Deadly Duel

Sudden movement in the tall grass rivets my attention, and for a moment I hardly believe what I am seeing. Two whitetail deer have their antlers locked together in a deadly struggle. One appears limp, while the other frantically slings the lifeless body like a rag doll attempting to break free.

Juan Hernandez, foreman on the Yturria ranch north of Raymondville discovered the bucks and summoned me to the scene. Earlier, we rendezvoused at a crossroads and returned to the area where he had seen them. At first we were unable to locate the deer, but a conspicuous drag mark in the sand led us to the grim struggle in the grass.

It is apparent no amount of effort will separate the entangled deer, but the buck desperately tries. After a flurry of futile tossing and turning, the bucks topple to the ground with the live one resting his muzzle on the head of his dead rival.

Only the telltale rise and fall of his chest, an occasional eye movement, and a slowly twitching ear reveal the buck is alive. Exhausted, dehydrated and starving, it is a miracle coyotes have not arrived to finish him off. It is impossible to know how long they have been battling, but probably close to a day.

These are not exceptionally antlered deer, as one is a normal 10 point and the other a nine. However, despite their lack of mass and tine length they have become inextricably intertwined.

During the winter rut, bucks will clash antlers as they fight for does and dominance. Normally, the bouts last mere seconds before one is routed. However, some fights go on for several minutes, and in rare cases the combatant's antlers become interlocked.

I have only observed this phenomenon on two other occasions and in both instances the bucks were dead. Once, a decade ago quail hunting on the Norias division of the King Ranch, we noticed what appeared to be antlers protruding from a remote pond.

Closer inspection revealed there were two bucks locked in a deadly twining of antlers. Hooking a winch to the duo we pulled them out, surmising that one might have dragged the other into the water to escape coyotes.

Two years ago Juan discovered another pair of bucks perished in combat on the Yturria. They had not been dead long, and one must have succumbed first as coyotes had already gnawed the hindquarters. It seemed likely that while one clung to life his antler attached rival had been selected for consumption by the wild dogs of the chaparral.

Hoping to subdue the buck and separate him from his lifeless challenger, we approach the resting deer. Suddenly, he rises with a burst of renewed strength. Twisting and turning thru the dry weeds the desperate deer drags the body of his former combatant.

He executes frantic 360 degree turns as he vainly attempts to rid himself of the attached corpse. It is heart breaking to witness the ghastly drama, and we back off so as not to stress him any further.

When the animal finally collapses, Juan approaches deftly lassoing the buck's hind legs. This deer still has plenty of life and could do damage kicking with sharp hooves.

While Juan holds the exhausted buck on the ground his companion Eleazar Gonzalez begins trying to pry the antlers apart. Despite tugging and twisting they do not separate. Sawing them would work, but the implement is miles away at ranch headquarters.

Finally, Juan arranges the deer in a different angle and Eleazar bends to the task. With an audible crack, the antlers are freed, and Eleazar looks up with a proud grin.

Laying on his side panting in exhaustion, the buck rests for several minutes. Next, he rises to a kneeling position and finally trots off. Juan watches him go, then turns and with a smile says in Spanish, "He has a little headache, but he will be alright."

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore