body weight and antler size. Differences among deer in behavior, such as varying degrees of experience or aggression, may also influence breeding success, but we are not sure exactly how much.”


When it comes to antler size and configuration the professors contend, “Many authors have argued for various ecological or evolutionary justifications for the nutritionally expensive “bony appendages.” In nature, if an animal expends energy to grow something this significant, then there should be a darn good reason for them to be there. The most obvious justification is tied to improving breeding success. But, nevertheless, suffice it to say that the role of antlers in establishing social dominance appears to be just as hazy as other physical factors.”


The Biggest Difference

We always seem to root for the underdog, the runt of the litter, the one that seemingly has the least advantage. Come on now, you know this is true. When you watch a wildlife clip of a predator (coyote, wolf, lion, cheetah etc.) chasing a defenseless creature in order to kill and eat it, which animal are you rooting for?  Why is that?

Because we make assumptions that the one with the greatest assets will ultimately be the winner. However, when it comes to dominance amongst whitetail bucks, that has proven not to be the case. That buck may well be the best specimen and most desirable amongst hunters, but should never be implied that he is the most aggressive or at the top of the pecking order.


Noted deer behaviorist and nature photographer, Charlie Alsheimer believes, “Mature bucks are different. We tend to think of the biggest nastiest buck as the one with the largest antlers. Not so. After bucks reach 3 ½, 4 ½, or 5 ½, years of age, their ticket to being the dominant buck is more about attitude and body language than antler size. The attitude of this age class is belligerent. Most, regardless of antler size, walk around with a chip on their shoulders when they encounter other bucks. They have short fuses, vocalize often and louder, rub and scrape more often than younger bucks, cover more ground in pursuit of does, and are quick to settle disputes by engaging in knock-down, drag-out fights. Then, if a buck reaches 6, its attitude starts to mellow. Certainly a buck 6 or older can be mean and aggressive, but usually not like it was at 3, 4 or 5.”

It would then seem that indeed, “It is not enough to fight.” As General Marshall vividly points out, “It is the spirit which we bring to the fight that decides the issue.” And that is exactly what the MSU professors ultimately concluded following their detailed research. “We should no longer necessarily presume that social dominance always relies on such factors as age, body weight, or even antler size. And then, even once dominance is determined, we shouldn’t presume that dominance is stable or constant. And we should certainly not presume that dominance always equates to guaranteed or sole success in breeding. Although social dominance plays a role in increased success, dominant deer aren’t the only ones breeding, by any means. It turns out that socially subordinate deer are getting plenty of action too. In the end, what it may come down to is attitude.



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Posted in: Whitetail Deer