How Smart are Whitetails?

Posted on March 6, 2018


After reading this title, someone’s immediate response would be, ‘plenty smart enough to elude me.’ Of course, we have all heard tell of the legendary buck that has stymied all efforts to bring him to bag. The general reaction from those that have routinely failed is, ‘that’s one smart buck.’ While it may help sooth a bruised ego to imbue brilliance to an animal that has rendered the best-laid plans to mere rubble, it must be asked; is that buck intentionally making rational decisions to escape the meat pole?

Primos, a well-known game call company, came out with a slogan that reads, ‘Speak the Language.’ Now, unless you have the same unique capabilities as Dr. Doolittle, you indeed can mimic the vocalizations of a whitetail, but don’t bet the farm that they will be conversing back to you anytime soon. Oh, they may well respond to bleats, grunts, snorts and clashing antlers, but their reaction is based primarily on curiosity rather than thinking one of their kind wants to converse.

As recently as the early 1980’s, animals were still considered to be automatons. Many professionals such as scientists, biologists and the like believed wildlife were incapable of any thought beyond reacting to stimuli. This belief would have these creatures lacking any ability to think, reason or even feel emotions. Don’t attempt to convince a pet owner of this without bracing yourself for an emotional reaction. We all believe our beloved dog or cat has thoughts and emotions. It’s human instinct to project this, however, such claims remain highly controversial and would never stand up to rigid scientific proof. And because all animals, wild and domestic alike, are separated by a language barrier; the only way to probe just how intelligent a whitetail may be is through experimentation.



Irene Pepperberg, a graduate of Harvard University conducted a thirty-year study using an African gray parrot named Alex. Irene stated, “I’m not trying to see if Alex can learn a human language. That’s never been my point. My plan always was to use his imitative skills to get a better understanding of avian cognition.” In so doing, Pepperberg used similar tactics as I do in training my beagle. Each time my dog follows my command, I award her a treat. She is learning to recognize that in order to get the treat, which is the object she really wants; she has to be compliant to my command. She is beginning to associate one-word commands such as sit, heal, and down with repetitive training and rewards. By the time Alex the parrot was 30-years of age, he was able to distinguish colors, shapes, sizes, and material composition. And of course, repeat nearly 100 words from the English language.

When we look at the level of intelligence a whitetail possesses, there are many behaviorisms that lend proof that they do indeed have the ability to think, make decisions, remember and react. If this were not the case, the whole race of deer would never have survived. Let’s take a look at some examples of just how smart deer are and compare their intellect with that of our own.



When a doe births a fawn, despite it being her first; she handles the affair as if she herself had delivered babies regularly for the local hospital. There are no doctors, midwives, nurses, epidurals or fancy tools in her preselected birthing area. And just as soon as the fawn hits the ground, she immediately begins to lick the amniotic fluid away from the newborn’s face. Despite medical advancements of today, how many women do you know that would be able to birth their own child, know exactly what to do next, and be able to pull it off? And then, within a couple of hours of the delivery, walk away with child in tow?

How efficient are we as humans to readily detect when eminent danger lurks? Do we recognize potential hazards quickly enough to evade them? The mere trace of human scent carried about by a whimsical breeze is usually enough for a whitetail to hightail it out of the area. Their ability to associate a smell with something dangerous lends proof that they can indeed process information. Do they know whether or not that human intends to harm them? No, but how often are we able to discern a stranger’s intent when first meeting them?

Our highly trained military that do covert work generally operate in the shadows, blending in with the surroundings. They do so primarily to conceal themselves and avert being caught. A buck operates in similar fashion by traveling primarily where he is concealed by heavy vegetation, only moving when necessary (spends 70% of his life on his belly) and recognizes the slightest change within his environment.



If you miss a shot on a mature buck from your tree stand or spook him while elevated in that specific tree, you can kiss any future opportunities at that deer good-bye for quite some time. The buck will continue to use the surrounding area; however, he will maintain a safe distance from your platform as they do indeed remember.

It is often understood that we as humans continue to expand our level of intelligence as we mature. This comes from both knowledge and experience. However, not all humans have the same IQ. Some are smarter than others. Usually, it is the buck that either has not gained enough experience or isn’t quite as smart as his counterparts that gets hung on a deer hunter’s wall. Those deer that live to be grandfathers are either fortunate enough to elude capture or have developed their intellect enough to survive, and are usually tagged, ‘un-killable.’



“Sometimes the human cognitive psychologist can be so fixed on their definition that they forget how fabulous these animal discoveries are,” said Clive Wynne of the University of Florida. “We’re glimpsing intelligence throughout the animal kingdom, which is what we should expect. It’s a bush, not a single-trunk tree with a line leading only to us. Some of the branches on that bush have led to such degrees of intelligence that we should blush for ever having thought any animal a mere machine.”



How smart are whitetails? Deer need to find mates, food, and a path through the woods; which does indeed involve problem-solving. What they don’t do or are not able to accomplish is plan, strategize, or formulate ideas. They are, as a species, the most adaptable big game animal in North America. And in spite of how much we have learned about this animal and its behavior; the white-tailed deer still makes enough right decisions to be – plenty smart enough for me.


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Posted in: Whitetail Deer