If there is a wild animal more fascinating than a whitetail deer, I don’t know what it is. Should I decide to stop hunting them, I shall continue to feel this way. Certainly the act of hunting deer year after year for most of my adult life has helped generate this fascination and appreciation for the deer’s incredible elusiveness and natural survival mechanisms, its five senses.

During deer-camp cracker barrel sessions, heated discussions often ensue about which of the deer’s five senses are the keenest, which one do they rely on the most for detecting danger?

If pressed for an answer, what would you say? Sense of smell?

Yes, that is the one I have long thought to be the whitetail’s most effective danger detection system. This, to my knowledge, has always been the conventional wisdom passed down from deer biologists and naturalists who lecture and write books about  whitetail behavior. It is why deer hunters go to such elaborate — and sometimes expensive — lengths to control their body smells in the woods.

A man with a lot of credentials has stepped forward to challenge this conventional wisdom. Dr. Leonard Lee Rue II, who is an American icon when it comes to deer photography and deer behavior, argues, quite convincingly, that a deer’s hearing, not smell, should be at the top of the list.

In his new book “Whitetail Savvy,” which is destined to become a classic comprehensive publication on deer behavior, Rue asserts that a deer’s sense of smell, which is acute, only works some of the time. Wind, temperature and other weather conditions can really compromise a deer’s ability to smell danger.

A deer’s hearing, on the other hand, is a danger detection device that is up and running 24/7. Keep in mind now that Rue has photographed and studied deer behavior closeup all of his life. He has written dozens of books and magazine articles on the subject as well.

Here is an excerpt from Rue’s book on the deer’s auditory system:

“A deer can be in a deep sleep, but its ears never stop moving, winnowing its surroundings for the slightest sound of danger. What is more remarkable is that even while a deer sleeps, its brain is analyzing and filtering out sounds that don’t represent danger.”

Rue says that a noisy squirrel or a falling limb won’t cause a deer to awaken but a distant human footfall will bring a deer to full alert. A deer, he points out, also can use its large ears like a revolving radar dish. Unlike a human who turns a head to hear a distant sound better, a deer can move its ears toward a sound without turning its head.

Additionally, a deer has a hearing frequency range that can go as high as thirty thousand cycles — twice that of humans!

Finally, an interesting aside. In his observations, Rue learned that deer often abandon an area that is habituated by flocks of wild turkeys. It is not a competition for browse. He writes,” It’s not that the deer are afraid of the turkeys; instead, the deer may sense that the turkey’s constant scratching in the leaves could mask sounds of potential danger.”



The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM-FM  101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected] . He has two books “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook” and his latest, “Backtrack.” Online information is available at www.maineoutdoorpublications.com or by calling Diane at 207 745 0049.

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