If you hunt deer, it helps to know what you’re up against.

With several times the surface area compared to human ears, and the ability to orient their ears in different directions, deer already gain a significant advantage. Those big ears function as funnels, capturing sound waves and channeling them into the ear canal. Signals are then sent to the brain where they’re interpreted, and that may be an even bigger advantage.

Experienced hunters understand. They’ve learned to discriminate the different sounds they hear in the wild, like the steady pace of a human, the punctuated hop of a squirrel or the four-legged gait of a deer. They can distinguish between the creak of a wind-blown tree and the grunt of a randy buck. They’re only there for a few days, or weeks at best. Deer are there 24/7 and will quickly recognize anything unusual or out of place.

The same is true for what they see. Most of us could probably negotiate our way through our own home in darkness, until someone rearranges the furniture. Deer spend every hour of every day in their home range, and much of that time in smaller core areas. Anything new or different will draw their attention. But their visual advantage goes far beyond that.

The deer’s pupil is larger than ours. Their retina has more, larger light-receptor cells called rods and cones, and they’re bundled – three to each nerve ending. Their retina also has a reflective layer called the tapetum lucidum, which reflects any light not initially absorbed the first time back to the rods and cones. This gives deer an 18x-greater ability to see at night. Multiply that by three for the bundled rods, and nine for the larger pupil and you can see why they can see so much better than us. Their eyes also have a tint that filters out some wavelengths for even better visual acuity, and they can process images about 4 times faster than we can.

Even with all that, their most effective defense mechanism is their nose. We don’t know just how much better they can detect and interpret odors but one look at that long nose offers a clue. If you’ve seen the inside of a cleaned deer skull and noticed the vast network of nasal turbinates you gain greater appreciation. There’s far more surface area for scent detection, and it is believed the difference is exponential.

Here again, interpretation of the signals detected is key. Deer communicate mostly by scent, and their ability to do so could be on a par with our own verbal communication skills. From a single whiff of urine, it is believed they can distinguish the sex, age, fitness and likely individual identity of the deer that deposited it. They also use at least seven sets of glands to communicate a variety of things like health, breeding status and possibly rank in the dominance hierarchy. Then we go out with a bottle of commercial deer urine and think they’ll all come running to greet us.

The odds are clearly stacked against the hunter, which is what we call “fair chase.” Occasionally, we’re successful: 18,000 hunters with three months of hunting opportunity harvest 40,000 deer. The average success rate is less than 25%, and there’s a lot of luck involved. Individual hunters can do better by knowing your opponents strengths and understanding how to exploit them.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: bob@bobhumphrey.com

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