In order to understand the behavior of the whitetail deer it is important to know how they pick up information about their environment and respond to it.
The whitetail’s sense of smell is very good allowing it on days with a slight breeze, to pick up the scent of a hunter 150-200 yards away, and this sense is the ultimate decider when it comes to warning them of danger. One decent whiff of a hunter and they are gone. You will sometimes see whitetails licking their nose with their tongue – this moistens air going in their noses which allows them to smell better.
Smell is also important for interpreting the chemical notice boards that advise on what deer are around and their status and territory. Smell is also used to follow other deer.
The whitetail’s ears can move independently of each other and each ear can face opposite directions so when fleeing, they can tell if they are being chased, as well as listening for what's up ahead. Their ears can also pinpoint the direction the sound came from. Strong winds reduce the ability of deer to pick up sound and also determine its direction, making the deer nervous on windy days and so they move around less. Sometimes a close loud noise can confuse the deer’s sense of hearing such that it stands around trying to determine the source of the sound, usually presenting a firearms hunter with the opportunity for a further shot.
A deer’s eyes are located on the side of its head giving it 270 degree vision – the only place they can’t see is directly behind them. Their eyes are able to see in daylight as well as darkness. They can pick up the slightest movement, and will often stare intently trying to determine what it is. Sometimes they try the trick of putting their head down to feed and then quickly raising it within seconds to see if the object has moved. If it has – they are usually off. There is still debate about whether deer can see colour. Some studies have said yes and some say no. Based on the cells in their eye however, if they can see colour, it is very limited mainly in the yellow-blue range, with poor vision in the red/orange range.
The whitetail deer get their name from this distinctive feature. Although it is conspicuous white, this flag serves an important purpose by communicating to other deer. When it is raised it is serving as a warning to other deer that danger is present, and also assists deer to follow each other when fleeing. If whitetails are trying to sneak away quietly, they usually have their tail closely held to their body.
When the tail is moved up and down and the rump hair is raised, the deer is suspicious. If the deer then becomes alarmed, the tail will become erect. If the deer’s suspicions disappear, the tail flicks from side to side once to let other deer know all is well.
The glands on or just below the skin produce chemicals that provide silent communication between deer, which is an advantage when you are hunted by predators. The chemicals provide a language of smells that include the pecking order of bucks, who is in town, who is ready to mate, danger sources, and a scent trail.
The glands include:
Does and bucks make a range of sounds, however in general, they are relatively quiet animals, which is helpful is not advertising your location to predators. Does and fawns communicate through bleats, grunts and whines. During the rut, grunts are made by both sexes, which may become more intense as a ‘grunt-snort’ sound. Bucks can make a ‘grunt-snort-wheeze’ which communicates intolerance of his rival. A sound not often heard is a ‘tending grunt’ made by a buck during the rut as he is following or tending a doe.
Bucks rub their antlers on brush and tree trunks and in doing so, leave a scent from their forehead gland as a chemical signpost. The biggest bucks in a given area rub much earlier in the autumn than young bucks, and also make more rubs, so providing a valuable clue to hunters. Rub lines are often along major travel routes and used year after year.
Scrapes are a notice board advising bucks who is dominant, and also advising does that he will be passing this way again. As the rut progresses, scrapes become more important than rubs.
A scrape is typically about 3-4 feet across, almost always with a licking branch 4-5 feet above the scrape. Chemical messages are left on the licking branch from glands in the head, as well as in the scrape with urine passing over tarsal glands.
When the rut is fully underway, the dominant buck doesn’t usually freshen up the scrapes. A lot of the scrapes will also have been abandoned.
More information can be obtained from Hunt for Deer