What was his problem? Now you can tell.
Behavior of the white-tailed
deer is certainly one of the more interesting areas of study to sportsmen, not
only in Mississippi, but also throughout all areas in the range of this
subspecies. Deer enthusiasts simply want to know what a deer of either sex is
doing, why it is doing it and where it is doing it. Encounters with deer vary
from happenstance roadside viewing and backyard visits to the purposeful pursuit
of deer for sport hunting with the desire to harvest the animal. As the deer
enthusiast's knowledge of deer behavior increases, their chance of being in an
area at the proper time to encounter a deer increases. Outings by sportsmen then
become more productive and more satisfying when deer activity is observed and to
some degree is understood.
Deer are social creatures and,
much like man, have a definite social structure. With this social structure
comes a complex set of rules with which every deer in the herd must comply.
These rules within the deer herd demand a method of communication whereby deer
can react and respond to each other, establish herd hierarchy, or pecking order,
and mutually warn each other of potential danger.
A socially intact deer herd,
which is complete with doe/fawn family groups and buck groups, can intermingle
with relative calm because dominance is established. Deer understand the
difference between dominance and leadership. For example, a mature doe may be in
a subordinate role to a specific buck, but clearly be the leader of the deer
herd. The deer, like most of the animal world, reacts, cooperates, and
communicates with other members to increase chances for survival.
Methods of communication
include vocal, visual, and olfactory (smell) cues. These cues are utilized
individually, or in some cases in combination, to reinforce a particular
When deer detect a potential
threat all of their senses are directed toward that area of concern. The deer
assumes what is called a stereotypic alert posture. This posture includes the
cocking forward of both ears and erection of the hair, particularly along the
back. The deer is then immediately prepared to either fight or flee. At this
time, much the same as in humans, adrenaline is released, which prepares the
animal to most efficiently react to the situation. Should the potential threat
continue, or if a deer is unsure as to the actual presence of a threat, it will
usually stomp a forefoot in an effort to evoke a response from the unknown
object. Other deer in the immediate area are then warned of the possibility of
danger. The possibility exists in this instance that deer may even be able to
communicate by the ground vibrations generated by these foot stomps. Repeated
foot stomps readily occur, probably for the same purposes as already mentioned.
If or when the threat is identified as danger, deer will erect their tails,
providing another cue to other deer of the imminent danger. In addition to the
tail-up response, deer will erect the rump and tail hairs providing an immediate
cue to flee the area. Mature does will flee the area of danger waving their
enormous white flags as they depart. This highly visible flag waving provides a
ready reference for her young fawns as they attempt to follow her. whitetail
bucks do not seem to be as conspicuous as they flee from an area of danger.
Bucks, of course, do give the tail-up warning, but in some instances,
immediately lower the tail after giving the cue.
As assorted deer of either sex
meet throughout the year, visual communication cues readily display the
intentions and social status of the animals. During most of the year, physical
contact and especially eye contact is avoided. However, many encounters of deer
during the early spring and summer are for the purpose of establishing
dominance. When two bucks who have not established this strict order of
dominance meet in the early spring/summer, visual cues immediately begin which
will terminate in dominance being established. The conflict is usually initiated
by one of the bucks initiating an aggressive posture toward the other. If this
threatening posture, which is characterized by laying back the ears, erecting
hair, and lowering the head, is answered by a similar posture from the
threatened buck, a fight usually develops. During this fight both deer rise to
their hind feet and maneuver for position. After a few slashes with their
forelegs the fight is over.
These fights are not limited
solely to bucks. Does also fight after the same routine of threat followed by a
corresponding aggressive posture from the threatened doe. Most people think that
only bucks fight and then only with their antlers, but both bucks and does have
numerous bouts with each other throughout the year. This type of skirmish is
usually settled quickly with most of the fighting being done with the hooves.
Once dominance is established, sometimes after several of these battles, the
deer then quickly recognize each other in relation to their respective position
in the pecking order. Harmony can then exist between the members in the herd
until an animal, because of age, condition, or other factors, necessitates a
With the arrival of fall comes
the hardening of antlers, a drying of antler velvet and an increasing number of
sparring matches. These sparring matches are little more than bouts of shoving,
which assist in confirming rank in the social hierarchy. At the end of many of
these bouts a clear winner is not apparent. The two combatants will leisurely
stop sparring and begin to browse together as if nothing has occurred. This type
of sparring is usually terminated by the arrival of the breeding
A similar yet unmistakably
different battle takes place between bucks during the rut. The fight begins in
much the same manner, but now both animals have hardened, polished antlers and
deep seated motives, altering the fighting conditions and stakes for both deer.
Bucks are fighting now for territory and dominance, but a different twist raises
the stakes: the right to breed the doe(s) in this area. Normally the two bucks
exchange threatening glances and at times a sidling, circling and stiff-legged
walk, which is followed by a clashing and pushing done with the antlers until
the larger or more aggressive buck gains the upper hand. Bucks seldom fight with
members of their own group, but occasionally a younger buck will get ambitious
or a transient buck will pass through. These battles can be brief or can last
for several minutes, depending upon how evenly matched the two deer are.
