This is the first fall for full growth of native prairie on the home forty. For years we have restored or rehabilitated a few acres of native grasses and forbs each spring and summer, but the zone surrounding our house had remained primarily domesticated—bluegrass, brome and other non-native species. This summer we set our sights on bringing native culture closer to home. Now within a stone’s throw of the house on every side, six-foot native grasses grow. That, of course, has brought wildlife closer to our doors.
Over our 27 years on the bluff, the populations of many wild creatures, from possums and raccoons to squirrels and whitetail deer have expanded. Gradually our fellow inhabitants’ fear of humans has been replaced by curiosity, and we have become close neighbors. Deer, for example, have long lurked by the garden gate and peered inside at forbidden fruits. They have frequented the salt block under the mulberry tree, and on frigid days when I toss a can of corn on the snow, they miraculously materialize to dine. But in recent years, a small herd lives within a couple hundred yards of the house fulltime. Here they find cover and safety, water in the pond and spring, and plenty of their favorite foods—not just corn, but fruits, grasses and brush to browse.
So we know when rutting season comes. Among the telltale signs is bark freshly scuffed from young pine or ash trees, which tells us that testosterone is flowing and young bucks are testing their antlers. One finds their jousting grounds in the woods, a pair of meter-wide spots a dozen feet apart, pawed bare of grass. When a doe or a herd of does streaks across the valley before hunting season, we can expect a buck close behind. But second only to actual mating, the most dramatic manifestation of rutting season is the meeting of bucks, the locking of horns.
On a crisp sunrise last week, I had just settled into my recliner with coffee when a young buck strolled from behind a cedar tree. At this time of year they seem to fairly strut, heads and antlers held high, nostrils flared. As I watched, a second buck appeared, older and larger, and before long the two faced off. As if to complete the cast of the unfolding melodrama, three does arose from their beds in Indiangrass, a mother and last spring’s fawns.
The presence of females brought the bucks to action. The older and larger, a 10-pointer with an off-balance rack, moved in on the younger foe, a fellow with a mere eight points to his credit. The pair angled for position, pawed the earth a time or two and locked antlers. The younger fellow was more aggression than thrust, the equivalent perhaps of a human teen with raging hormones. For the veteran, it seemed more ritual than reality. Likely the two had met before, and the young buck was merely keeping up appearances—and announcing his candidacy for a future year.
Meanwhile, the doe and her teenaged daughters strolled demurely to the salt block and began to lick, apparently ignoring the valiant battle waged on their behalf.
To read Jerry’s memoir of the last 25 years or so, check out Waiting for Coyote’s Call: An Eco-memoir from the Missouri River Bluff.