Whitetail Deer Body Language Explained

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One of the keys to being a successful hunter is understanding whitetail stress signals and behaviors. By understanding the body language of a deer you can guess their next move. Knowing what a deer is feeling is a great tool to seeing more deer and growing as a hunter. Bowhunting over the years has brought me up close and personal with many deer and these are the things i’ve learned.

Whitetail deer

How deer use their tail to communicate

Whitetail deer show their mood in various ways. By using their ears, eyes, legs, tails,and even body hair they give away their current alertness level. Most hunters are aware a flipped up tail is a sure sign a deer is on high alert and ready to bolt. What other signs are less common knowledge?

     Tail signals from a deer at ease

  • Many deer, especially bucks, will tuck their tail into their rump when fleeing. Seeing a running deer from a distance that is crouched low with its tail tucked is more than likely a buck.
  • When a deer is feeding with its head lowered it will usually flick its tail back and forth before raising its head. This is very useful when you’re planning a shot on a feeding deer. These deer are calm and at ease. This is the perfect time to set up a shot when bowhunting.
  • Twitch- When deer are content and unalarmed they will often flick their tail. This is no cause for concern as they are unaware they are being hunter and you have plenty of time to plan a good shot.

      Tail signals from an alerted deer

  • Half mast tail – This is indicative of a deer starting to become alert. Whether it saw an errant move on your part or caught an unwanted scent in the air. This is a concern to hunters because a deer with this tail position senses something out of place but hasn’t decided how much of a threat it is. Hunters finding themselves in this situation should make decisions quickly or it can cost you a shot.
  • Flaring and warning flicks – When a deer knows a predator “hunter” is close by it will flare its rump fur up and expose more of its white backside. This is usually accompanied by a multitude of fast tail flicks in sequence. These deer are warning other deer in the area you are near as it tries to pinpoint your location. Bowhunters are usually too late to take a shot at this moment.
  • Full Flag – When a deers tail is straight up it is usually right before it bolts or after it has already started running away.

How deer communicate

How deer use body hair to communicate

  • Bucks will often raise the hair along the back of the neck. They also raise the hair on just their rump. This is a sign of trying to intimidate a rival buck. This behavior is especially noticed during the rut.
  • More commonly noticed are the long white hairs on the face of the rump. These will stand straight out when a deer is alarmed.

The dark fur patches on the inside of a deers hind legs

The dark patches of fur on the inside of a deers hind legs are known as tarsal glands. Deer use these areas to scent check each other. During the rut these thick, stained hairs reek with odors.

  • Most of the odor emanates from urine intentionally dribbled for sexual excitement. A deer’s world is highly dependent on smells for security and communication. This is a way in which they can communicate through these means.
  • Even more recognizable Whitetail deer will nose each others tarsal glands during the rut to identify sexual availibility. This is using smell to communicate at its core.

The different Glands deer use to communicate

  1. Metatarsal Glands – These are on the lower outside of a deer’s hind legs. Unlike the Tarsal glands, these do not produce any oil like secretions. Deer are not believed to urinate on the metatarsal glands. There is a lot humans are still learning about deer however and most of what we know was learned through observation.
  2. Tarsal Glands – As previously stated these are a deers odor identifiers. Located on the inside of the hind legs these dark stiff hairs hold a strong odor. Deer secrete oil like substances and urinate on these to let other deer know many things.
  3. Interdigital Glands – More important than metatarsal glands but maybe more unnoticed are the interdigital glands. These are located between the toes of each foot. If you spread the toes you will see a narrow pocket of hairs. This enables deer to leave a distinct scent every time their hoof touches the ground. This apparently enables deer to scent track each other.
  4. Preorbital Glands – Another unnoticed but important gland that is located in the corner of deer’s eyes. This is used to rub on twigs and tree limbs to leave a waxy substance. This waxy substance is a personal identifier and deer use it to track each other.
  5. Deer also have a forehead scent gland between their eyes. This is especially important when bucks make rubs. A rub is more than a way to remove velvet, it is also a personal signature from that buck left behind by that gland.
  6. Scent glands in whitetail’s mouths – Biologists have discovered that when a deer licks and smells a tree branch they will pull it through their mouth. This effectively leaves scent behind marking it for other deer.

Knowing these small glands even between a deer’s toes exist will often make a new hunter realize the importance of scent control.

Whitetail buck rub

Whitetail deer stomping their feet

When a whitetail deer becomes alert it will begin to stamp its hoofs. This often looks like a very exagerated movement. A deer will frequently bring its front hoof all the way up to its chest by curling its front leg. Then it will forcefully slam its foot on the ground. The stamping deer will usually stay very still in the same spot and continually stamp its foot. When this is happening the deer is looking for the threat it originally perceived.

Once a deer either spots that threat or becomes too nervous to stay it will snort or “blow”. Once a deer blows it will usually high tail it out of an area. Knowing this can help you when bowhunting because if a deer begins stamping its front hoof you will know it’s on high alert. This behavior isn’t an absolute thing. I have seen does stomp a few times almost as if to say” I think I sense danger but I haven’t decided yet”. Those deer usually stomp a few times very lightly and delicately and then continue feeding or moving through an area.

Use this to your advantage

Next time you’re hunting use this knowledge to your advantage. Hunters often associate this behavior with a deer busting them in a stand. However deer will also alert you to other deer moving into your area that you may not be aware of. Seeing a deer stomping and on high alert but looking in the opposite direction from you could mean another deer moving into its hearing range that you had no idea was there.

If you’re sizing up a deer who begins stamping and you are sure it isn’t another animal moving in you need to act quickly. This is a sign that you’ve been busted and you shouldn’t waste anytime on making decisions. Even if you sit perfectly still be aware that deer can still smell and sense you. If your deer becomes agitated to the point that it blows every deer within ear shot will be alerted to your presence.

Why do deer blow, snort and sneeze?

There are many debated reasons for these communication techniques. A deer blows by forcing air out through its nasal cavity. This happens when a deer becomes alerted to  perceived danger. Blows will often be repeated several times. A snort is the very short and forceful sound an alerted deer makes as it turns to run. These sounds have three main goals. Deer use them to clear their nasal passages in order to sniff the scent in the air better. They also alert other deer to a danger in the area. The sounds can also cause a predator to become startled and flinch, thereby revealing its location.

When to take a shot when bowhunting a deer

After skimming through this article you need to know one simple thing. That is when is the right time to take a shot on a deer. As a bowhunter taking an ethical shot should be a goal. A deer who is feeding casually, tail flicking in an unalarmed fashion, head not jerking quickly up and down and preferably standing broadside to you is the perfect goal. This usually means you can clearly see the whole deer and its full rib cage is exposed to you as viewed from the side at approximately 90 degrees. Moving slowly but surely into a standing position while drawing your bow at the same time can reduce the time it takes to get a shot off by as much as 50%. This technique should be practiced but will lead to more deer in your freezer.

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