You Can Beat a Deer's Senses
by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., November 26, 2005.)
What last minute advice would I give deer hunters? What reminders will help hunters see more deer? Can I boil my advice down to a few things that are easy to remember and to implement?
What about their ears? Recent research has shown
that deer do not have vastly superior hearing. In fact,
they probably can hear only slightly better than we can.
I had always thought deer had senses of smell, sight and hearing way beyond those of humans. Their noses are definitely much better than the biggest human schnozzle. I don't know why the scent of a human is so frightening to deer, why they don't trust it. Maybe the smell we give off signals to deer that we are predatory in nature. Or maybe we just stink to them, and they leave the room.
How do you overcome a deer's sense of smell? Lots of products are advertised that are supposed to cover, contain, absorb, "adsorb," and even eliminate human scent at the source. But the serious hunter knows that it is impossible to eliminate 100% of human scent, so he will keep the wind in his face.
Contrary to what many people think, deer do not have the eagle's visual acuity. The chief defense a deer's eyes offer is wide-angle vision because, like the eyes of most prey animals, the eyes of deer are located on the sides of their heads. That means they can see a lot more than we can without turning their heads.
The difference doesn't stop there. A deer's eyes are good, but built for a different environment. Like our eyes, theirs contain photoreceptor nerve endings called rods and cones. Cones sense color. Rods do not. Deer and humans have both, but the concentration and location of cones in our eyes equip us for daytime and color vision. Rods equip the deer's eyes for low light and nighttime vision, and are more numerous in all nocturnal animals. That's why deer see better in the dark.
The predominance of rods in the deer's eyes limits their ability to see color in the daytime -- which is why fluorescent orange is less obvious to deer. Hunters need not worry about whether deer see safety orange. Of course they see it, but it appears to them as a bright gray. It is not an alarming color to deer, and against snow, deer hardly notice it at all.
On several occasions I have walked up to deer in open, snowy woods, getting within 20 yards. A white background can effectively conceal the hunter wearing fluorescent orange -- as long as he moves slowly and silently, and the air currents are moving from the deer toward the hunter.
The hunter's biggest secret to avoiding visual detection is slow movement, so be as still as possible even when you are moving. Make no sudden movements because deer can pick up motion more easily than they can identify objects. As much as possible, keep your movements vertical, aligning them with the most common objects in the woods -- trees. Avoid sideways movements as much as you can. Don't reach out and grab nearby trees.
What about their ears? Recent research has shown that deer do not have vastly superior hearing. In fact, they probably can hear only slightly better than we can. However, they do have much better directional hearing, thanks to ears that are 3 to 4 times bigger even than Ross Perot's.
Although some of us humans can wiggle our ears slightly, we can't point them or rotate them independently like a deer can. Their ears are like big dish antennas, swiveling to point in any direction. That gives them the ability to determine with accuracy the direction of a sound, and reliably judge how far away it is. When a sound signals potential danger, and it is verified by either sight or scent, the deer flees.
It's easier to defeat a deer's eyesight and hearing than you might think, and it's possible under the right conditions to get an advantage over the deer's sense of smell. If you're tired of sitting in a treestand and waiting for deer to come to you, I suggest you hunt on the ground and learn to defeat their sensory advantages.
Don't be afraid to walk. The stick you break may not necessarily spook deer. They may not hear it more than 100 yards away. Stay clean, use cover scent, keep the wind in your face, move slowly and quietly, and commit to hunting on the ground.