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Cracking the Code of Body Language

To become a more well-informed deer hunter hone your understandings and abilities to recognize and take action of all the different body postures deer exhibit and use communicate messages to one another on a daily basis. This is particularly important when utilizing all types of hunting tactics whether they are passive (posting in a stand) or applying pro-active strategies (deer calls, antler-rattling, decoying, stalking, creating mock rubs and scrapes, deer drives, etc.) By understanding what each state of mind a deer’s body language is conveying to other deer or even a predator (including a hunter) it will enhance your tactics and help to give you an edge to increase your hunting success.

Before continuing on let’s take a look at what body language actually is. Body language is used by all animals and even insects as forms of mental and physical abilities to express non-verbal communications through a variety of body gestures, posturing, facial expressions and eye movements. These signals are meant to send distinct messages that other animals interpret subconsciously and/or instinctively.

Scientists claim that human communication is only 10 percent verbal (words), and the rest (90 percent) is made up of body language and paralinguistic cues. Body language provides clues to the attitude and state of mind of all animals including humans. Deer use body posturing mostly to communicate or indicate their state of aggressiveness, dissatisfaction, stress, alarm, and sexual desire.

In the white-tailed deer’s world, body language is a momentous form of non-verbal communication. For male deer it is a crucial element to specifically express what state of the hierarchy they are currently occupying on the steps of the social ladder. Deer also use body posturing to display to other deer situations of attentiveness, relaxation, acceptance, recognition, pleasure, and countless other emotional states quickly and precisely. If deer had to only communicate with each vocally, they would be unable to effectively interconnect with one another.

The different types of body posturing positions made by one buck or another are meant to send unmistakable messages to each other without either of them having to actually make body contact or vocalizations. A buck can display a particular type of non-aggressive body language to signal a message as simple as “hey good to see you,” or suggest through a different posture “I’m telling you to back-off,” or when they express a severe aggressive stance it may denote a message that says “back-off or I’ll kick your butt to within an inch of your life!”

As I mentioned earlier it is often used to send a clear-cut message of exactly what position of the pecking order each buck occupies. The higher the buck’s status is on the social ladder the more perks he is entitled to. This includes everything from getting first dibs on choice foods to breeding rights. Body language, particularly aggressive posturing used by both bucks and is Mother Nature’s way of preventing potential injuries when between deer (does or bucks).

By mid-June, long before the rut begins, bachelor groups begin to establish their pecking-order mostly using body language in order to avoid injuring the soft velvet covering on the antlers. From about April to early September this activity, plus some leg failing behavior, determines what buck is at the top of the totem pole and what buck occupies the last rung on the social ladder. They also use a wide variety of vocalizations during the time their antlers are in velvet to also communicate their status and current mind-set.

The body language and vocalizations used during this time helps each bachelor group form a strict pecking order that is adhered to through most of the spring and summer. Inevitably, however, this social status behavior is going to change as fall approaches. By learning to interpret these subtle body posturing signals or indicators, you’ll add yet another very valuable dimension to your deer hunting.

Have you ever wondered why soon after deer season you are able to walk past a buck casually feeding a few dozen yards from you? Or why one animal is allowed to eat before another? Or why a herd of zebra will feed within close proximity of a pride of resting lions? Or why do some dogs bark aggressively at some people and not at others? An over whelming amount of time it is mostly due s to do with the signals sent by one animal’s body posturing to another animal.

In the instance of the buck, your body language, while it may indicate interest, does not exhibit an intense hunting posture as it would when you're actively hunting. In the case of the feeding zebras, they can tell by the lion's post-feeding resting posture that they are not on the hunt. A dog can interpret fearful body posture in an instant. It interprets the body language as a signal that it is the pack leader and therefore it is necessary to let you know it is the top-dog by aggressive barking. Body language is an elaborate form of communication within the white-tails deer’s environment and as such it is something all hunters should become much more in tune with.

There have been countless scientific and biological studies containing limitless pages of findings about the captivating world of body posturing and the messages it is meant to communicate between deer. These highly visual physical signals display what is subconsciously on the deer’s mind. Hunters who read and interpreting body posturing exhibited by deer and other game animals vastly increase their awareness of the game they hunt resulting in them not only seeing and bagging more deer, but also increasing their odds of killing more adult bucks who have developed larger antlers.