Occasionally the two bucks will lock antlers resulting in the death of both
deer. These cases are the exception rather than the usual, since this situation
largely requires mature bucks existing in herds with a tight buck/doe ratio.
Competition for does is greater in this situation than in a typical deer herd in
During the above-mentioned
aggressive behavior between deer, and their visual communication efforts to
mutually warn fellow members of potential danger, other cues are being used
simultaneously to reinforce the visual cues. These signals are called vocal
cues, some of which are anecdotal. Others are simply the sounds deer make to
communicate with each other. These vocal cues may certainly be used solely to
communicate a response which visual cues may fail to elicit.
Reports vary as to the exact
number and purpose of the known deer vocalizations. Some eight stereotypic
sounds made by whitetails have been recorded, and behavior unique to the
specific call has been described. The foot stomp is certainly another tool (not
vocal but auditory) which deer utilize to communicate.
Probably the most commonly
heard vocalization by deer is the alert snort. It is almost always preceded by
the foot stomp. Mature and yearling deer of both sexes uses the alert snort when
imminent danger is detected. Many times deer will escape to the edge of what
they consider the danger area and give repeated warning snorts to alert other
deer. This vocalization is made with the mouth closed while the deer forcefully
expels a single blast of air primarily through the nostrils. Deer in family
groups more commonly give alert snorts; members of buck groups rarely give a
repeated series of this call.
Deer make another vocalization
during times of acute distress. It is commonly referred to as the distress call.
This apparently uncontrollable outcry is typically made when a deer is severely
distressed, such as during an attack by a predator or when the deer is
critically wounded. During our efforts of capturing and tagging deer this
response was typically made by deer caught in a net or while they were being
handled. Deer of both sexes and all age classes seem to be capable of this
vocalization. Much like the snort, other deer are instantaneously and acutely
alerted when a deer makes this sound. Apparently, individual deer recognition is
possible to members of the family group as this call is made.
Vocalization between does and
fawns are also common. Both the fawns and their dam (mother) make vocalizations
to find each other when separated. This is one of the sounds commercial deer
call manufacturers attempt to emulate. The call can best be described as a low
bleat. Bleating intensity by the fawn appears to be related to the response
generated from the bleat. If maternal care is not acquired after repeated
bleating, intensity greatly increases, and conversely, a mothered fawn rarely
bleats. Still another vocalization utilized between doe and fawn is the nursing
whine made by the fawn during feeding periods. Maternal bonds are certainly
reinforced by this vocalization, but other purposes for the whine may exist as
Undeniably, the most talked
about sound during recent years is the grunt of bucks made while trailing an
estrous doe. Commercial calls imitating this sound, as well as testimonials to
the effectiveness of the call, seem to dominate hunter conversation during the
rut each year. A dominant buck is apparently challenged by the possibility of
another buck "grunting" a doe in his territory and, in many cases, responds
accordingly. Females have been detected emitting the grunt as well. The grunt is
utilized by does during dominant-subordinate interactions as well as to call
fawns and initiate nursing interactions.
Two final vocalizations made by
deer of both sexes are the aggressive snort and the snort/wheeze. Deer emit
these sounds to challenge other deer either hierarchically or territorially at
any time during the year, but especially by males prior to serious fighting
associated with the rut. The level of arousal that the deer experiences
apparently determines which of these two sounds will be made. The aggressive
snort is the more serious of the two.
Substances secreted from
several glands on the body of deer enable deer to communicate by scent or
olfactory cues. Breeding condition, individual deer recognition, territory
marking and possibly even danger are all communicated within a deer herd by
scent. The acute ability of deer to apparently recognize differing scents from a
variety of sources gives us some clues to the ability of deer to communicate
with this medium. There are theories based on relatively valid parametric
indicators that deer may in effect be able to detect olfactory signals some one
hundred times more acutely than humans.
When the tail and rump hairs
are erected during times of imminent danger, deer have been observed to erect
the hair surrounding the tarsal glands as well. Other deer in the immediate area
are unmistakably alerted as this behavior is displayed. The possibility that
scent cues are emitted, which reinforce the presence of danger, certainly is
Tarsal gland activity
noticeably fluctuates during the lifetime of a deer as well as during any one
year of the life of the animal. In actuality, these darkened patches of
thickened hair, located on the inside of each hind leg, are not glands at all
since they possess no exterior duct. As a newborn fawn and up to at least
several days old, the gland appears, based on human observance, to be virtually
scentless. Urination on the tarsal glands by deer of both sexes and all age
classes seems to have a major impact on the scent emitted from the gland. Deer
engaged in this rub urination hold both hind legs together and rub the tarsal
glands together as they urinate over them. During peak breeding activity, the
musky odor is clearly perceptible by humans even some distance away from the
deer. The tradition that the glands must be removed immediately after the kill,
"else the meat will be tainted" continues in many deer camps.
