Speak the Language: How Whitetails Communicate
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.
Humans rely on continuing education to become better communicators. Deer rely on their age, experience, association with other deer, instincts, knowledge of their habitats, and their sensory tools. We understand their eyes, ears, and nose are critical to their survival. But there are other body parts with which deer communicate.
Several years ago I was photographing deer within a fenced enclosure during the rut. The landowner advised me to be cautious, because the buck was aggressive. I no sooner entered the enclosure and then the buck reacted. But he did what he was programmed to do. He was communicating with me. Eyes bulging, ears laid back, neck and back hair erect, he came at me with his head lowered, walking stiff-legged. I was grateful the landowner quickly opened the gate so I could escape.
Deer are proficient at communicating with sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Successful hunters understand that deer don’t just grunt and bleat, they use a variety of forms of communication. Vocals include such sounds as pig-like grunts; low-pitched, toad-like aaaaaahs; burp-like sounds; growling clicks; or a whine that breaks into a snort-wheeze. Undoubtedly, there are many sounds deer create that hunters haven’t been able to define. Therefore, deep within their social structures whitetails have many forms of communication.
Vocal language is not the whitetail’s only form of communication. Body posture, body odors, ear movement, physical signs they leave throughout their habitats, etc., also are communication devices. The world of deer is very intricate. Therefore, hunters must understand the whitetail’s vocal and body language because the more we recognize these finer points of whitetail communication, the better hunters we become.
Whitetail body language includes the use of their tails, eyes, ears, legs, as well as body hair. Every hunter knows an instantly flipped-up tail is a sure sign a deer is alarmed and ready to bolt, although many deer, especially bucks, will tuck their tails into their rump while fleeing. When a deer is feeding with its head lowered, it usually flips its tail back and forth just before raising its head.
Body hair can be raised into a stiff position along the backs of their necks, as well as across the tops of their rumps. This action is also noticed when two bucks face off during the rut. It’s an indication of anger and/or a form of intimidation of a rival buck. More commonly noticeable are the long, white hairs on the face of the rump. These hairs will stand outward whenever a deer is alarmed.
There’s no question a deer’s nose is its lifeline, because its world is dominated by odors. Smell typically comes into play when deer scent-check each other. Normally, identification is determined by smelling each other’s tarsal glands, located on the insides of both hind legs. During mating, the dark, stained tufts of stiff hair reek with odors, besides urine added for sexual excitement. Much of the odor emanates from urine intentionally dribbled between their hind legs. Even more valued during the rut, deer nose each other’s hindquarters for identification and sexual availability. This is “communication” at its finest.
The metatarsal glands are tufts of hair on the outside, lower hind legs that prove just how little we know about deer. Unlike their tarsal glands, metatarsals do not produce an obvious oil secretion. Deer aren’t believed to urinate upon these glands. Although there are many intricacies humans haven’t learned about deer, much of what we understand has been learned by observation.
Less obvious, but more significant than metatarsal glands, are their interdigital glands. They are located between the toes of each foot, just above their hooves. If you spread their toes wide and spread the hairs, you’ll notice a narrow pocket lined with short hairs. With each step a deer takes, he or she apparently leaves a distinctive scent on the ground. It seems logical this enables deer to scent-track each other.
Their hooves are not just for walking. Deer frequently stomp a front foot to alert other deer, or attempt to lure any intruder into exposing itself. Whenever an alarmed doe stomps her forefoot, this also lays invisible spots of interdigital scent. The whitetail’s body is designed for survival, and there are many features it uses to stay alive.
The eyes see all. Or do they? Deer’s eyes are geared to detect motion. Very few movements within their habitats go unnoticed. Biologists believe they don’t recognize colors. Therefore, camouflaged, motionless hunters are more effective at deceiving a deer’s eyes. Whenever hunters control their odor and remain motionless, or move as slowly as possible, deer can be fooled.
Another hidden sensory organ is the preorbital gland. These are small, hairless grooves at the lower front corners of both eyes. It’s believed deer use these glands to mark tree limbs with a waxy substance and appear to have a personal scent that identifies each deer. Deer also have a forehead scent gland, especially important when bucks rub their racks and foreheads against trees. This gland creates an identification signature.
Biologists also have discovered a scent gland within whitetails’ mouths. When they smell, lick, and chew on a licking branch, they often pull the branch through their mouths. They apparently are leaving their scent on the branch. But saliva might be a scent-maker, too.
Communication comes in many forms. Deer also identify each other by their urine and droppings. For example, bucks urinate across their inside hind leg tarsal glands. Also, urinating over a scrape intensifies their markings. Urine odor is used to attract does and to warn other bucks of their mating territories. Equally, does urinate into scrapes, as well. Whitetail odors are important throughout the year. But during the rut, there are a key method of communicating.
One more asset deer appear to use constantly is their “sixth sense.” This invisible sensory suspicion is the ability to perceive objects not necessarily by sight, sound, or smell.
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.
Equally, listening to successful hunters increases our odds, because field observation is the best learning tool to help us better understand the whitetail’s extended communication abilities.