Many years ago, on a bow hunt during the primary phase of the rut I used a grunt to call-in an 8-point buck. As the buck approached my stand I was deciding when I would pull back the string of my bow. Seconds before drawing back I noticed the buck's hair on the back of the buck’s neck was standing straight up – a sure sign of hostility by him. For a split second I was confused. I didn’t make an aggressive grunt and it shouldn’t have caused the buck to react belligerently. Perhaps the buck who was an average size eight-point thought he needed to display a more antagonistic attitude in response to my subtle grunt that could have sent a vocal message I was younger buck. If that was the case, the buck wanted to be sure his body posture sent me a clear message that he was more aggressive than the younger buck. I decided not to draw back and instead study the buck’s body more carefully.

As I watched him closely, I could see his head was pointed directly to my left. His eyes strained to look directly behind him. Then the hair fell flattened on his neck, he tucked his tail tightly between his legs, and slowly but with exaggerated purposefulness he started to walk off taking sideward steps. With each placement of his hoof he stomped it to the ground instead of placing it down normally. All at once it clicked in my mind! The buck was reacting to an obviously more aggressive and hopefully larger racked buck in the woods behind him.

In order to keep abreast of his body language I didn’t take my eyes off the eight-pointer for a second albeit I was sorely tempted to look for what I thought was a bigger antlered buck nearby. I desperately strained my eyes in hopes of seeing any peripheral movement by a second buck. Within a minute I had my answer. In a self-assured manner the second buck displaying a varied amount of intense body posturing walked under my stand and I instantly knew why the first buck was concerned! This second buck was obviously the more aggressive animal and it showed that it currently held a higher rank in the pecking order. Although their rack sizes were similar the second buck had 10 points and a slightly wider spread but had a much larger body than the first buck.

As the heavier deer walked toward the first buck he arched his back, laid his ears back flat alongside his head, and held his head low and at a severe angle. With body language he was demonstrating he was willing to fight. The first buck sent a signal of submission by turning his rear end to the buck. I don’t think the heavier buck saw his gesture as I released my arrow. Unfortunately, I didn’t kill the buck. The arrow sailed harmlessly over his back. When it hit the ground, the larger buck turned and without hesitation disappeared. The other buck confused took his departure as a sign of his superiority and confidently strutted around under my stand. Every time I see his mounted head on my wall I smile. I wonder what the heck he thought happened when my arrow passed through both lungs. My guess is he must have thought the bigger buck ambushed him from behind!

The fact that I was able to interpret the body language of the first buck allowed me the opportunity to get a shot at the other buck. Even though I made a poor release and missed the buck, I not only enjoyed seeing him, but I also learned more about body posturing from the hunt.

On another hunt I was posted in a ground blind when a doe approached. I was planning a deer management segment for our show and was about to take the doe on video. Once again as I drew my bow, I noticed the doe exhibiting body language in the form of flagging her tail from side-to-side. It wasn't a nervous twitch but rather a deliberate flick of her tail from side to side. It was body posturing that I was well familiar with. I let the bow down and waited. Moments later a good 8-point buck walked into the woodlot with his nose held to the ground. He trotted up to the doe and as he was sticking his nose between her rear legs when the arrow passed through his rib cage.

When you see a doe purposefully flick her tail from side-to-side several times in a row you should interpret it as a straightforward and unmistakable message that she is “flagging” because she is in prime estrous and signaling her condition to bucks who can see her beckoning to them using this form of body language. The quick flicking is also a paralinguistic cue that she is not only in the peak of her heat cycle, her body posturing also lets any buck know she is receptive to them mounting her. Knowing what was happening I opted to forego shooting the doe for the management piece until another day and killed the 8-point buck instead!

Deer exhibits a profusion of body language gestures. Below is a partial list of body postures along with a short description of each that deer use most frequently. Each description is meant to help you recognize body language postures so you can interpret their intended meanings more quickly and correctly adapt to them if necessary. Understanding how to identify a deer’s body language will help to dramatically change your whitetail hunting experiences and increase your deer hunting accomplishments.

Estrus Flagging: A tail that is fully fanned out (spread wide) and is being flagged from side to side and then it is positioned so that it almost appears to be held straight up and off to one side of her rump, is sending a body language message that she is in the apex of her heat cycle and immediately ready to accept a buck (The flagging also helps disperse her estrous pheromones into the prevailing wind). Estrous flagging is a crucial deer body language signal. Hunters who don’t interpret the body gesture correctly may end up shooting the doe and eliminating their live decoy -- that is almost guaranteed to attract a buck!

Tail Flipping: When a tail is hanging naturally then suddenly brushed or flipped from side to side it signals the deer is definitely about to move. Deer often stand still to gather more information and remain there only until it flags its tail from one side to the other side - TWICE. Deer use the double tail flick to alert other deer near or far that they are definitely about to move away. If you are watching a deer you are considering shooting, and it exhibits this body posture, do not hesitate a second longer to shoot the deer. You have about three solid seconds to react to a double tail flick before the deer begins to move.

