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White-Tailed Deer Communication
Deer species, including white-tailed deer, communicate in a number of ways; through a wide variety of body postures and movements to communicate by sight; through a number of scents and scent organs to communicate by smell; through sound by vocalization, blowing through the nostrils and thrashing branches. The information provided here is and excerpt from the book Whitetail Addict's Manual, by T.R. Michels, available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products catalog.
Whitetails use several different movements and body postures when they interact with other deer, and as they react to the different sights, scents and sounds around them.
Foot Stomp Deer often stamp their front feet when alarmed to alert other deer of danger. The foot stomp may also be used to try to startle a predator. The excess interdigital scent left on the ground during the foot stomp may also tell other deer that a deer felt endangered in the area where the scent was left.
Tail Flag Deer use a tail waving motion as they flee, probably to warn other deer of danger, and to show other deer which way the flagger is going. Does flag more often than bucks; a running deer that is not flagging may be a buck.
Head Bob A deer sensing danger may lower its head as if to feed, and jerk its head back up again quickly. The head bob may be an attempt to catch a predator moving while it thinks the deer is feeding. The quick head bob may also be used to startle a waiting predator into giving its position away. The head bob may be used after a foot stomp.
Tail Flicking A deer will remain still as long as it does not flick its tail from side to side. Once the tail starts to flick the deer is getting ready to move.
Ear Twitching A doe with its ears forward or relaxed is usually alone or with its fawns. A doe twitching its ears to the side or backwards is probably listening to her fawns or other deer. A doe turning its ears or head to the rear during the rut may have a buck following it.
Hoof Pawing Deer paw to dig up food under snow and heavy vegetation; to dig up minerals; and to clear away sticks, stones and snow before laying down. Bucks may paw, stomp and sniff the ground when making a scrape under an overhanging branch. When a buck paws slowly while making a scrape it may stay awhile; if it paws, stops, looks around, and paws again, it may be getting ready to leave.
Walk Toward The aggressive deer walks toward another deer. This is the lowest level of aggression.
Ear Drop The deer lays its ears back along its neck with the ear openings facing out. This is low intensity aggression that is frequently used.
Head High Threat The deer stands erect, holds its head high, tilts its nose upward, and lays its ears back. The tail of the deer may be held half way out. This is a rarely used threat.
Head Low Threat The deer lowers its head and extends its neck toward another deer, with its ear's laid back. This is called the "Hard Look" by deer biologists.
Head Raise The head of the deer is pointed in the direction of another deer, the head is snapped up and backward, and then back to a resting position.
Lunge The deer lunges with its head toward another deer without making contact.
Front Leg Kick A dominant deer strikes at a subdominant with a forefoot one or more times. The hoof does not necessarily hit the other deer. Also called the Strike.
Charge The deer runs rapidly at another deer, but stops before contact is made.
Chase A subordinate that does not respond to a lower level of aggression may be chased by a dominant, while the dominant uses the head low posture as it pursues the subdominant.
Rake A dominant lifts a foreleg about eighteen inches above the ground and drags it across the back of a subordinate. It is used by a dominant to displace a subordinate from a bed.
Poke One deer contacts another with its nose. This is commonly used to direct group movement or to displace another deer.
Head Shake The deer lowers its head, and spreads its forelegs to lower the front of the body, while it shakes its head from side to side with its ears flopping. A high intensity threat usually performed at a distance.
Body Push The aggressive deer approaches another deer and pushes against the rear of the other with its shoulder while laying its throat on the back of the other deer.
Sidle Two deer walk slowly side by side in a head high threat posture. Bucks usually turn their head and body slightly away from each other in a show of redirected aggression. If neither deer retreats, one or both of the deer may flail at the other with their forefeet or rush the other deer.
Rear Up A deer rears up on its hind legs. This is usually preceded by a head high threat.
Flail Deer stand on their rear legs and strike out with both forefeet at each other. Flailing continues until one deer quits. This is the most intense form of aggressive behavior exhibited by does, and by bucks without antlers.
Nose Licking The buck licks its nose constantly from both sides of its mouth.
Crouch The buck lowers its head and tilts its antlers toward an opponent. The aggressive buck is usually hunched, with all four legs partially flexed, lowering the height of the deer. The buck's hair often stands on end, and it may walk slowly with a stiff-legged walk. This is performed only during the breeding season among high ranking bucks.
Circling The aggressive buck slowly circles its opponent while crouching.
Grunt-Snort A snort performed while the buck circles another buck. The upper lip is raised upwards at each side beneath the nostrils and the nostrils are held tightly closed while a five to ten second burst of air is blown through the nostrils causing them to vibrate. This is known as the Grunt-Snort-Wheeze.
