Whitetail Body Language
By learning to read the gestures that foretell a deer’s next move, you’ll know when to make yours.
July 13, 2009
Deer hunting is a wildly dichotomous sport. You sit for long hours, watching nothing but open timber as your mind wanders. Then, out of nowhere, the entire hunting season comes to its culmination. Fast and decisive action is crucial. It’s like going from your lounge chair in front of the TV to behind center in the deciding play of the Super Bowl in only a moment’s time.
At times like these what you need most is information you can use to anticipate the action. And you need it fast. In deer hunting this all-important feedback comes entirely from the deer. Your ability to read their body language spells the difference between success and failure. Here are several body postures common to whitetails and summaries of what each means to you as you try to decide what to do next.
Ears Back/Hair Standing Up
Deer behavior—Holding its ears back and fluffing up his hair is a buck’s intimidation posture. This is often how he’ll respond to rattling or a grunt call during the rut. Sometimes he may come in walking sideways and may even be worked up to the point where saliva drips from his mouth.
You may also see this behavior when a big buck approaches a smaller one in a show of dominance and force, or when two equally matched bucks square off. In the former case, expect a brief chase to ensue as the small buck is run a tolerable distance away. In the latter, look for a fight.
What to do next—Such action is unpredictable and can take a buck right out of range or out of sight in a moment. If you want a decent shot at him, you’d better take it right away before the real action starts.
Deer behavior—Deer often flick their tails before moving, especially when they are a little bit alarmed but not spooked. Sometimes they even do it when they’re completely relaxed.
What to do next—If I’m lining up my sights and see the deer’s tail flick I either quicken the trigger pull or hold off until I see what the animal’s next move will be. Movement will be quick in coming, so be ready to react.
Nose in the Air
Deer behavior—This posture doesn’t automatically mean you’re busted. The deer has detected the faintest hint of something out of the ordinary and is trying to pick up more so it can figure out what to do next. The deer is concerned, but not panicked—more curious than anything. I’ve seen deer with their noses in the air go back to a relaxed condition if they don’t find anything in the wind to further alarm them.
What to do next—Be patient and wait for further feedback from the deer before deciding what to do. However, when a deer catches a full whiff of human scent it will slam to a stop as if whacked on the head with a 2x4. There’s no need to raise their noses when the scent is strong. When you see a deer snap on alert like this, expect it to be gone in a flash. If you have a gun you still have a chance, but act quickly. If you’re bowhunting, you’d better be at full draw on the verge of releasing, or forget it. The jig is definitely up!
Head Erect/Ears Cupped Forward
Deer behavior—Deer stare intently at a lot of things in their world; squirrels running, cars going by on a distant road, other deer—anything different. It doesn’t mean they’ll spook.
What to do next—This isn’t so bad unless, of course, the focus of all the attention is you. When a deer stares at you, the best course of action is to remain completely motionless. Some experts have claimed that deer can outlast you in a staredown. I disagree. Don’t move, you still have a chance.
Bounding VS. Runnning Flat-out
Deer behavior—Does primarily bound when fleeing danger, but a buck may either bound or run flat-out. The degree of perceived danger seems to be what differentiates the buck’s escape mode. When the danger is obvious, like a close-range nose-full of human scent, a big buck will stretch out and really fly. However, if he’s reacting to a sound or a sight that he can’t quite place, he’s more likely to bound.
What to do next—A bounding buck will soon stop and look back, giving a firearm hunter a good chance for a standing shot. Be ready. But a deer that’s running flat-out is unlikely to slow down before it is completely out of sight.
Blowing, Snorting and Whistling
Deer behavior—Sometimes a doe that isn’t fully spooked will blow without running, seemingly to shock you into the movement that will give you away. Most times, however, they bound off several yards when spooked and then just stand there ruining your day with snort after snort.
What to do next—Young bucks don’t seem to blow much. They just run a ways and then wander off. Old bucks may snort when they first hit your scent or spot you, but it is usually in conjunction with the first lunge in an all-out dash from the area. Generally, as soon as a deer snorts you’d better shoot quickly.