Deer Talk

Posted on July 31, 2012


The how & why of whitetail vocalizations


Huddled behind my camera on a cold, sub-freezing morning in mid-December at the periphery of a whitetail deer yard held promise of some great shots. Although showing up under these harsh conditions is half the battle, it gives one no assurance that the temporary winter residents will cooperate. And it seemed after the first couple of hours that this photo shoot may well turn into a bust. Deer don’t care how far you’ve driven to reach them, nor do they even consider the hardships endured to sit out in the elements for lengthy vigils. After all, whitetails are animals, not entertainers and act (behave) solely on innate behavior and external stimuli. Wishing and hoping for an appearance can never draw a buck out of his shadowy lair any more than attempting to force one to do that which it has no intent to do. We must wait upon them and their seemingly whimsical movement.

As I sat there motionless making every attempt to divorce myself from the reality of how cold it actually was, several thoughts flooded my mind. Contemplations such as, ‘what if deer were like my dog and would eagerly respond to my commands?’ Wouldn’t that make things easier? And just think if they actually had the ability to verbalize in my language similar to the anthropomorphism depicted in C. S. Lewis’s classic tales, The Chronicles Of Narnia? I’d be able to convince them that there is nothing to fear, I was no threat, come on out and pose for the camera. Unfortunately, that is not how the laws of nature work. I can somewhat understand the deer through countless observations under a variety of circumstances and conditions, but to my knowledge they only view me as potential danger. And perhaps that is the way it should be, especially in light of what Archibald Rutledge writes,

“Now, if it seems childish for me to contrast man’s speech with that of the wild creatures, remember that fully conscious of my own shortcomings, I am merely trying to show that the simpler language of nature has an absence of some of the ugly excrescences that we have added to ours; and that while it might be difficult, yet it would be a beautiful thing if our communications could have in them more elemental cleanliness, courage, kindliness, and unfeigned joy…In this primeval speech there is a total absence of the ribald, the mean, the sarcastic, the cynical, the scandalous…Their behavior  was a kind of sacred worship. I heard no profanity. There was no afternoon gossip, no bridge-table scandal. There was a gentle communion of spirit as well as of voices – a harmony of hearts.”

Suddenly, I was whisked back to reality with a loud and very assertive grunt. And with this initial sound my world changed dramatically. I could now see bits and pieces of deer actively moving through the brush. The buck was chasing a doe, and in the process had created quite a commotion within the yard. Deer were now filtering out to browse, smaller bucks began chasing does off the food source, mother deer mewed and batted their front hoofs at their fawns attempted to feed from the same bush. As if on a switch, deer activity went from being completely sedentary to all out motion. And the sounds that I was hearing were unlike any I’d been privy to before.

Speaking the language


The doe came racing out first and stopped slightly to my right with her suitor not far behind. With each successive step a grunt could be heard. When he finally appeared and joined his mate I silently gasped and thought, “This may well be the largest buck I’ve ever had before my camera.” As I began to click the shutter the doe meandered off leaving this giant alone and directly in front of my lens.

Despite being completely focused on photographing this impressive specimen I could not help but hear, for the first time ever, an exact duplication of the sound made by ‘the can’ sold by Primos. Not once, not twice, but three very loud and long bleats came from 75-yards distance in front and to my left. The first transmission got the buck’s attention, the second blast turned his head and pivoted his ears, and with the third successive call he instantly trotted to the sound. Had I not been there alone or if deer season was still underway I’d have thought for sure someone was down there playing a cruel joke on me. But this was no joke, the doe was obviously recycling 28-days later and she was ready to be bred.


The uniqueness of this situation was that the deer were congregated into their winter grounds, which provided for greater intensity due to so many animals being in such close proximity, other bucks eager to service the doe and the deer’s unwillingness to leave the safety of this habitat; a situation seldom found during November hunts.

Understanding how to use the language


Perhaps the now famous slogan coined by Primos, “Speak The Language” was indeed more than just a selling point. If we are to benefit from the whitetail’s vocalizations, we must first know when they use a specific call and understand why they are using that language. Unlike the world in which we live where communication is conducted primarily through verbalization using a multitude of medians, a deer on the other hand communicates through scent. What he smells tells him everything he needs to know. However, there are certain auditory transmissions that whitetails use that transfer intent and understanding. For instance, when a deer blows all other whitetails within ear shot know conclusively that danger is present. When a buck is repeatedly grunting and rapidly making time coursing through the wood with choppy steps, he reveals to the rest of the whitetail world that he is chasing a doe. Other bucks hear this and instantly race toward the noise, not out of curiosity but rather with the thought of getting to breed.


 It really breaks down to noise association. Sirens equate to emergency, loud voice inflections usually denote anger, and a snapped tree branch represents something approaching; and to a buck the estrus bleat of a doe means she is ready and he better not dilly-dally.

My Results


Rutledge best describes my sentiments with the following postscript,

“During all the years that I have roamed the wildest and most remote haunts of the children of nature, my real motive has not been a scientific one. It does not matter to me what the color or shape or weight of Latin name of living creatures may be. I have been concerned chiefly with the question of their behavior; how they live, how they face disaster, how they meet emergencies. And my study has had the underlying purpose of bringing home to my fellow human beings some suggestions, learned from nature, as to how we ourselves can make of life a saner, better, and happier thing.”

Communication is not convenient, it is vital, for all living things. And how effective that communication is delivered and received has everything to do with the results.


My intent on this day was to capture some incredible winter whitetail images, which I did. But, in the process I received a surprising education; valuable insight that will indeed aid me in future hunts. Nature has a way of doing that. And because of what I saw and heard, at the appropriate periods during the fall I will now speak to the deer in a language that they can understand.

All images on this site are copyright protected and the property of R.G. Bernier

    © 2012 R.G. Bernier Nature Photography – All rights reserved.

Posted in: Whitetail Deer