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Bill Marchel: Decoding the body language of deer

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.

White-tailed Deer Buck 00274-39416BD.JPG
The colossal buck in this image is guarding a doe in estrus. Another buck that is out of the picture is approaching. The big buck has puffed up his body hair to appear larger and darker. He has also laid his ears back. Both are threat poses, warning the other buck to stay clear. Contributed / Bill Marchel
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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.

White-tailed Deer 00275-20212BD.JPG
A whitetail doe performs what is called a "foot stomp." The deer will lift its forefoot slowly and then stomp downward with significant force. The stamp alerts other deer of potential danger. A foot stomp is often followed by a vocal snort. The action also releases scent from the interdigital gland located between the deer's hooves. Contributed / Bill Marchel

The simplest of these postures, and perhaps the easiest of all to decode, is what I call the "alarm pose."

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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.

Related: Discover fascinating facts about deer antlers
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.

White-tailed Deer Buck 00274-34112BD.JPG
This buck is displaying the typical gate of a buck tracking an estrus doe. Note he is trotting with neck extended, head low, and tail tucked. Often the buck will be panting and sometimes the tail will be raised parallel to the ground. A buck in rut and pursuing a doe may emit a low, short grunt about every third step or so. Contributed / Bill Marchel

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.

Related: Bill Marchel: Appeal of the whitetail
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.

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White-tailed Deer Buck 00274-32906BD.JPG
This giant whitetail buck just sniffed where a doe had urinated. He holds his nose high and curls his upper lip in a gesture called the "flehman procedure." The buck is using the vomeronasal organ located on the roof of his mouth to analyze pheromones to determine the estrus condition of the doe. Contributed / Bill Marchel

Related: The allure of the big buck

BILL MARCHEL is a wildlife and outdoors photographer and writer whose work appears in many regional and national publications as well as the Brainerd Dispatch. He may be reached at bill@billmarchel.com. You also can visit his website at BillMARCHEL.com.

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