How Do Whitetail Deer Communicate?
Whitetail deer do communicate through vocal, territorial markings and scent secretions, from glands located on the whitetail deer’s body. In an effort to harvest trophy whitetail deer one needs to educate themselves in regard to how whitetail deer communicate.
White-tailed deer produce several types of vocalizations such as grunts, wheezes, and bleats. These vocalizations, along with other sounds and postures, are used for communication. Injured deer utter a startlingly loud "blatt" or bawl. Whistles or snorts of disturbed white-tailed deer are the most commonly heard sounds. The grunt of a whitetail buck is normally an indication the buck is either looking for does or tending and chasing a doe that is coming into heat. Often times by using a grunt call will bring a buck into weapon range, as a grunt call can entice a whitetail buck to come and see what competitive buck is in his home range or core area chasing does that are present. Wheezes are a vocalization that are normally one of two things. A sneeze that is mistaken for a wheeze or a real wheeze which is normally an enraged buck ready to fight off other whitetail bucks in his core area. Whitetail Fawns tend to cry or “bawl” when lost or separated from their mother.
As a whitetail deer outfitter of 13 years I realize that manufactured whitetail calls which are now available to today’s whitetail deer hunter are a great thing, but can also be misused. The reason these calls are misused is because many hunters have been watching too much Outdoor Television. They see the hunt celebrities on television using grunt calls to harvest big deer and then the whitetail hunter becomes overconfident with grunt calls and uses them at the wrong time and too often. I have literally had professional hunters in camps with camera crews who after they killed a big buck then filmed footage of them using a grunt call. The footage of the grunt call is cut and placed prior to the kill in order to promote a sponsor that is writing them a check for sponsorship. Thus when we see this on television we tend to think we can simply go out in the woods and use our grunt calls to call in trophy whitetail deer as if they were ducks or geese flying into a wetlands area. Far from the truth. In fact I recommend never using a grunt unless its done during a rattling sequence or when you see a whitetail buck you wish to harvest that you KNOW is not going to come within weapon range. Using the grunt call as just something to turn him around and head him in your direction. Hunters that flock to the woods each fall and sit on their tree stands trying to grunt call trophy whitetail bucks in are not successful the majority of the time. Don’t overcall and use some common sense when mimicking whitetail deer vocalizations or you’ll foil the whitetail deer hunt before it even begins.
For those hunter wishing to kill a doe you will find that a whitetail fawn distress call works well early season. Does are quick to run to a distressed whitetail fawn in hopes of recovering the fawn before a predator grabs it.
Then we have the ever popular doe in estrous “bawl”. These vocalizations are being mimicked most accurately by “can calls”. My favorite “can call” is Hunter Specialties Estrous Bleat Call. With can calls all the hunter does is take the small handheld can and turns it upside down. This moves a wafer which in turn forces air out of a reed creating the perfect Estrous Bleat Call. The best can calls are make the sound of a doe in estrus and work throughout the rut. Our Estrus Bleat calls come in three sizes--Young Doe, Adult Doe and for extra long range, Mega Estrus. The models I recommend by Hunter Specialties include the following: Model #00166...Young Doe Estrus Bleat Model #00167...Adult Doe Estrus Bleat Model #00168...Mega Estrus Bleat
However again don’t take to the timber and sit in your stand and overcall. Normally I use it like I do a grunt call. Only when I see a whitetail buck I wish to harvest that I know is traveling in a route that is opposite my stand location. The estous bleat can also be used in a rattling sequence by the whitetail deer hunter.
Whitetail bucks are most known for marking territory with rubs and scrapes, however both does and bucks utilize scrapes for breeding purposes.
A hunt celebrity once told me that one thing is for sure about trophy whitetail bucks. Wherever they are present and spending most of their time you will find evidence in the form of rubs. Beginning in late summer or early autumn the blood flow to a whitetail bucks antlers stop; they then harden or calcify. The whitetail buck rubs small trees to remove the velvet on his antlers which is now drying up and beginning to shed. A buck is also scent marking trees by rubbing them with the pre-orbital glands located in his forehead, thus marking his home territory. The rubbing of trees is also a means of strengthening a whitetail buck’s neck. This prepares the whitetail buck for upcoming light sparring sessions with other buck's to establish a dominance order to the local deer herd.
Often times a rub line of series of rub that seem to be routinely connecting the whitetail bucks movement toward a particular destination is a great place to place a tree stand. Also remember that all size bucks rub on all size trees, however most generally only big bucks rub big trees. Thus huge whitetail buck rubs give away the whereabouts of monster whitetail bucks. In the world of whitetail deer hunting nothing is ever certain. In fact I've seen big bucks rub small trees; conversely, just last season I watched a yearling rub a tree as big around as a baseball bat. While we can make generalities regarding whitetail behavior, nothing is absolute. Also, at this time of year, it's very possible that a buck isn't alone. The pencil-sized rub you find might very well have been made by a yearling buck, but before the rut, he could be keeping company with an older buck or two.
