Whitetail Body Language

Much like all animals’ whitetails have a language they use to communicate with each other. As a hunter it is important to understand, as much as possible, a whitetails language. By deciphering the whitetail language code hunters can understand what a deer is thinking and saying to other deer. In return a hunter gains that much more familiarity about their quarry and can use this knowledge to ultimately becoming a more savvy hunter.

While the complete “Whitetail Dictionary” is still being studied and researched, deer biologists have found that whitetails use three ways to communicate with other: Voice, Body Language, and Chemical (scent). These three categories of communication allow deer to alert other deer of danger, deter danger, socially interact, establish a social hierarchy amongst a herd, and detect sexual readiness.

Body Language

Whitetails will use body posture to alarm other deer of danger, socially interact, and establish their social hierarchal rank in a herd.


Whitetails are herd animals and will set up a social hierarchy for all deer to follow. Some deer are dominant to others, while being subordinate to other deer and vice versa.
One way deer set up this social hierarchy is by body language. These postures are used by whitetails to let other deer know of the territorial boundaries and dominance within the herd.

Antler Threat (bucks during rut): A buck will lower its head and point its antlers in the direction of its competitor, notifying that he intends to charge.

Sparring (bucks in rut): Bucks will face each other, lower their heads with their antlers pointed toward one another and nudge their heads together, while using their antlers to twist and push their opponent. Sparring tends to be a non-violent bout in order for bucks to establish a social hierarchy amongst other bucks in the area. However sparring can be intense and quite vigorous, especially when rut approaches. Sparring is performed during the late summer and early fall and usually stops once breeding begins and can resume in the later stages of rut.

Antler Rush (bucks in rut): A pair of bucks will pose in an Antler Threat position then run directly at each other crashing antlers together. This is a violent act and most of the time there is an apparent winner. The result of an antler rush is to establish a dominant-subordinate relationship between the two bucks fighting.

Ear Drop (all deer, during all seasons): The ears of a deer will drop along its neck. This is a low threat warning all deer use that is frequently displayed when a deer is slightly irritated.

Hard Look or Stare (all deer, during all seasons): Deer lower their head and put their ears in a back position and glare directly at another deer for a period of up to ten seconds or longer. This is an aggressive posture since most deer normally don’t make long periods of eye contact with each other.

Strike (all deer, during all seasons): A dominant deer will lift up its front foot and attempt to strike the back of another deer’s head. Contact doesn’t necessarily happen, a lot of times it is just a warning strike.

Flailing (all deer {bucks without polished antlers}, during all seasons): Deer will rise up on their back legs and strike at each other with their front feet and hooves. This is the most aggressive form of behavior in does and bucks that do not have antlers.

Sidling (all deer, during all seasons): Deer will walk slowly side by side, with their heads held high. They will slowly begin to approach each other and circle. Bucks will turn their head and antlers approximately 40-degrees away from his foe. If neither deer back down an antler rush or flailing may result.

Circling (bucks): An aggressive buck will slowly circle another buck while crouching.

Crouch (bucks): A buck will lower its head and tilt it antlers toward his foe. The aggressive buck usually has all four legs flexed. The hairs on the back are erect and the buck will walk slowly and stiff legged. This is usually only seen during breeding season amongst dominant bucks.

Lunge (all deer, during all seasons): A deer lunges forward with its head towards another deer without making contact.

Head Raise (all deer, during all seasons): The head of a deer points in the direction of another deer then snaps its head up and backward, then back towards a normal resting position. This is a moderate aggression posture.

Rubs (bucks, during pre-rut) A buck will make a rub on a tree using its antlers to tear into the bark. While creating a rub the buck is leaving a scent for other bucks to notify them of the social hierarchy. In addition to a rub a buck will typically have a licking branch on or near the same tree.

Scraping (dominant bucks, mostly during pre-rut): A buck will paw or scrape the ground creating an area about three feet in length, then will rub-urinate on the scrape to leave a message for other bucks of his social rank. In addition to the scrape a buck will also lick and rub his forehead on an overhanging branch above the scrape.

Alarm Displays

A deer’s livelihood revolves around detecting danger and steering clear of it. In return a whitetail uses several body language positions to alert other deer of danger or to deter any approaching danger. The common Alarm Displays that hunters witness are:

All Alert (all deer, during all seasons): The body is uptight and stiff, leaning forward. The head is erect, with ears intently positioned forward; the tail is slightly or fully stiff as well as the front legs. The deer is concerned about danger and will possibly flee. The longer a deer remains still the better chance it will not flee and soon relax.

