Studying Deer Behaviour

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The buck was moving along a ridge top, located about 200 metres in front of our tree stands. Looking at him through my binoculars, I made two grunt calls and then put the call down again. The buck, apparently un-phased to the casual observer, kept walking.

At that point, my hunting partner whispered, “Call again, he didn’t hear you.”

I explained to him that there was no need to use the deer call again because the buck had heard me and would come to investigate. My hunting partner looked at me like I was crazy and urged me to call again. Before I could explain why I was confident that the buck would react to my call, we heard the leaves rustle to the right of us and shortly after we could see the buck standing partially hidden in the bushes not 40 metres from our stands, surveying the area for the other deer he had just heard.

On the way home, with the buck in the back of the pick up truck, my hunting partner wanted to know how I knew the buck would come in, despite the fact that he ignored us and kept walking.

I answered, “The buck told me that he would be coming.” Again my partner gave me that “you’re crazy” look. But it was true – the buck did tell me.

Deer communicate with each other by four different means: scent, sound, visual and behaviour. Most hunters are quite familiar with how deer communicate using their sense of smell, visual and vocal senses and most hunters are able to use these senses to their advantage by using calls, decoys and attractant scents. Fewer hunters are knowledgeable about using deer behaviour, also known as body language, to interpret what the deer are communicating or how they express emotions and moods. Knowing about deer behaviour is just another tool in our bag of tricks, which we can use to put the odds in our favour. For example, take the buck at the beginning of this article. How did I know that the buck had committed to my calls? Remember that I said I watched him through my binoculars? Observing his behaviour and knowing how to interpret the “message” told me that not only had he heard my calls, but also that he was interested, too. To the naked eye, it seemed that the buck ignored me and just kept on walking, but using my binoculars I could see that he ever so slightly turned his head in my direction and acknowledged the doe sound with a faint twitch of his tail and he swivelled his ears in the direction of the sound, while at the same time trying to get a whiff of the scent by flaring his nostrils ever so slightly. Had I called again the chances of spooking the buck, or at least causing him to become suspicious, would have become very real. There is no need to broadcast the same message twice if it has been heard and acknowledged the first time. Deer don’t like that.

Animal behaviour is a subject that has fascinated me since early childhood and I ended up turning that avocation into my vocation. Before I tell you about deer behaviour and how it can benefit you, we have to look at what deer behaviour is. Deer are social animals and, much like people and other social animal groups, they have a defined social structure that requires a defined and complex set of rules to which every animal in the group has to comply with in order to function properly. To achieve that functional group, a method of communication that allows deer to react to each other is imperative – particularly the need to warn each other of potential danger.

Animal behaviour (ethology) is a sub-science of zoology, first made popular by the Austrian Dr. Konrad Lorenz in the early 1960s and includes a wide variety of subjects such as imprinted, conditioned, learned, habituated and instinctive behaviour. But don’t worry, I am not going to burden you with the entire spectrum of it. In this article, I will focus on a few deer behaviours of which I am sure you have observed and wondered about. We will explore what the deer is “telling” you with a particular behaviour and what you can do to turn it to your advantage.

Let’s get started with a very common deer behaviour that all of us have encountered many times and that has caused us more frustration than we care to admit.


The alert deer

Behaviour: The deer stands still with its ears pointed forward and is staring at you. In this position the deer often flicks its tail up and down in conjunction with head bobbing, or moving its head from side to side. Often the deer will also stomp the ground with one of its front feet.

Meaning: The deer has seen something that caught its interest and is now highly alert – but the deer is not sure what it has seen. The flicking of the tail signals insecurity, but also alerts other deer in the vicinity. The head bobbing has two meanings here: the eyesight of a deer is not really something to brag about and by bobbing or moving its head from side to side, the deer is trying to obtain a different angle and thus figure out what it’s looking at. Is it another deer or something dangerous? The head bobbing is also an attempt to entice the subject of interest to move. Many predators will act upon rapid movement with an attack. Stomping the foot on the ground also serves two purposes. One is, again, to get a reaction from the focus of interest, and the other is to alert the other deer within earshot. However, it is not the alarm of “run for your lives,” but rather asking the other deer to come and look; many pairs of eyes, from different angles, see more than just one pair.