Antler Threat A buck lowers its head so that its antlers point directly at another buck. If the other deer also uses an antler threat a rush usually follows.
Antler Thrust A buck rapidly lowers its head so tat the antlers point toward the side or rump of another deer, the abruptly raises its head. Bucks may do this to both bucks and does. It does not always result in contact.
Sparring Two bucks lock antlers and push and twist their heads back and forth. This is a non-violent contest between bucks of all sizes. The bucks may remain together afterward.
Rush The rush is a rare form of aggression usually between two aggressive large bucks. Both bucks lunge at each other with an antler clash. They may attempt to push or pull each other backwards or sideways. Their hair often stands on end, and the white hairs of the metatarsal gland are often visible. Bucks frequently grunt and snort during a fight.
Deer use pheromones, or scents, to communicate type of sex, sexual readiness, dominance, direction of travel and possibly fear by: 1. self-impregnation (leaving scent on themselves) and 2. leaving scents on the ground and vegetation, and at the visual and chemical signposts of rubs and scrapes. These scents are so specific that deer have the ability to distinguish individual scent no matter how many other deer are in the area. Glands produce many of these deer scents.
Forehead Glands The forehead glands are located between the top of the eyes and the antlers. They are most active during the rut. The activity of these glands has been positively correlated with age and probable social status; they are most active in older, dominant bucks. The glands produce an oily substance making the hair appear dark. The oil is transferred to rubbed trees and the overhanging branch at scrapes when the head of the buck comes in contact with the tree; and is used by dominant bucks to advertise their presence to both sexes. Marking trees and branches with forehead scent is a means of dominance and recognition among bucks. It has been noted that dominant bucks create most rubs, and they rub more often than subdominants. The scent from the forehead glands may be used as a priming pheromone to bring does into estrus; and to synchronize the timing of the rut between bucks and does when it is left in areas used by does.
Pre-orbital Gland Located in front of the eye, this gland is under muscular control and may be opened by rutting bucks to signal aggressive behavior. Females open this gland when tending fawns. It may not be rubbed on the overhanging branch as previously thought.
Nasal Gland These two almond shaped glands are located inside the nostrils and are probably used to lubricate the nose. They may also be used to leave scent on overhanging branches.
Vomeronasal Organ This diamond shaped organ is located on the roof of the mouth and serves some of the same purposes as the nose. It is used primarily to analyze urine, possibly while performing the lip curl and sniff, or Flehmen gesture, when a buck curls its upper lip and sucks air into its mouth so that scents come in contact with the vomeronasal organ. It is usually performed by a buck that is with/trailing an estrus doe. Analysis of urine through the vomeronasal organ may help to synchronize the breeding readiness between bucks and does, and ensure that both sexes are in peak breeding condition at the same time.
Salivary Glands These glands inside the mouth produce saliva, which contains enzymes to help in digestion. The enzymes in the saliva may contribute to the scent left on the overhanging branch at scrapes, and on rubbed trees when a deer licks or chews the branch or tree.
Interdigital Glands These glands are located between the hoofs of all four feet of white-tailed deer. The scent is left each time the deer takes a step. It is also left in large amounts when a deer stamps its foot, and when a buck makes a scrape. Each deer has its own scent, and because some of the compounds in this scent may be present in higher concentrations in mature males (3 1/2+ years), they may alert other deer of the presence of a dominant buck. Does use this scent to track their fawns, bucks use it to track does. Because scent molecules evaporate at different rates deer can determine which way another deer went by the amount of interdigital scent left behind. The scent from these glands is the primary tracking scent of deer.
Preputial Gland This gland is located on the inside of the buck's penal sheath and may be used for lubrication.
Metatarsal Glands These glands are a light tan colored circle of hair of about 1 2/3 inches in length located on the outside of the hind leg between the toe and the hock, or heel on whitetails. They are not actual glands, because they have no duct. Mule Deer exhibit the largest glands, then the Black-tailed Deer, and the White-tailed Deer. It has been suggested that blacktails open this gland when alarmed to express danger. It is not totally understood in whitetails, but I have seen it flared when two bucks fight.
Tarsal Glands These true glands appear as a tuft of erectile hairs, measure about 4 inches in diameter, and are located on the inside of the hind leg near the hock. The lactones of these glands are specific, allowing other deer to determine age and sex of the deer leaving the scent. The strong smell of the tarsal gland is caused by the deposit of urine on the deer's gland during rub-urination. Rub-urination occurs when the deer brings the back legs together and urinates over these glands. Bucks rub-urinate to display social dominance by marking themselves with the scent, and they determine social ranking by sniffing each other's tarsal. Does rub-urinate to make it easier for their young to follow them; and possibly to express social status among doe groups. Young animals rub-urinate as a means of self-marking. Part of the function of the scent from this gland may be to act as a warning signal. The scent from this gland is the primary recognition scent of deer.
