What’s Wrong With That Buck?

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From gouged eyes to mystery tumors, these 13 images give a glimpse into the tough lives of whitetails

Sorehead

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1 | Sorehead

Hardened antlers are dense, calcium-rich bone – battle gear designed to withstand the rubbing, thrashing and fighting that takes place during the fall rut. Tines and main beams can break when rut-crazed bucks crash head-on and lock racks in deadly combat for breeding rights.

Young bucks with small racks such as the one pictured don’t typically suffer serious antler breaks below the pedicle. This could have been caused by a collision or accidental antler entrapment. Nevertheless, there was enough force involved that the skull around the pedicle fractured. This type of antler injury can be deadly if a brain abscess sets in.

Photo credit: Tes Randle Jolly

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Little Buddy

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2 | Little Buddy

My friend Sheila Lyons Trock first photographed this deer as a yearling buck in April 2013. His left front leg sustained a serious injury and severe swelling. She surmised it may have been caused by constriction, perhaps by wire.

The following year, Trock was happily surprised to see the youngster had survived. Other than the leg injury, the buck appeared healthy and thriving. Nicknamed Little Buddy, the handicapped deer developed a signature limping gait.

Photo credit: Tes Randle Jolly

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The Survivor

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3 | The Survivor

Note the lengthy, thick bone calcification on Little Buddy’s injured leg. I’ve photographed him each rut since 2015, and have always marveled at his agility. Even with the injury, he can clear a fence and kick into high gear when chasing a doe. Chasing through thickets tears the skin around the exposed bone, but it always heals eventually. Neither Trock nor I have witnessed Little Buddy breeding a doe, but he’s an active participant each rut period, bum leg and all.

Photo credit: Tes Randle Jolly

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Beating the Odds

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4 | Beating the Odds

In 2018, at 6.5 years old, Little Buddy was still hot on a doe’s trail during the December rut. His rack had declined from the previous year, but he appeared in good physical condition, crossing rocky creeks and jumping fences. An injury that affects a deer’s ability to outrun danger can be a death sentence, and he was fortunate. There’s no doubt that Little Buddy has faced challenges through the years living in country that’s full of coyotes and bears.

Photo credit: Tes Randle Jolly

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Blind-Sided

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5 | Blind-Sided

Fights between testosterone-fueled bucks can cause devastating injuries. The eyes are especially vulnerable to dagger-like tines as one buck shoves his rack, with all his weight behind it, into his opponent’s face.

This fighting is necessary to establish rank and territory, and to defend breeding rights, but it’s not always pretty. Dominant bucks typically exhibit battle scars, and the mature buck pictured here will likely suffer permanent blindness in his right eye. Deep punctures to the eye cavity can ultimately lead to brain abscess and death, but sometimes severe injuries such as this one don’t slow rutting bucks down. The urge to breed trumps pain.

Photo credit: Tes Randle Jolly

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Toothy

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6 | Toothy

This young buck, aptly named Toothy, provides a perfect example of an undershot lower jaw. Bad tooth alignment is a physical abnormality that won’t necessarily doom a deer, but it can hinder normal feeding behavior.

The lower teeth clip vegetation once it’s clamped against the upper gums. In this buck’s case, the severely undershot jaw positions the teeth outside the mouth, forcing them to miss the normal bite position. Toothy tended to grasp greens to one side of the mouth before giving a good tug. This often yanked plants right out of the ground, catching the roots between his teeth, and leaving him in need of dental floss.

Photo credit: Tes Randle Jolly

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Ancestral Leftover

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7 | Ancestral Leftover

This weird-looking warrior has three unique characteristics. First, the buck’s profile shows a humped muzzle line between his forehead and nose. This could be congenital or the result of an injury. The second oddity is his drooped ear, which is likely the result of another injury or infection.

But the third feature that makes this buck truly unique is the prominent mane around his neck. Manes are rare in whitetails. Researchers and biologists have studied examples for years, and theorize that such manes are ancestral leftovers, hidden away in whitetail DNA as recessive genes. Such manes only appear when that same recessive gene is paired with a similar gene from another deer.

Photo credit: Tes Randle Jolly

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Droopy

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8 | Droopy

Dropped or drooping ears occur for several reasons. The ear tip or even the entire ear may droop because of a congenital defect, or because the cartilage has been damaged from a blow. Often such injuries correct themselves over time. Damage was likely the case with this doe, though infection in the outer ear or ear canal can also cause drooping. This is generally temporary, unless the cartilage sustains severe damage.

