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By Dick Scorzafava

Every day when we come into contact with others our bodies are sending signals about our attitudes, feelings and behavior.  Ever try to reason with a person who has an opposing view, who stands with arms crossed in front of him?  Chances are his mind is as closed and restricted as the body position he has assumed.  Ever notice that when some people get nervous they tap their foot or dart their eyes around?  Well whitetail deer have a body language all their own.  Learning to recognize the major movements and what they mean can provide new understanding to the bowhunter.  Deer move in certain ways when they are unthreatened, mildly aroused or greatly alarmed.  If you can decipher these signals you can sometimes make the most of an opportunity that would otherwise be lost.

When a whitetail is not alarmed but in a secured state they are still very wary of their surroundings, they study objects and listen constantly.  Ears will move independently of one another as the whitetail scans the area for any discernable sound of predation.  They also rely on that ultra sensitive nose of theirs as they constantly sniff the air.  So a relaxed deer is still on alert, he looks, listens and sniffs the air.  Unless you see him freeze and raise that warning flag of a tail and intently stare at something, he is an unalarmed deer.  Relaxed deer eat, drink, chew their cud when not standing, walk in a slow, unhurried movements.  Ears will generally be to the side, tail will be hanging freely pointing downward but can switch from side to side.  Usually the white bottom of the deer is not particularly visible.

When a whitetail deer senses something that triggers his alarm system, the distance of the disturbance will determine the level of alarm.  From about 100 yards, a sight or sound or scent will effect the mildest alarm response.  Those body language cues you’ll be seeing are stiff movement, tail down and still, rump and tail hair relaxed, ears cocked forward but may briefly move in other directions.  Typically a deer’s head will bolt upright and he will freeze, while concentrating on the source of the alarm.  If there is no further cause for alarm the deer will quickly resume his regular activity.

If a bowhunter spots a deer standing frozen with its head raised and its eyes and ears on him, he must make a decision as to the course of action he wished to take.  Immediately freeze.  Remaining motionless may keep the deer from identifying you and he may soon resume his normal activity.  If he recognizes that you are a human and therefore a threat you may trigger high alarm.  How can you salvage any chance of harvesting this deer?  If you are in your treestand all you can do is remain motionless.  Avert your eyes slowly and watch the deer with your peripheral vision.  At best he will think you are a part of the tree and will continue doing what he was doing.  Do not try to get off a shot.  The deer will be most likely be long gone before you can shoot and then your presence will be made known to the other deer in the area, and your stand location could be ruined for the reminder of the season.

If on foot, remain calm and pretend that you have not spotted the deer.  Make no direct eye contact.  Continue walking at the same pace until you are in thick cover or hidden by the terrain.  Avoid walking a path that leads to the deer.  When you are not visible slowly take a peek.  If the deer has not taken flight you may be able to wait for a while, then move cautiously until you have circled around him from a downwind direction and can carefully stalk close for a better position.

If the potential danger is identified at closer range, with 100 yards, the deer will again freeze and use its senses to gather more information.  As stated above the other signals will be pretty much the same with one exception.  When it realizes the nearness it will slowly walk into some cover and stand there waiting to see what happens next.  If the deer sees that danger has passed and he doesn’t feel that he has been spotted he will soon resume his ordinary day to day actions.  This type of behavior is very effective against hunters, most deer frozen in cover remain undetected.  The hunter can pass by and the deer just waits him out.  Sometimes a deer will be spooked and will jump up and run away but that is not the general rule.

The next level of alarm is again a progression of the previous behavior.  In this scenario the predator may be at a safe distance but is moving towards the deer.  The deer will walk quickly or even trot for cover.  Once secure he may wait to see what happens or he may get downwind where he can identify the danger with his nose, all the while remaining unheard and unseen.

Some differing body language will be abrupt and quick body movements.  The head will be held upright and neck lowered ears will be cocked forward then drawn back.  A hunter who crashes through the bush will provide the movement patterns that will cause deer to be alarmed to a high degree.  Walking to your treestand should be at an even moderate pace.  Don’t stop.  Don’t glance around.  Stick to deer trails where the movement patters is well known and expected.  Such behavior may trigger the milder forms of alarm as any deer you encounter will hop into the cover and wait motionless for you to pass.

When a whitetail is on the tail up type of alert his behavior is triggered by many different things, fear, curiosity, and confusion.  This level of alarm is triggered by a sensory impetus that tells the deer a predator is very near.  It may be a sight or sound or scent but a foreign stimulus is there and a deer will fight its initial impulse to take flight and try to determine the source of the alarm.  It may try to force a response by snorting, stamping a hoof on the ground or by inviting a charge by cautiously moving in the predator’s direction.  Older bucks generally are too smart to move towards danger but fawns and yearlings are the most likely to do so.  Deer that identify danger may dash from the area and will abandon it for quite some time.

Jerky body movements with the deer ready to flee are characteristic of the body language you’ll see now.  Ears will be busy alternating between forward and back, with considerable independent movement.  Although the tail may be down it will usually be horizontal if not fully up and the rump and white tail hairs will be standing fully erect.

If the hunter meets a deer that does not move away but snorts, again remaining motionless is the best course of action.  Do not make eye contact with the deer this will only draw his gaze to you and help  him identify you.  Watch him from the corner of your eye.  Remain positively still for at least 15-20 minutes.  It may be difficult but it also may be worth it.  Don’t prepare a shot unless you can do so without noise and without being seen.  Any movement or noise will send the deer bounding away.  If the deer settled down he will most likely remain in the area although suspicious and you may get a shot in later.

A short range meeting with a dangerous predator triggers the most advances stage of alarm.  A full fluffy upright tail with all white rump and tail hairs erect seen on a whitetail bounding and leaping away is a sight all hunters have witnessed.  This stage of alarm and the drastic body language that characterizes it, shows the whitetail in an imminent danger situation and flight is the only response.  It is trying to place some distance between itself and the source of danger.  Usually it takes about 5 seconds for a deer to move about 100 yards.  Usually they will find high cover to further protect them.  They will continue to leave the area by moving in a direction to avoid ambush and begin to weave a trail that will discourage pursuit.  It may abandon its home range, moving to a swamp or other area where predators usually do not follow.  Bucks forced off range may remain so for up to two weeks.  So if your buck has waved “good-bye” to you while in this extreme state of alarm, it is a good idea to try hunting another buck or another area.

Reading the signals a whitetail deer’s body is sending can aid the hunter when he has potentially been identified.  Reading only the mildly alert signs a hunter can remain still and hopefully pose no additional threat.  If there seems to be greater alarm following the simple freezing and no eye contact techniques can try and avert a crisis.  Walking to and from your hunting site in a unhurried casual but direct route can also avoid a bad situation from arising.  The important thing to remember is to try and keep the level of alarm from escalating to the point where the deer feels it prudent to flee.  Such an occurrence can be devastating to a well scoped out hunting sight and the trophy that used to reside there.

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