Inter-digital glands located
between the toes of deer probably aid deer in individual deer recognition. Upon
close inspection when the toes are spread apart, the gland appears as an
indentation out of which a yellowish, waxy, ammonia-like scent is emitted.
Interestingly, some other ungulates use the foot stomp to release scent cues
that warn conspecifics of danger; the possibility may exist with
Pre-orbital or lachrymal gland
secretions by deer aid in the lubrication and cleansing of the eye. However,
bucks are readily observed rubbing this gland on twigs, limbs, and branches
during scrape and rub activity. This gland located at the anterior corner of the
eye appears as a darkened, hollowed slit. Excretions from this gland tend to
smell similar to ammonia and are detectable to humans. The possible message
conveyed to other deer as they confront this scent remains a mystery.
The forehead of the buck also
has some glandular function. An oily substance produced by this gland is rubbed
on twigs and overhanging branches during scrape activity. This is certainly an
olfactory cue of some sort to other deer.
A gland of unknown function is
the metatarsal. Like the tarsal, no external duct is detectable on this
gland-like structure. Theories abound that the gland, when in contact with the
ground, may even serve as a sensor that can detect minute vibrations (such as
approaching steps) as the deer beds. No discernable substance produced by the
gland can be identified.
Another gland, the Jacobs
gland, is located on the roof of the mouth of the deer. As in many other hoofed
animals, it is used by the buck to detect an estrous female. The buck will
extend his neck and chin to a 45-degree angle and will curl back his upper lip
and nostrils for some 5 seconds in an activity called "flehmen." Apparently this
effort intensifies olfactory stimulus and enables the buck to monitor scent cues
emitted by the doe in her urine prior to and during peak estrous.
We know enough about deer
communication by olfactory cues to make us appreciate the vast amount that we
have no idea about. Scent cues surely are more important to deer than we are
able to identify. We do know that deer rely on visual, vocal, and olfactory cues
to communicate, and that the senses used by deer to detect and monitor these
behavioral signals are many times more sensitive to the stimuli produced than
that of man.
The mystique involving rubs and
scrapes will undoubtedly continue for years to come. The following is what we
"think" we know about rubs and scrapes. In no way will this information be the
definitive guide concerning signpost communication in the deer herd.
A rub is simply a shrub, bush,
or tree from which a portion of the bark has been scraped away in a vigorous
rubbing action. The bark is removed by the buck repeatedly pushing and scraping
his antlers and forehead against the resiliency of the rub object. Differing
types of rubs are made for several purposes at varying times. Initially in the
late summer-early fall, bucks begin rub activity to remove the dried velvet from
the antlers. This process has been observed to take from only a few hours up to
several days. Most of the rubs made during this time of the year are small and
not very apparent as visual communication cues. These rubs have been
appropriately called "low visibility rubs." As the breeding season approaches
bucks begin to more vigorously debark the trees and shrubs on which the rubs are
made. A greater amount of the bark is removed as the bucks "spar" with the
resilient saplings and trees. We notice bucks regularly marking these high
visibility rubs with secretions from the glandular area on the forehead. Other
deer of both sexes take notice of the rubs but do not react in a detectable (to
As noticed by most hunters,
there seems to be some correlation between the size tree that the buck rubs and
antler size of the buck making the rub. Bucks also seem to select trees that
have an aromatic quality. Pine, cedar, and apple are good examples of this
apparent selection. Bark from these and other trees that deer prefer to rub are
even odoriferous to humans.
A scrape may be defined as a
circular depression from which all debris has been pawed, some 3-6 feet under an
overhanging limb or branch. The limb is marked with saliva (mouthed) and by
glandular secretions from the forehead of the buck as he rubs his forehead and
antlers through the leaves on the limb. Bucks may or may not rub-urinate in the
scrape as the initial scrape is established or as he freshens the scrape at some
irregular interval during the breeding season. Scraping activity by dominant
bucks markedly increases just prior to and during the breeding season or rut.
Scraping intensity is observed by hunters to greatly fluctuate during some years
due to a variety of unknown factors.
Researchers have found that
only dominant bucks produce a significant number of identifiable scrapes. Most
of these scrapes appear to be made in precisely the same spot that a scrape was
made 1 year earlier. The scraping activity peaks some 2 weeks prior to the peak
in breeding. Immediately after peak breeding, scraping activity
Does visit these scrapes during
various periods of their estrous cycle. Olfactory messages are left at the site
of the scrape by the doe as she urinates into the scrape and then departs. As
routine checks at the scrape are made by the buck, notice is made of the
previous visit by the doe, which is then trailed until found. The buck will
follow the trail of the doe, keeping his nose close to the ground and emitting
the low guttural grunt, which has been previously discussed.
As we begin to think we
understand the purpose of the scrape we then observe activity by deer which will
not fit the pattern that we have established. To illustrate this, recently we
have found that does make scrapes too, and to further complicate matters, they
make these scrapes regardless of the breeding season.
Reproduced with permission from MSUcares.com.
Copyright 2001 by the
Mississippi State University Extension Service. All rights reserved.