Deciphering the body language of white-tailed deer is an art. It's not learned over just a hunting season or two, or even a lifetime afield observing deer.
I've been a student of whitetails for more than four decades. During that time, I've been able to decode several characteristic body postures, or displays, demonstrated by whitetails that can help a hunter — or any deer devotee — interpret what a deer is "saying" simply by its body language.
The simplest of these postures, and perhaps the easiest of all to decode, is what I call the "alarm pose."
If you've spent any time observing whitetails you've seen this posture. The "alarm pose" is mainly observed when a deer only hears or sees something it perceives as imminent danger, but because of the direction of the wind, it cannot smell the object of its focus. The deer's ears — whether buck or doe — will be cupped forward, its head held high, and its stare will be in the direction of the disturbance. The deer's body will be stiff and un-relaxed. Sometimes the tail will be raised. Other times the white rump and tail hairs will simply be flared. A deer's astounding sense of smell is its best defense against predators, whether man or beast, and just a whiff of a predator will send most bounding away with tails raised.
To the hunter, observing a deer in the "alarm pose" could mean another deer is approaching. Perhaps a big buck. Or possibly another hunter. A deer's sense of hearing is highly acute and they have a remarkable ability to decipher the various sounds around them. Seldom will deer perform the "alarm pose" at the sound of squirrel, turkey, or other non-threatening animal.
A deer that is unable to determine whether a sight or sound is friend or foe will sometimes perform the "head bob." The deer will begin to lower its head toward the ground as if to feed, and then swiftly jerk its head back up. This sudden unexpected movement can catch a predator (or a hunter raising his weapon) off guard as movement is made while the deer is seemingly going back to feeding.
Once a whitetail has determined the source of its attention is not a threat it will usually wag its tail once or twice in a casual, side-to-side motion. This I call the "all clear" signal. The tail wag appears to be a gesture to other deer in the area that there is no danger, although lone deer perform the "all clear" signal, too.
During the November whitetail rut, or breeding season, deer will display many different, interesting and informative body poses, each with its own language. Learn what deer are "saying" by studying the images on these pages.
Related: The allure of the big buck