Head Faking: When a deer extends its head and looks at you and then puts its head down, don't move muscle. Be assured that the deer is about to lift its head almost the instant it reaches the ground if not sooner. It is a terrific, evolved body language behavior to help deer fake out a potential threat from a predator giving it the all-important extra seconds it needs to escape and survive.

This body posturing helps a deer that can’t identify a threat by sight or scent coax the perceived danger into giving itself away by moving when the deer dips it heads. The use of the head fake has saved many deer from the jaws of a predator or the bullet or arrow from a hunter. Those who fail to identify this particular body language maneuver properly will no doubt be caught with their preverbal pants down so to speak.

Ear Drop: This is one of the most commonly seen forms of body language by hunters. The deer lays its ears back along its neck with the openings of the visible to the other deer. The ear drop communicates mild aggression. It is one of if not the most frequently used body signals among deer.

The Walk Forward: A deer (buck or doe) purposely walks toward another deer without giving ground to the deer they are approaching. This display of body posture expresses a very low-level form of aggression by one deer to another.

High Head: Many hunters have witnessed this type of deer body posturing. The deer stiffens its body and stands erect to appear larger to a would-be opponent. It pins its ears back and raises it head high and tilts its nose upward to exhibit a threatening posture. Bucks use body language to suggest they see or smell another buck approaching. The buck using the posture is displaying that he is in an aggressive mode. His posture says, "Stay where you are, if you know what is good for you." A perceptive hunter makes the immediate decision to either take the buck which is exhibiting the body language or carefully wait and inspect the surrounding brush before shooting. It may conceal an even larger buck.

Head Low Threat: Biologists often refer to this posture as the “hard stare.” A deer will lower its head and lengthen its neck while approaching another deer. It will also pin it ears back. While it does this the deer makes direct eye contact with the other deer, hence the label, "hard stare."

False Lunge: A deer will lunge forward toward another deer getting very close to it but stopping just short of making body contact. It is used as warning to suggest it wants the other deer to give it more space between them.

Front Leg Strike: All deer use this form of body language. Bucks use it most while their antlers are in velvet, Female deer use it all year long mostly to reprimand their fawns but also to warn off other families of does, yearlings and fawns and sometimes even bucks. It is an aggressive behavior, and the deer uses its hoof to deliver a hard blow to another deer in order to show its anger. Often the deer will strike another deer several times with its front feet. The hoof does not necessarily hit the other deer.

Back Raking: A buck or doe that currently occupies a high position within the hierarchy lifts its foreleg onto the back of another deer and drags its leg firmly along the back of another deer it considers a subordinate animal. It is used by a high-ranking deer to displace a subordinate from a bed, food source, or from standing too close the higher ranking deer.

Nose Poke: A High-ranking deer will poke its nose into the body of another deer. It does this to get the group to move to another area. It is also used to oust another deer from the group.

Head Shake: A deer will lower its head and spread it stance while lowering the entire front of its body. While doing this the deer will shake it head from side to side repeatedly causing its ears to flop around. It is a high-level threat posture.

Shoving: The aggressive deer uses a front shoulder to forcefully push against the rear end of another deer. Then it tightly presses its neck on the back of the other deer.

Leg Flailing: Deer stand on their rear legs and strike forcefully out with both forefeet at each other. Flailing continues until one deer shows submissive behavior. Does use this body language most and it is intended to display aggressive behavior. Bucks use it mostly when their antlers have dropped or when they are in early stages of velvet.

Flehmen Response: A buck will curl back its upper lip exposing its front teeth. Usually the buck inhales air with the nostrils closed. Flehmen is most often performed over a urine or deer scat site whose odors interest the buck. It is made while the buck’s neck stretched out and its head held high in the air. It facilitates the transfer of pheromones hanging in the air into and over the Vomeronasal organ located above the roof of the mouth. When you see a buck you’re going to shoot Flehmen, make your decision to take him quickly because time is against you. Usually this body language indicates the buck has scented a doe in estrus and is trying to pinpoint where she is. Once he picks up her direction the buck will generally take off at warp speed 9.9 to find the estrus doe. Hunters who don’t understand the meaning of the body posture will be left staring through a scope where a buck once stood moments before. If you’re not ready to react quickly to a buck that is exhibiting a Flehmen posture, you will end up losing the opportunity to shoot him.

