After years of experience, many-a-spooked deer, and a thousand lessons along the way, most hunters get the opportunity to become familiar with how deer communicate with each other. For those of you who are new to whitetail hunting, this is a great resource to develop a foundation of understanding that will lead you to incredible experiences in the seasons to come. Continue on to learn how to read whitetail deer behavior and body language.
The best way to tell what a whitetail is going to do next, is to read its body language. The key things to look for are what their ears and tails are doing. These are the two visual “defense weapons” that a whitetail utilizes most in regards to communicating with others in the area. In addition to this, their stance, and actions such as stomping or scraping are also messages that you’ll want to pay attention to.
Grunt, Snort-Wheeze, and Rattle this to your buddies!
Whitetails have large satellite-like ears that are great at picking up all kinds of sounds at all times. Like dogs, twitching whitetail ears generally mean that they hear something concerning or out-of-place, ears that are aimed backwards and down are a sign of aggression or a defensive posture, and slow moving or little movement of the ears is a sign of calmness and is what you want to see.
The things you want to pay attention to are the alert and twitching ears, especially if the deer has an erect neck. This could mean many things: they hear a concerning sound but have yet to identify it, they are simply doing a check of their surroundings, or they just came from a stressful or startling situation. In this situation, you want to stay as still and silent as possible until they lower their head (note: the tail should not be up or half-up, we will look at this later). You’ll know you’ve been located if the deer’s nose and ears are pointed straight towards you, at which point remain still and silent and hope that they don’t get too spooked.
Whitetails’ namesake is their flag like warning sign to other animals; their big fluffy white under-tails. As you probably already know, if the tail is up, they’re signaling to each other that something is out of place and to be weary. If it’s up, waving side-to-side and they’re running, then something has seriously spooked them. In both of these situations, it’s important to stay still and silent, wait until they calm down or face completely away, remember their field of view. You might also see them fluff up the white on their rump, this is an indicator that they are highly irritated or feel threatened and is often a precursor to a full flag.
There’s something that I learned many years ago that is even more important than what I mentioned above, because it is so subtle! If a deer lifts its head and looks around as if looking for movement, then drops its head again with its tail is half up, it has probably seen you and is testing to see if you’ll move. Typically they’ll keep their tail half-up and act as if they are feeding (head down) but if you look closely, they typically won’t actually feed. In this situation it is imperative that you don’t move a muscle; heavy breathing will set a deer off if it’s close enough.
This is something that both bucks and does will do frequently before they snort at you. As with the half-up tail, deer who stomp are testing to see if you’ll move. Staying still is again important here, it’s likely they’ll start ducking their heads and fake feeding, but if you stay still for long enough, they might calm down enough not to spook.
Although this isn’t so much body language, it’s usually happens after a deer has displayed some body language indicating that a snort was next.
This is a big scare tactic and warning sign deer use. There are typically two situations where you’ll be snorted at: first, if they smell you but don’t see you, or if they see you but can’t tell what you are. There are not many snorting situations where you won’t see a deer run away. The best thing you can do is try to control your scent, play the wind, and again, stay still.
There is a type of “snorting” that is completely different than what I just talked about. It’s often called the snort- wheeze what’s unique about this is that it’s only really heard during the rut from bucks, and is purely aggressive. If you’re lucky enough to experience a buck doing this in the wild, get excited! That buck is rutting like crazy and you’ll likely get a shot at him!
A big mistake I’ve made in the past and seen others make, is to think it’s all over after a deer busts you and runs away. Often times that deer will stop before taking off again, giving you enough time to get a shot off. This is especially common if you just happen to run into a deer before they smell or hear you. In this situation, be at the ready, follow the deer in your scope/sight, and be ready for it to stop, just-in-case.
Pay attention to what the does are doing! They are your best predictor of what is happening and where a buck is going to come out. Once while hunting we had a doe run out in front of us. We stood there for a while waiting for a buck to come out of where she came. I just happened to look over my shoulder to see that same doe coming back our way, I didn’t think much of it for a few seconds, then I realized “well hey, what is she risking coming back this way for?” so I looked back and saw a buck come rutting behind her!
During the rut, a lot of body language is used by bucks. Lip curls, slow approaches, erect hairs and head positioning are some of the biggest communications you’ll see.
Lip-curls – a buck will often curl their top lip when they smell a doe in estrus. Doing this exposes a particularly sensitive gland that helps them better intake scent molecules.
Slow approaches, stiffened legs, and a lowered head with antlers forward and ears pinned back – this is a stance you’ll see often when a buck is about to attack. They’ll do this with predators and other bucks to scare them off a doe. If a buck ever displays this behavior towards you, you need to immediately get out of the way. If you’re out of the way, this is usually a great time to aggressively grunt, growl, or snort-wheeze as a rutting buck will almost always come check out a rival.
Erect hairs – you’ll often see this as well in the above situation, but sometimes bucks will do this alone, similar to a dog, and then either attack or move into a more aggrieve position.
Understanding whitetail behavior isn’t a complicated science. All it takes is patience, determination, and observation to learn how the deer utilize their body language to communicate with other deer in the area, and how you can take all you’ve learned about deer behavior and apply it to help predict what will happen next. A number of the items covered in this article can be seen in the video above, but the best way for you to learn is to get outside. Find deer, observe them from a distance and learn their behaviors. You will be a better hunter for it.