Head Bob (all deer, during all seasons): A deer sensing danger will lower their head as if it were feeding, and suddenly jerk its head back upright quickly. This is done in order to catch a predator moving while it believes the deer isn’t looking or to startle a predator to make it flinch. A head bob can be followed or preceded by a foot stamp.

Tail Flag (all deer, during all seasons): A deer holds its tail up and waives it loosely from side to side showing the white underside. The tail flag is used when a deer flees from danger. The white underside of the tail allows other deer to follow in that direction.

Tail Flare (all deer, during all seasons): A deer flashes its tails and white hairs on the butt will flair out. This movement alerts the herd that danger has been detected. Usually the tail is raised first and as the danger grows imminent the white hairs on the rump will flare. When this happens the deer is moments from fleeing.

Tail Flat (all deer, all seasons): The tail of a deer is pressed downward so only the brown part of the topside is showing. Deer use this when they are trying to sneak away from danger or alarmed at a long distance.

Foot Stamp (all deer, during all seasons): Deer lift their forefoot slowly and pause a moment, then stomp it downward with a good amount of force. This may be repeated several times. Deer will foot stamp when it is alarmed or suspicious of something around them. A foot stamp is often followed by a snort and deer will use all its senses to figure out if danger is near. A foot stamp may also leave scent on the ground from the interdigital gland to leave a warning to other deer that danger was in the area.

All Clear (all deer, during all seasons): A deer will let other deer in the area know that there is no danger present or that the detected danger is no longer around by wagging its tail once by flicking it casually from side to side.

Courtship Displays

Deer are very social animals by nature and display several courting gestures. Some of these gestures are during the breeding season while others occur during the entire year.

Sniffing (all deer, during all seasons): All deer will sniff one another when they come in contact. Sniffing of the tarsal glands can be a way for a deer to determine if a deer is part of the family or group as well as determine the age and sex of a deer.

Rub-urinating (all deer, during all seasons): A deer will hunch slightly and urinate on its tarsal glands, then rub the glands together and lick them. Rub-urinating is done more during the breeding season by dominant deer, but it is performed year round by all deer. Rub-urinating is done to leave a mark and let other deer know that a dominant deer was in the area.

Flehman (bucks during rut, all deer when they smell something good): A deer will hold his nose high and curl its upper lip so that the gums are showing. During the rut a buck will use a special organ in the mouth called a Vomeronasal Organ to “smell” the urine of does coming into estrous.

Buck run (bucks during the rut phases): A buck will chase a doe during the rut with his neck extended, head low to the ground, mouth wide open, and tail straight out. Most of the time the buck is in a steady trot, but if need be can sprint to keep up with a doe not in estrous yet.

Licking/Grooming (all deer, all seasons): Deer will lick and groom each other around the shoulders and neck area. This is done to maintain bonds amongst deer especially with mother and fawn. However deer will also remove parasites when grooming each other. The grooming process is usually started by a dominant deer and followed by the subordinate.

Voices of The Deer

In addition to body language deer use their vocals to communicate with each other. A deer’s vocal communications can be broken down into the following categories Alarm and Distress, Maternal, Mating, Contact, and Aggression. Each category has many different sounds but the most commonly heard ones are listed below:

Alarm and Distress Calls

Deer will use their vocals in order to alert other deer of danger in the area. Younger deer will alert does that it may be in trouble. The most commonly heard alarm and distress calls are:

Snort or Blow (all deer, all seasons): A blow is when a deer strongly expels air out through its nostrils making a loud sneeze like sound or “phwhewsh”.

A snort is similar to a blow but is shorter and usually performed when the deer bolts out of the area. “Pheeew”

There are several reasons to a deer snorting or blowing, the widely accepted reasons are to warn other deer in the area of danger, to startle a predator into moving to give up its location, and possibly to simply clear the nasal passage of any foreign objects.

Bleat or Bawl (all deer, all seasons):

This sound is used when a deer is in distress, such as injured, lost, or being attacked. It is similar to a calves cry. Fawns will bleat to let mom know they need help.

Maternal Calls

Vocal calls between a doe and her fawns.

Mew (fawns): A high-pitched sound in response to a maternal grunt. It is an indication that the fawn needs attention, usually food.

Maternal Grunt (does with fawns): A low grunt that can be heard at short distances. This call is used to bring fawns out of hiding for feeding time and grooming as well as keeping the family together.

Mating Calls

Vocal calls that deer use during the rut.

