Communication among white-tailed deer always has intrigued hunters. North American Indians used crude calls to bring deer close, but only in the past 20 years or so has deer calling caught on among modern day hunters.
However, most forms of whitetail communication witnessed by observant hunters are silent. Learning this body language can make you both a better and more successful hunter. Here are some messages to look for your next time afield.
The best known communication display among does and bucks is what I call the frozen stare, in which a deer’s body becomes rigid, its chin held high and its gaze locked on some item of interest. It’s used when danger is suspected (such as a hidden hunter) and other deer readily pick up on it.
A deer also will stare in the direction of a perceived intruder, watching for any movement. Following a concentrated stare, the deer might appear to lose interest by dropping its head and seemingly forgetting about its subject. The deer then abruptly jerks its head upward to catch any errant motion. The game might last a few minutes and is sometimes embellished by the deer stomping the ground in an attempt to make the object of its concern reveal its identity and/or location.
The turret-like movement of a deer’s large, cupped ears is an additional form of body language. Although the ear’s main function is to amplify sounds, a rigidly held, flicking ear also alerts other deer that something’s up.
A deer’s white hind end is the transmitter for a variety of unspoken messages. The basic body language is for bucks and does to raise their tails and flare the long, white hairs as they flee danger, usually with the tail waving back and forth. Even the rump hairs might be stiffened and raised, making much of the rear end white. This familiar process is known as flagging. Conversely, a deer attempting to maintain a low profile will tuck its tail and draw in its rump hairs, hiding as much white as possible.
Does exhibit another communication, tail wagging, as they loosely flop their tails from side to side, signaling their fawns to follow. The tail’s casual movement isn’t one of alarm, but rather an easily-followed sign used to maintain contact with fawns while feeding, traveling at night or when moving through understory.
Both bucks and does flick the horizontally held tail in a side-by-side motion to communicate. It’s employed when something’s believed to be amiss but doesn’t necessarily result in a deer immediately running from danger.
When a deer shifts its tail signals from flicking to horizontal hold — usually accompanied by a hard stare — it warns others that something’s not right. But the deer might not have made a decision as to what it will do. A hunter scoping a deer should be forewarned that his target is about to bolt when the tail shifts from its normal, downward position to horizontal and then vertical. If the deer decides it’s a false alarm, the tail will drop back into its normal downward position.
By the time the fall rut rolls around, herd bucks that spent the summer in one another’s company will have established a social hierarchy based on interaction, aggressiveness and rack sizes. Small bucks might show their submission by grooming and licking dominant bucks on the head, shoulders and back. Direct eye contact by the younger buck, as usual, is a no-no.
Big bucks shielding their does from lesser bucks will render a hard gaze, laying back their ears and walking in a stiff-legged gait with their antlers directed forward. Even when bedded, subordinate bucks will not face dominant bucks, thereby avoiding accidental eye contact and a possible scuffle.
by Tom Fegely