Scrapes are locations where whitetail deer communicate in regard to the readiness of their breeding, as well as territorial marking. Whitetail bucks begin traveling their rub routes, working licking branches, and using some scrapes during the Pre-Rut/Rubbing and Dispersal Phases, as much as two months before peak breeding. Even though these Pre-Rut/Rubbing and Dispersal Phase scrapes may not be used regularly they can be productive as hunting sites when they first appear in September or October. If these early scrapes are traditional they may also be used during the Primary Breeding Phase, and again during the Post Primary Breeding Phase of the rut.
The best time to see bucks at scrapes is during the Pre-Primary Breeding/Scraping Phase, the two to three weeks just before peak breeding activity. Because of their strong rutting urge buck's leave their beds earlier than normal at this time, and they may check the scrapes near their bedding area before sunset as they make their nightly rounds. They may also return to their beds later than normal in the morning after looking for does all night, and they may check the scrapes along their route near their bedding area after sunrise.
Although bucks may not regularly visit scrapes during the Primary Breeding Phase they often travel the areas where both traditional and non-traditional scrapes occur (in travel corridors leading to and from bedding areas and food sources; in staging areas near food sources; and near doe core areas), as they look for or tend does. This is why you should pay close attention to all scrapes, especially those near food sources and doe areas.
During the Post Primary Breeding Phase the dominant bucks that are not worn out, and some aggressive subdominants, may start traveling rub routes and making new scrapes, or re-using previous scrapes. Most of this scraping activity will occur near doe use areas, and at staging areas near food sources. When the bucks no longer find evidence of estrous does they usually return to the security of their core areas to rest and put on weight for the remainder of the rut and the winter.
Does that were not bred (or did not conceive) during the Primary Breeding Phase may come into another estrous about a month later. Older does, and some yearling and unhealthy does, may come into their first estrous at this time. This is when bucks start traveling rub routes and making scrapes again as they search for these estrous does. The bucks are not as aggressive during this late breeding phase as they were earlier, and they may travel together to and from food sources. I often see bucks moving during the early evening and late morning hours at this time, especially when there is cold weather and cloud cover.
Which scrapes should you hunt? That depends on when and why the scrapes are used. Scrapes made early in the season may be made simply out of rutting urge, and they may not be used again. Scrapes made near early seasonal food sources may not be used after the food is gone and the does stop using the food source; this often occurs after the breeding period. Recently used scrapes made after the breeding period may be the scrapes of subdominants that begin scraping because the older bucks have quit checking their scrapes and exerting dominance over the younger bucks; the older bucks are busy chasing does.
Once you have found a secluded area scrape that looks like it is recently used try to determine whether or not it is being used frequently. The best way to do that is to check it daily, and if you have the opportunity you might as well hunt it while you are checking it. Frequently used scrapes that do not show recent use should be noted because they may be traditional scrapes, used at specific times during the season. Try to figure out why the scrape was used and when, then use the information to hunt the area next year.
If a scrape is near an all season food source (browse, clover) and a more preferred food source (acorns, corn) becomes available, the deer may abandon the area. A scrape in this area may be re-opened later if the food source is still there. Frequently used scrapes showing recent use should be watched closely and hunted. Frequently used scrapes of any type are often traditional; used year after year; used by subsequent dominant bucks; used by numerous bucks; and are possibly checked by all bucks in the area. Frequently used traditional scrapes in secluded areas may be used during the day and often occur in travel corridors and near doe use areas.
It is difficult to predict which scrapes to hunt, and when to hunt them; because most scraping occurs at night; because bucks begin to scrape more in the day during the Pre-Primary Breeding/Scraping Phase and Primary Breeding Phase; and because scraping by individual bucks does not occur on a regular schedule. Since there is no reliable way of predicting when or how often a buck will scrape, the best thing to do is choose the right area and hunt it when the conditions are right. Although hunting individual scrapes can be productive, you may be better off hunting near areas where numerous scrapes occur; areas referred to as scrape lines, especially if the area contains several traditional scrapes.
Scrape lines often occur in travel corridors connecting daytime bedding areas and nighttime food sources that are used by both does and bucks. These travel corridors may contain several traditional scrapes. Scrape lines may also occur in staging areas, often downwind of food sources. Scrape lines containing more than one traditional scrape should be your first choice as a hunting site. Remember, because of their semi-open location, many traditional scrapes are used at night, but they are likely to be used during the day in the Pre-Primary Breeding Phase.
Groups of scrapes often occur in staging areas that are near food sources. Although these may seem like good areas to hunt, they may not be. Bucks often scent check scrapes from downwind before they approach the scrape, and they may not even approach the scrape. This means that bucks are extremely wary near scrapes, particularly where there are numerous scrapes that numerous bucks may be using. The best way to hunt scrape lines and staging areas is to find the rub routes the bucks use as they approach the scrapes, and then set up crosswind or downwind of where you expect the bucks to check the scrapes from.
