Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 10, 2009

An En-Deering Trait

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:34 pm

For my second installment of things re-considered, I will spend a few lines on the subject of deer. I don’t like deer – they are not pretty, graceful, or especially witty when it comes to ways of the wild. They reproduce like rabbits and leave a path of habitat destruction wherever they go.  But, I have to admit a grudging respect for them. It is one of my New Year resolutions to say something good about deer. As a male, I am envious of bucks and the sight of one will always cause me to freeze in my tracks. Whitetail Deer are a resilient, hardy and adaptable species and in some ways they outdo us in that regard. They also engage in play, which is an “en-deering” trait.

I recently encountered a group of yearlings and does one fine early January morning.  Each and every individual in this pod of deer saw me approach, but for some reason they allowed me to watch their antics for a short while. Being armed with a camera rather than a handful of food, I posed neither threat nor attractant. They were in the middle of a gaming session and weren’t about to stop.

Take a look at this movie (see here) and you’ll see what I’m talking about. You don’t have to be a behaviorist to see that the friskier members of this assemblage are acting like playful dogs. The wide-legged bow followed by a quick backup and a frantic gallop cuts across species from canine to cervid. Chasing is another identifiable play trait, except that these guys don’t roll and tumble when they finally make contact.

Most of the emotion is expressed through body language. Chief among these signals is the use of the tail flag. The bright white underside of that appendage is usually reserved for use as a warning flag. When spooked, fleeing deer will not only raise their “flag” but will wave it about as they run (see here). In this play group, however, their tails are not only flagged but are held tightly curled high over the back. Here, again, is a sign that deer are not as serious as they may first appear – there is a kernel of mammalian whimsy in their tail use. One of the things that seems to be missing from this apparently carefree session is sound, but it is there.

Listen carefully, and you’ll here a very loud “bleat” after one of the running deer brushes past one his fellow fawns. The sound is more like a quack from a toy duck. This vocalization occurs near the end of the video and is easily missed unless you play it over and over. It stands out because the rest of the session is silent.

Oddly enough, white-tail deer are a fairly vocal bunch, but they limit their voice performances to private performances. Most of the sounds are fairly quiet, but a social grunt used by does can carry over 300 feet or so. One of the most commonly heard of deer expressions is the loud “snort-stomp” in which a deer blows a rush of air through the nostrils and simultaneously stomps its  foot on the ground. This is intended to startle a mysterious observer (such as a hunter or a naturalist) into moving or otherwise revealing himself. Believe me, it works.

Outdoor writer T.R. Michels documents no fewer than 13 different deer sounds including tending clicks, grunt-snort-wheeze, and the ever-popular nursing whine. An addtional sound, the buck growl, was discovered a few years ago and became the inspiration for a new type of artificial deer call. I have not been able to find any reference that mentions this “play-quack” sound, however. Hey, maybe this observation will make me famous one day – or not. Actually I don’t care about that since I’ve already been rewarded by the opportunity to watch a group of deer doing something other than eating or bounding away.


  1. RE: They reproduce like rabbits and leave a path of habitat destruction wherever they go
    What you really mean is: They reproduce like humans and leave a path of habitat destruction wherever they go.
    Having had a city dweller drop off a female cat and her litter near my rural property, a very wiley mom who went on to produce multiple litters before I was finally able to capture her and have her spayed, I would have to go with “They reproduce like cats and leave a path of habitat destruction wherever they go” as second choice. Rabbits would be way down my list. I suppose they are more problematic in Australia.
    Of course, deer are largely a problem because of human habitat alterations. I’ve read that the old growth forest that once covered southern Ontario didn’t support deer, not having enough browse under the big trees. And the population of large predators that would once have helped maintain deer numbers at a lower level would never be tolerated in the rural areas now opened up to deer by human changes.
    Pointing a finger at deer is like that old expression, when you point your finger, 3 fingers are pointing back at you.
    I enjoy your posts. Thanks for the insights.

    Comment by Horsin' Around — January 11, 2009 @ 11:19 am

  2. they are not pretty, graceful, or especially witty…

    Huh? I think deer are very pretty, what with their big brown eyes and cute ears. And for an animal as large as they are, I do think the way they move is graceful–and quiet!!

    I will agree that they’re not really witty. I can honestly say that not one deer has ever laughed (or even chuckled) at any of my many humorous observations or witticisms!

    Comment by Monica — January 14, 2009 @ 11:06 am

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