What you can do: This is the situation where most hunters say, “I’m busted,” and walk away. Now you really are busted because the deer has seen you move. What you should have done was stand absolutely still. Avoid looking directly at the deer, as they seem to have a sixth sense for being stared at and they don’t like it. It can take up to 10 minutes until the deer is convinced that you’re not an immediate threat and will either slowly move off or resume its normal activity. If the deer moves calmly away, flicking its tail up and down, which signals all is well, remain in your position a while longer and then try to follow the deer by quietly stalking it. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled to all sides and behind you – more often than not an alert deer walking away will try to get downwind of you to figure out what you are.


The submissive buck

Behaviour: Instead of carrying his tail in a normal, relaxed fashion, the buck has tucked his tail firmly between his legs. As he wanders about, he constantly looks around as if he is being followed.

Meaning: Bucks have a very strict hierarchy and to avoid physical conflicts the lower-ranking animal tucks his tail between his legs to show the higher-ranking bucks that he is no threat to them and their hierarchical position. Lower-ranking bucks are not all young deer with small antlers. Some of them look and behave very impressively, even displaying the typical swagger usually associated with dominant bucks and could fool you if it weren’t for that tucked tail.

If the dominant buck is in close proximity to this lesser buck, but still be hidden from your view, he will increase the submissive behaviour a notch by lowering his head slightly and letting his ears hang down. If you see such a buck close to a doe and he suddenly moves off, it is a sure sign that the big boy is very close by.

What you can do: If you desire, and it is a legal deer, you can shoot it. Or, you can wait for the dominant buck to appear. The more tense and skittish the buck acts, the closer the big boy will be. Wait him out. If you see a lesser buck in a field near a doe and he suddenly moves off without apparent reason, while looking in a particular direction, start to pay attention – the boss may step out any minute.


The dominant buck

Behaviour: The dominate buck’s behaviour oozes confidence and superiority. This buck carries his head high, his tail is often straight up, his rump and neck hair are bristling as he marches like a soldier around his domain. There are only two scenarios where this buck will lower his head as a behavioural gesture. One is in a semi-submissive position (head at shoulder height and nose forward) when he approaches a doe in heat. The other is an aggressive gesture (head at shoulder height and antlers forward) with the hair on his neck and rump standing up when he approaches a lesser buck or a contender. Often this behaviour is accompanied by several deep guttural grunts.

Meaning: This buck is the undisputed monarch of the deer herd and has first pick of every doe that comes into heat. Except for the mature does, all other deer are intimidated by him and have to wait at the sidelines until this buck has picked the doe he wants to spend time with, or had his fill at the waterhole or feeding area. Every buck in the area is well advised to keep a healthy distance from this deer, especially if there are does in heat, or nearly in heat, close by.

What you can do: Shoot the buck of course, provided it is a legal deer. I might mention at this point that, unlike the popular belief among many hunters, a dominant buck is not necessarily the oldest buck with the largest set of antlers in the woods. Fact is that Ol’ Mossy Horns is quite often a deer that is past his glory as the undisputed ruler in the deer world. Quite often the dominant buck is a younger deer in the prime of his strength, endurance and stamina.


The irritated buck

Behaviour: The buck pins his ears back close to his head, with his nose high up, as he audibly sucks in air through his mouth and blows it out through his nose. Hackles on his neck and rump stand straight up. He may even pound the ground once or twice with his front feet and urinate.

Meaning: The buck has heard a sound or caught a whiff of scent that has aggravated him and he is ready for action. The cause for this behaviour can be from a doe in heat or a strange buck that has entered his turf.

What you can do: If you are the cause of this behaviour, you have succeeded in getting the buck’s full attention and commitment. You may have used buck grunts, decoys or attractant scents that the buck has fallen for and all that is left for you to do is to get ready to shoot. It’s important that you get ready as quickly as possible with as little movement as possible, because a committed buck will not stick around forever and his eyes will constantly scan the area. The moment he realizes that he has been fooled, and it happens faster than you might think, he will swap ends and be gone.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, studying animal behaviour is a fascinating subject and deciphering the meaning of it can get you a giant step closer to filling your tag with consistency every year.

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