Body Language of Whitetail Deer
AllOutdoor – See that buck standing at the edge of wood land cover? His head is tipped upward and his nostrils are flared. His ears are turned toward you, and his tongue is flicking in and out like that of a lizard. He’s using various senses to detect any dangers. He’s fueled by the sights and scents of the breeding frenzy. Whitetail communication (language) is at its apex.
Observant hunters must become well versed at understanding the whitetail’s inner-social mechanisms. Many hunters are accustomed to the buck grunt or doe bleat. But whitetails have numerous methods of communicating. So how does this apply to hunters? Obviously, the more we know, the more we grow. We should never stop trying to understand how deer communicate.
The meanings behind a whitetail deer’s body language hold true throughout the species. Hunters have interpreted these signals since deer hunting began. A hunter who possesses a basic understanding of this language will be better prepared to know what’s about to happen next.
Whitetail body language includes the use of their tails, eyes, ears, legs, and body hair. Since females constitute between 50 and 75 percent of any given herd, we’ll start there. A feeding doe will generally lower her head to eat, then suddenly lift it a few seconds later to look nervously around. She cocks her ears forward and appears to be looking at some real or imagined danger. She may stare for a minute or more. Then she gives a switch of her tail and begins to feed again. To the trained observer, this tail switch means “all clear” and the deer around her relax.
Foot stomping typically occurs when a deer has detected something out of the ordinary but can’t quite tell what it is. This stomping is often followed by a sharp nasal snort or “blow” in an attempt to provoke this unidentified danger into giving itself away.
Now the deer’s tail begins to rise. If she raises it just a bit, she may eventually calm down and begin feeding again. This is where a deer stare-down begins. Most hunters cannot win a stare-down with a deer. The average person can’t hold a stare for more than thirty seconds, while a deer can hold its gaze steady for up to three minutes or more.
If a doe raises her tail higher or cocks it to one side, she’s about to bolt. The tail soon points straight up and begins to flagging from side to side as she hurries away. Instantly, the entire herd is aware a predator is around and the jig is up. Pay attention to the deer that isn’t flagging. More than likely, it’s your buck. Big bucks don’t like to draw attention to themselves and usually run with their tails tucked between their legs.
Another tactic used by deer to get predators to reveal themselves is a head bob or head fake. A deer will be staring at some unidentified object and then slowly lower its head as if about to feed. When its jaw drops below its chest, the head will snap back up to see if the object has moved. The key to recognizing this move is that the head drops painfully slow and there is no tail switching.
When a deer is mildly alarmed, refrain from making your move until its head is clearly behind some object, such as a tree, or the tail switches to give the “all clear” sign.
A deer’s body language often gives away the presence of other deer. During the rut, if a doe trots by and looks over her shoulder with her ears moving, the hunter needs to look closely behind her and to be ready. A buck is more than likely following her.
Typically a doe in estrus will hold her tail straight out and stiff. This posture often indicates her readiness to breed. You should also start looking for a buck nearby if she appears nervous and her hock glands are dark.
A buck with his tail extended straight out behind him means he is getting ready to bolt. Shoot now or forever hold your peace.
A buck with his tail cupped indicates he is sexually excited.
The social structure within a deer herd is well defined. Body language is commonly used to establish the hierarchy or pecking order. All deer, both bucks and does, display aggressive behavior in order to establish this pecking order.
The mildest display of aggression is called the ear drop. When a deer drops its ears back along its neck, it is often enough keep other deer away. If the other deer does not respond to the ear drop, a hard stare will follow. When neither of these works, the deer may begin to fight.
The deer turns its head about thirty degrees from its adversary and advances with a series of sidling steps (walking sideways towards his opponent). Its head is held erect, ears back, and chin down. The hair along its neck and hips is raised to show anger. When a buck begins to sidle, pay close attention to his posture. The dominant buck will hold his head highest. If the buck you are watching has his head in a lowered or submissive posture, there is probably a bigger buck in the vicinity.
If all of this posturing fails to establish the pecking order, a conflict is sure to arise. The does will rise up on their hind legs and slash at their opponent with their hoofs. When the opponents are bucks, antlers will clash.
Older deer seem to have a stronger capability of just knowing something isn’t right. The best way to describe this sense is “intuition.” Therefore, even when their eyes, ears, and noses don’t detect danger, this innate feeling often saves their lives.
Understanding whitetail language is an ongoing process. There is probably more to know than we will ever understand. That’s why it’s important to read factual literature on whitetail research.