Urine Bucks smell estrogen in the urine of females when they are sexually ready to breed. It has been suggested that does smell testosterone and protein levels in buck urine and are able to determine the health of the buck by the smell, which allows them to choose a healthy dominant buck to breed with. The combination of scents left behind during rub-urination at a scrape (urine, testosterone, and tarsal) may serve as priming pheromones to bring female into estrus.
Bucks may form bachelor groups and travel together prior to the rut. They often groom each other's head/neck region, and know the smell of each other by the forehead, tarsal, metatarsal and interdigital scents. Older bucks exert dominance over subdominants throughout the year by threats; kicking with the foreleg, and attacking with the antlers. When sparring begins in the fall the younger bucks already know which other bucks are dominant and stronger. They also know which dominant used a rub, overhanging branch and scrape by the smell left behind; this eliminates much of the fighting between bucks that might otherwise occur.
Through research we know deer use different sounds: to keep in contact with each other (Social Contact); to express alarm and distress (Alarm/Distress); to solicit attention from and respond to does and fawns (Maternal/Neonatal); to express dominance/threaten other deer (Agonistic). Deer also make sounds associated with courtship and breeding behavior (Mating). The statistics on whitetail vocalizations are based on studies by Dr. Larry Marchinton. The duration of the calls is approximate.
The Snort is an intense blowing sound produced by expelling air through the nostrils, best described as a loud whew, or whew-whew-whew. Deer that see or hear a disturbance but cannot smell the source often use repeated low snorts, foot stomping, head bobbing and tail flipping, possibly to alert other deer of danger. The head bobbing and foot stomping may be used to startle a predator into moving and giving itself away. A deer's sense of smell is thought to be independent of conscious discrimination, and deer that smell danger usually snort, then flee while flagging the tail.
The Bawl is an intense call used by deer in distress, often when caught by a predator or trapped. The sound is a loud baa. Does often respond to the call by running in, presumably out of maternal instinct.
The Grunt is used in three different forms to express dominance or to threaten another deer. It is also used to locate other deer, which causes them to respond by coming to the call, or by announcing their location by returning the call.
The Low Grunt is used by both does and bucks throughout the year. The call sounds like a soft guttural err. This is the first level of aggression, used to displace lesser deer. If the lesser animal does not move it is usually rushed and may be kicked with a forefoot by the dominant.
The Grunt-Snort is used most often by bucks during the breeding season in more intense situations. One or more snorts are added to a grunt; err-whew.
The Grunt-Snort-Wheeze is the most intense form of an aggressive call. It consists of a grunt-snort followed by a drawn out wheeze through pinched nostrils. The wheeze may sound like a whistle.
Social Contact Calls
The Social Contact Grunt is often performed by members of a doe group when they become separated, and it may help deer stay in contact when they can't see each other. In one study only females performed this call. This call is longer than the low grunt and can be heard by humans as far as 100 meters. It may attract bucks during the breeding season.
The Maternal Grunt is a low, quick grunt performed at short intervals when a doe approaches the fawn's bedding site. The fawn generally leaves its bed and joins the doe. It is audible to humans for only a few meters.
The Mew is used by the fawn when it wants attention, or is given in response to the maternal grunt of the doe.
The Bleat is the fawn version of the bawl, it is given by the fawn when it wants urgent attention, is hungry, or wants care, and may be heard as far as 100 meters by humans.
The Nursing Whine occurs while the fawn is nursing or searching for a nipple.
The Tending Grunt is a low grunt used by bucks when pursuing an estrus doe. It may consist of a single short grunt, several grunts or a long drawn out grunt. It is probably given to alert other deer of the presence of a dominant in order to keep them away; and to attract does.
The Tending Click is a clicking sound bucks may make when looking for of following estrus does. It sounds like someone slowly running a fingernail across the teeth of a comb. It appears to be a slow, drawn-out version of the Tending Grunt.
The Flehmen Sniff is a low sound produced during the lip curl, when air is inhaled to bring urine in contact with the nose or vomeronasal organ, allowing the buck to determine the breeding readiness of the doe.
Although several call manufacturers, writers and speakers claim there is an Estrus Doe Bleat or Doe Mating Call, no call of this nature was noted in the scientific studies I have read (that doesn't mean a does doesn't use a call when it is in estrous). These people may be referring to the Social Contact Grunt or a variation of it, used when does are in estrous.
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