Deer hunters should be aware that drooping ears can be one of many indicator signs for both Chronic Wasting Disease and Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease. Not all drooping ears indicate these devastating diseases, but if you see a deer with ears like this, pay close attention to its overall health and appearance. Note any abnormal behavior or physical signs, and report all suspicious deer to your state game agency.

Photo credit: Tes Randle Jolly

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Lumpy

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9 | Lumpy

When this buck first appeared, I initially wondered if he could have sustained a snake bite. It was mid-January in Alabama, and venomous snake sightings aren’t unheard of during warm winters. But the large, fluid-filled pocket hanging from the buck’s brisket showed no sign of broken skin or obvious discoloration.

Over the next week, the swelling increased. The buck moved slowly while feeding. Other deer nearby seemed to sense his weakness, and some tried to drive him away. On the ninth day, the pocket had ruptured and drained. I never saw the buck after that, and his fate remains a mystery.

Photo credit: Tes Randle Jolly

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The Warrior

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10 | The Warrior

Boxers learn to fight through pain, and so do bucks. Testosterone directs a buck’s instinct to dominate and breed at all costs, and the non-typical pictured here is no exception. He has scars old and fresh to prove it. When I took this photo, he was tending a doe after successfully facing down a challenger.

He has plenty of facial scars and an old eye injury, likely from rut battles, that caused blindness in his right eye. The more recent abscessed injury in his right shoulder was probably inflicted by another buck’s antlers. Hair loss is caused by many things, including pelage replacement (molting), mange or dermatitis. Trauma can also cause hair loss, and may be a factor in this buck’s condition.

Photo credit: Tes Randle Jolly

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Lops

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11 | Lops

Trail cameras have changed the way we scout, manage and hunt. They also give glimpses into the struggles a whitetail encounters in life. One year in February, a buck we nicknamed Lops (for his lopsided rack) appeared in a trail camera photo. Another buck’s entire left antler had broken from its skull and was firmly wedged upside down in Lops’ right beam. Imagine the torque required to break a skull that way. Lops appeared unfazed and healthy, but there was a chance that his right eye was punctured, which could have led to a possible brain abscess.

A trail camera caught Lops at a different location two days later with the antler still lodged in the same place. The rut was in full swing, so antler shedding – which would relieve Lops’ predicament – wouldn’t happen for another month.

Photo credit: Tes Randle Jolly

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Free at Last

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12 | Free at Last

Later that month, a doe dashed into a food plot and stopped within yards of my photo blind, gazing back at the timber behind her. All his caution smothered by hot doe scent, a swollen and bloody-faced buck stood on the field edge, laser-focused on the doe.

The buck was Lops. The wedged antler was gone. There was, however, substantial damage to his face and eye. His eyeball was clouded, and his upper left hindquarter had a long gash. It was clear that his breeding rights had been earned with hard-fought victories. I wondered how his opponent was faring with a hole in his head? And how did the antler dislodge from Lops’ rack? It was possible Lops dislodged it or perhaps he fought another buck and it was freed during the fight. I saw Lops again two days later, tending a doe.

Photo credit: Tes Randle Jolly

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Lucky Lops

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13 | Lucky Lops

Late that summer, Lops appeared again in trail camera photos. He was healed, fat and growing his familiar lop-sided rack. There was no camera flash glow in his blinded right eye. The buck had beaten the odds and recovered from a serious facial and eye injury. He met our QDM mature buck criteria, and we put him on our target list for the fall season.

My husband, Ron, tagged Lucky Lops in December as he pursued a doe. The jawbone was aged at 5.5 years old. Whitetails are incredibly tough. Injured tissue around his eye had healed completely (note how the hair beneath the eye lightened from drainage). Lops’ DNA (and hopefully his resiliency) will live on in his offspring. We experienced a blend of regret that Lops was gone and pride that our QDM efforts yielded both success and a greater appreciation for the whitetail’s ability to survive.

Photo credit: Tes Randle Jolly

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Think you have it rough some days? Hit pause on the self-pity for half a second and take a look at these roughed-up whitetails. A day in the life of a wild deer is never easy, but bucks — especially during the rut — routinely push through incredible injuries. Here’s the proof.