Ask The Deer Tracker

Posted on March 27, 2012


March column


Editor’s note: One week each month we will run the, Ask The Deer Tracker post. Anyone wishing to send a question for future posts can e-mail it to:


Q. – I recently read the following excerpt written by a Maine biologist –Temperature has little effect on deer in the fall. All of us humans are probably guilty of assuming what affects us also affects wildlife the exact same way.  If we of the temperature-controlled indoor world are shivering, then it’s lore that “the deer will start to move”.  When daily temperatures are in the 60s-70s, we wear T-shirts.  When the temperature drops to 40 we wear jackets.  It’s not wise to assume that deer, a creature that lives outdoors when its 30 degrees below zero in February, is going to change its ways over such a minor temperature drop.” My experience has been that when temperatures rise, deer activity is reduced. Could you clarify this for me?

T. M. – Portland, Maine


A. –  My response to your question will be in stark contrast to what you have read from the biologist. As a behaviorist that has spent the better part of my life in observation of this animal under every conceivable condition, here is what I know to be factual when it comes to whitetail movement patterns.

During the months when whitetails are donning their heavy winter coats (hunting season) and the temperature rises to 42 degrees or higher, whitetail activity shuts down. This is what is known as the ‘fur factor’. Unlike us, a deer cannot remove his coat when the mercury increases. They also have no sweat glands to cool down and therefore the only remedy to remaining comfortable under these conditions is for them to remain on their bellies in a cool location. If these temperatures persist during the breeding phase of the rut, whitetails will still breed only the process will transpire under the cover of darkness when it is cooler. Whitetails, like humans have a preferable temperature gradient when they are most comfortable and active.


Q. – Do whitetails experience the same kind of sleep as humans, and do they ever go into a deep sleep?

E. M. – Dracut, MA


A. – Yes and no. Whitetails do indeed sleep. It is a fundamental requirement for most mammals, but they do so much differently than you and I. Although they may remain at rest in their bed for extended periods of time, only a small fraction of that period is spent sleeping, as we know it. They generally catch short bursts of ‘rapid-eye-movement’ sleep.

Unlike your pet dog or cat that has nothing more to be concerned about than when their food bowl will get filled, a whitetail is a prey animal that cannot afford to be off-guard. Therefore, when the animal sleeps, generally in 20 to 30 second bursts with their eyes closed, his ears are constantly in motion and as he inhales every scent is scrutinized subconsciously.

I have, however, observed a scant few whitetails that were definitely engaged in what is known as ‘quiet sleep’ where brain activity is reduced and the animal’s breathing becomes deeper. One deer actually had his eyes completely shut for several minutes with only a slight flutter of his eyelids from time to time. Let me assure you that this is a rarity among whitetails. It has been my experience that deer will generally sleep with their eye’s completely open, and to the untrained eye, it would appear as though they were quite conscious. But, snap a twig or let your scent drift into their nostrils and they quickly snap into an alert state. I recently had the opportunity to sneak up onto a buck that was fast asleep in his bed. I was able to set the camera and focus without him realizing anything was amiss, but as soon as the shutter release clicked he immediately bolted out of his bed, took two bounds and groggily looked around attempting to determine what had disturbed his mid-morning nap.

Q. – This past deer season I was fortunate enough to be hunting where there was snow present. Unfortunately, on many of those days there was a crust making it nearly impossible to be quiet. How do you hunt in conditions such as this and hope to succeed?

C. H. – Bennington, VT


A. – Crusty snow is one of the most frustrating hunting conditions that a still-hunter or tracker faces. You cannot move without sounding like an elephant doing a tap dance on potato chips. Whitetails, who by nature are prone to bolt at the slightest disturbance, become even more spooky acting when the forest floor is covered with noisy snow.

The best advice I can offer is to make every attempt to mimic the sound of a deer as it walks. I go very slowly and place my steps toe first through the crust. I also break up my cadence between stops in odd number steps. I may go three steps and stop, whereas the next series may contain five steps.

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