Red deer hunting guide – deer senses

Part 4 of 4: Stay undetected as Don Caswell covers smell, sight and hearing

Aspiring hunters know that deer are wary animals. But, just how wary, and how can that knowledge be used to your advantage? The following information is specific to red deer but, given the similarities between deer species, I reckon you can safely apply this to any group you might be hunting.

There is no denying that deer represent a tidy package of tasty food for predators, both human and animal. Also, in comparison to other game species, deer lack offensive capabilities, which adds to their attraction as a prey creature. Lacking effective defences, deer instead rely on threat detection and escape. Over the eons of evolution deer have honed their senses to perfection in order to survive predation by a host of predators and human hunters.

Deer have three principal senses that are the key to their survival ‑ smell, sight and hearing. We hunters know that their sense of smell is keen and must always be considered when hunting them. A point worth noting is that the sense of smell is by far their strongest asset and determines their behaviour. It has been observed by seasoned hunters that, under ideal conditions, deer can identify odours from distances exceeding 5km. What is more, the sense of smell is their most trusted ability. If deer perceive the scent of a predator or hunter they will immediately flee, without waiting for any other visual or auditory warning signs.

If you appreciate just how sharp their sense of smell is, then your deer hunting must be centred around that. In more open country, or flatter terrain, it is relatively easy to hunt into the wind. In forested gully country, the breeze can be a lot more variable, and hunters will need to adjust their hunting plan to match shifts in the gusts.

When you realise just how well deer can detect odours, you can appreciate there is no point continuing on your desired path once the wind has swung around behind you. Alerted to your approach, the deer will have moved off long before you reach that position. If you think ‘she’ll be right’ and continue, you will simply be taking your rifle for a bush walk, not hunting.

Near calm days, with highly variable gentle wafts, are particularly difficult to manage. In these conditions, the old trick of an ash bag can be a valuable tool. A gentle shake of the bag will release a small puff of fine ash that quickly demonstrates which way even the faintest breeze is blowing. Talcum powder works well in this application too but avoid unsuitable highly scented varieties.

Another similar trick, used by the old elephant hunters, is to have a thread of fine cotton hanging from the end of your rifle barrel. Being a bit manic about wind direction is a habit that does pay dividends when deer hunting, particularly in heavy country. I reckon being aware of the wind and working with it is more important than trying to mask your scent.

Obviously, it pays to avoid wearing strong deodorants and highly scented clothes. In the US, scent masking is a hot topic and, if you are interested in that, just google it. Season and weather can have a big impact on the deer sense of smell and provide hunters with valuable opportunities. However, that is a big topic on its own, that can be covered in another article.

Deer always use the wind to their advantage. That manifests itself in their behaviour when moving, feeding and resting. When moving, deer like to travel into the wind. This amplifies their threat detection ahead, using all three senses, as they progress.

When resting and feeding, deer prefer to have the breeze coming from behind them. Then, in the forward direction, they rely on their hearing and sight for safety. Lone animals can be stalked when they have their heads down grazing. With two, or more deer, they always seem to have one member on lookout duty, making stalking much more difficult. Deer like a light breeze as it maximises their detection of scent at long distances.

Also, in a gentle draught, their sense of hearing and sight is not overwhelmed. In periods of high winds, deer become nervous as all their senses are impaired. Most times, deer will seek shelter and wait out such periods.

The second most acute sense is their hearing. Under the right conditions, they can notice medium sounds at about a kilometre – greatly exceeding human capabilities. Many canny experienced deer hunters have commented on the noise made by hunters in stalking deer. Counter-intuitively, it does not pay to be super stealthy. Deer are used to the sounds of other deer moving around and feeding near them. Likewise, the many birds and other animals in the bush are often encountered and the noise of their passage and activities is known and does not alarm deer.

A hunter making the minimum of noises in stalking can often alarm deer. Some skilled deer hunters advocate a gentle rusting of leaves, like that made by foraging deer, as it actually masks the hunter’s approach more effectively. The major no-no is cracking a dry stick underfoot. That sound screams ‘predator’ to any nearby deer. The deer will most likely not flee though. They will instead be on high alert and looking for a confirmation, by way of sight or scent, before bolting. If the breeze is favourable, the hunter’s only real option is to stay perfectly still and just wait. And, be prepared for a good 15 minutes, maybe more. That seems like an eternity to us but, to deer whose lives depend on it, they will freeze on alert until they feel assured and safe again.

The eyesight of deer is quite different to ours. They see the world in shades of grey. They have no colour vision like humans and also lack the three-dimensional sense of depth that we have. Deer are especially insensitive to the red-orange band of the spectrum (hence the sensible choice of blaze orange clothing for hunters).

Their eyesight is not honed to identifying shapes but is acutely aware of movement or changes of scene before them. That is, on regularly looking about them, they are sensitive to any change in the picture since they last looked. Additionally, deer eyes are on the side of their heads, not forward facing like ours (and all other predators), so their field of vision is much larger than ours, sweeping out to about 270 degrees.

The fact that a deer is not looking in your specific direction does not mean it cannot see you. Sight is the least acute of deer senses and, when you consider the nature of their eyes, only good out to a few hundred metres.

The takeaway from all this is to always hunt into the wind, be careful in the noise you make (but don’t be too stealthy) and be keenly aware of deer vision as you close in to shooting range. If discovered, halt and be prepared to wait it out.

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