Raised Neck Hair: When a buck holds it head high and his neck stands on end it imitates a similar reaction to when a human gets goose bumps on the back of their neck. People get goose-bumps when they get a sense that something is about to go awry. A buck exhibiting this type of body language is exhibiting aggressive posturing to demonstrate he is at an extremely high level of concern. Often the buck’s raised neck hair is caused by the anticipation of an approaching buck that he has not been able to identify as yet but senses is close to him.

Hoof Stomping: In all likelihood this is the most observed body language used by deer and witnessed by hunters. A deer alerted to potential danger or one that actually confirms a threat will lift one of its front legs half way off the ground and then it stomps the leg back down hard onto the ground creating a thumping noise and leaving excess interdigital scent on the ground. The Hoof stomp is also used as a warning to other deer. Deer also use it to prod movement from a possible threat by a predator.

A DOE WITH ONEEAR CUPPED FORWARD AND ONEEAR CUPPED BACKWARD - When a doe is walking down a trail and she stops to listen for potential danger before proceeding, hunters should pay particular attention to the direction her ears are pointing. If they are both cupped in one direction, she is probably alone. However, if one ear is forward and the other ear suddenly rotates toward her back-trail, she most likely listening to her approaching fawns and/or yearlings. During the rut, a doe will often exhibit this type of ear posturing to listen for a buck that is accompanying her.

Raised Tail Waving: High tail waving is the most familiar of deer posturing signs seen by hunters. Deer use it to warn other deer as they flee from an area that represents immediate danger. Does use the high held tail flag much more frequently than male deer do, particularly adult bucks. It is a visual body signal reference to all deer to deer in the area to immediately run away. Hunters who jump deer, or as standers on a drive see deer driven past them, with their tails held high, should instantly carefully scan the area to located deer fleeing with their tails tucked tightly between their legs. Since high tail waving is an action much more commonly used by does, a deer running off with its tail down or tucked tightly between its legs is quite likely to be a buck! Focus all your attention on this animal and you will have most likely picked out the only buck in the group by correctly interpreting this form of body language.

The Half-Way Head Drop: When hunters grunt at a buck that totally ignores their call, they should immediately focus on the body language the buck is most likely to exhibit. A buck that completely disregards your grunt calls most likely is not reacting to the grunt because he believes the grunt sounds are being made by a more aggressive buck. This is a common response from 3.5-year-old bucks with average sets of eight point antlers.

If the grunt sounds too aggressive, loud, or deep to the buck he will always show his anxiety by performing several subtle body language displays. First, he will extend his neck imperceptibly forward and slightly dip his head down. He will cup both ears and face the forward. His next signal will be to either barely pick up his pace or slow it down. Sometimes he will raise the hair on his back and neck. All body posturing to signal what he perceives to be an older more aggressive buck that has aggressively grunted at him.

His body language is unquestionably saying, “I heard you Mr. Big Bag Buck and look at me, I am demonstrating submissive behavior to you. I’m leaving the area without even looking in your direction and no matter how many times you vocalize to me, I’ll ignore you to demonstrate I don’t want any trouble from you!

Of course the hunter now believes the buck never heard the grunt and he grunts at him louder, deeper and more often. Now the buck says, uh-oh, he’s coming for me, and he begins to pick up speed but keeps walking without acknowledging the grunt.

The next time a buck that ignores you grunt call displays this type of body language stop grunting at him. Put the grunt down and use a subtle estrus doe blat. Again, watch his body posture carefully.

Even if the buck doesn’t look your way, or even turn an ear in your direction but slows other body postures including: slowing his pace down noticeably, lifting his head ever so slightly, hanging his tail straight down, cupping his ears forward, and/or cupping one ear forward and one turned directly over his back, is sending a signal of positive acknowledgement. He heard the estrous vocalization and is interested in it.

Now all you have to do is relax him enough to turn around and come back. Keeping totally still and don’t make any other deer calls. The buck didn’t forget about the aggressive grunt, so he will move cautiously with his response. Let his curiosity about the hot doe intensity by staying silent and not moving. Eventually one of two things will happen. The buck will appear almost magically near or at your stand, or he will not respond at all despite showing positive body language interest.

The reason most hunters are familiar with the more common forms of body language, like tail flagging and hoof stomping, is because these are very common body language signals exhibited by deer. To learn about the more subtle forms of body language I mentioned in this chapter, and some that I didn't, spend more time observing deer during the off-season. Observing certain forms of obvious and subtle signals of body language and then watching the reactions of the other deer will be the start to fine-tuning your understanding of this non-verbal communication behavior. Once you get it down pat, your payday will be seeing and bagging more deer.

By learning to read, correctly decipher and then react to the body language signals we receive from people and animals, we will improve our odds of responding properly to any given situation.


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