Whitetail Deer Fighting
Whitetail deer as most other types of animals establish dominance and adhere to a “pecking order. Doe’s tend to establish dominance through body language as well as sparring with front hooves. In fact man a mature whitetail doe has run inferior bucks off a core area with a few smacks of the hoof.
Whitetail bucks use body language as well as righting with their antlers to establish dominance within the whitetail deer herd. Late summer and early fall sparring bouts take place between whitetail bucks to establish dominance, but also serve as a way of practicing up for the oncoming of breeding season, and for the flat out fun of it. Once the whitetail deer breeding season begins whitetail bucks fight vigorously and been known to fight until death in some instances. This is where the whitetail hunter sometimes mimicks the sound of fighting whitetail bucks by “rattling” a set of sheds or antlers together. Often times bucks will respond to rattling and come in to be involved in the bout. However as with any type of calling for whitetail deer, rattling can ruin your hunt as well. With the ever increasing rise of whitetail deer hunting far too many whitetail deer hunters over call. In 2007 I was hosting a whitetail deer hunter in Iowa that was literally rattling every 10 minutes throughout the entire time he was in his tree stand. Obviously this is a case that is extreme but my belief is that your chances of rattling up a trophy whitetail buck in the Midwest is minimal at best. In fact rattling has been so unsuccessful for me that I don’t even bother carrying a set of horns into the woods. However if you insist upon doing so my advice would be to rattle over hot scrapes during times during your hunt that are unproductive. For example, if I went out on a morning hunt and 3 hours into the hunt I was not seeing bucks I might try a rattle sequence with a grunt call mixed in. Normally you will want to rattle for 2 minutes and stop for 2 minutes. Repeating this process 3 times. Then stop it. Don’t sit in tree stands and rattle all the time. More often than not your simply giving your location away.
Whitetail Deer Scent Glands
Whitetail deer also communicate through the secretion of fluid from glands located on and about their bodies. Both sexes of whitetail deer are most active during the breeding season of whitetail deer often referred to as the rut. In the Midwest the rut normally starts around November 1 and ends around November 25 with the peak somewhere in between. During this time period gland secretion from whitetail deer is at the annual high. Whitetail deer have five basic scent glands which include the following:
Forehead Gland The forehead glands are located between the top of the eyes and the antlers, and 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. The scent from the forehead glands may also serve as a priming pheromone to bring does into estrus, and to synchronize the timing of the rut between bucks and does. Since this scent is most evident when bucks rub and scrape it should be used during the rubbing and scraping phases of the rut. Because this scent is associated with dominance it may work best to attract dominants, and it may scare off smaller bucks.
Preorbital Gland located under the deer's eye, are important because bucks leave their scent from these glands on licking limbs above scrapes and on trees that they rub.
Interdigital Gland located between the hooves of both the front and rear legs. These glands, like the tarsals, are also a major contributor to distributing scent for rutting bucks, which paw the ground through scrape behaviors.
Being that each deer scent is individually distinguished, scent released from the interdigital glands helps deer to follow or locate one another - especially rutting bucks in pursuit of females. These glands allow whitetails to form scent travel routes and assist in establishing their home ranges. This is crucial for herd socialization and for females raising their young. These glands are believed to be the foremost way whitetails track one another.
Metatarsal Gland outside of the hind leg which has been named the metatarsal. The metatarsal gives off a musk that must contribute to the individuals’ identification or act as a doe attractant.
Tarsal Gland The most common glands by far are the tarsal glands, which are located inside the rear legs of both bucks and does. Tarsals are believed to be the prime calling card for whitetails to distinguish themselves. The scent released from the tarsals may enable whitetails to identify not only the sex of a particular deer, but the age as well.
During the pre-rut, bucks really begin to put their tarsal glands to work - especially at scrape sites. After working an overhanging licking branch and pawing the ground with the front hooves, bucks will then perform what is known as rub-urination. Basically, a buck will bring its tarsal glands of both legs together and urinate on them while simultaneously rubbing its rear legs and hindquarters - stimulating the tarsals and depositing scent upon the ground.
While this behavior is not yet fully understood, it is believed that rub-urination on tarsal glands allow deer to identify one another. Dominant bucks use tarsal rub-urination to announce their presence - particularly in the pre-rut. Whitetails of all classes - young, old, female and male will periodically perform rub-urination on their tarsals throughout the year Observations afield strongly indicate that the most assertive and aggressive bucks are usually pungent with a strong tarsal odor produced by the tarsal rub-urination process; and have some of the darkest stained glands. One reason for this smelly distinction is that these dominant bucks are constantly working the tarsals.
Biologically, when bucks perform rub-urination, there is a composition with bacteria and the urine; and it is believed that fat lipids are released during rub-urinations. These factors may contribute to the strong odor. Finally, genetics and testosterone levels could also play a significant role in why one buck's tarsal glands are darkened more than another buck's tarsal glands.
In conclusion, be educated on whitetail deer communication and behavior so that you may better understand the prey you hunt.