Tending Grunt (bucks during rut): A low guttural call that a buck will make while following a doe in estrous. There are several variations of a tending grunt and not all sound the same. The often-discussed “Buck Growl” is probably a long drawn out series of tending grunts when a buck is feeling a lot of emotion

Tending Click (bucks during the rut): This call sounds similar to tending grunt but is drawn out and slower. Bucks make this sound when they are looking or following a doe in estrous.

Estrous Bleat: Believe it or not some experts say there is no such thing as an estrous bleat. On the other hand many hunters (and call manufactures) swear that there is. It is believed to be longer and louder than a normal bleat. Does will use this call to indicate to bucks that they are close to or in estrous.

Contact Calls

A contact call is typically used to gather deer or alert each other of presence in the area.

Contact Call or Doe Bleat (primarily does, all seasons): Similar to a grunt but longer and higher pitched. A doe uses this call to bring back her offspring or group.

Aggression Calls

These calls are made predominantly by bucks during the breeding season to let other bucks know their aggression level.
Low Grunt (mostly bucks, occasionally does, during all seasons): A guttural sound similar to “Bleahh”. A low form of aggression, a low grunt is used to let other deer know to get out of the way. If the warning is ignored a higher level of aggression, such as a rush or strike may follow.

Grunt-Snort (bucks during the rut): This sound is used during the breeding season by bucks to let other bucks know to stand down or else! It is a grunt followed by one or several snorts; “Bleahh, Pheeew, Pheeew”.

Grunt-Snort-Wheeze (bucks during the rut): this is the most aggressive call a deer will make. The purpose of the call is to tell another buck that I am going to kick your butt if you do not back down and leave the area. It is a grunt-snort followed by a wheeze. The wheeze is a drawn out sound of air being pinched through the nostrils. Often times this is referred to as simply a snort-wheeze, but if you listen or hear this in the wild you can actually hear a grunt a lot of the times. “Bleah, Pheeew, Pheeew, Phfeewwwww.

Chemical Communication (Scent)

The most complex category of whitetails communication abilities is achieved on a chemical level. Whitetails have a series of glands that secret scents onto surfaces for other deer to detect. Deer use scent secretion to alert other deer of age, sex, dominance, tracking purposes, and sexual readiness. Below are the glands of a deer and the importance of each one in the world of whitetail communication.

Tarsal Gland (located on all deer):

The tarsal gland is the single most important gland whitetails use to communicate with one another. Located where the upper and lower leg joins. Both  HYPERLINK “http://www.maturebucks.com/” \o “bucks” \t “_blank” bucks and  HYPERLINK “http://www.doeestrus.com/” \o “does” \t “_blank” does use their tarsal glands as a means to display their sex, age and dominance. The gland itself emits very little odor, but when a deer rub-urinates the urine hits the tarsal gland causing a very musty smell. The scent is then deposited when the urine hits the ground. During the rut bucks will rub-urinate more than any other time during the year to establish their dominance or lack there off. When you see a buck during the rut with large black patches in the area of the tarsal gland that is because he is maxed out on testosterone and rub-urinating quite often, resulting in a stained tarsal gland.

Forehead Glands (located on bucks):

This gland is almost solely used during the rut, when a buck rubs his antlers on trees and saplings. The buck will first rub a trees outer layer and then rub his forehead on the same area depositing a scent in that area. While it is the bucks that deposit this scent, both bucks and does decipher the information within the scent. Bucks deposit this scent as a way of establishing dominance and setting up territorial boundaries. Does, smell and sometimes lick the rubs where the scent has been deposited in attempt to find a dominant mate when she comes into heat.

Pre-orbital Gland (located on all deer):

This gland is a small pocket located in the front of a deer’s eyes. Both bucks and does have pre-orbital glands, but the purpose of the gland is really unknown and debatable. Rutting bucks are believed to open this gland to signal aggression towards other bucks or as a pleasurable moment when creating rubs. Does on the other hand may open this gland when they are tending their fawns.

Salivary Glands (located on all deer):

The salivary glands serve a distinct purpose to whitetails. Whitetail saliva has a distinct ammonia based odor that the deer use for scent marking. When  HYPERLINK “http://www.ruttingbucks.com/” \o “bucks” \t “_blank” bucks utilize an overhanging branch at a scrape, they bite the tip off the branch. They don’t bite the branch to eat it, rather they are leaving saliva on the broken off branch which holds more saliva. That buck is essentially marking that scrape and the surrounding territory as his.

Nasal Gland (located on all deer):

These glands are two almond-shaped glands located inside the nostrils of a deer. The glands are emptied into the nostrils by a short duct. It is unknown if this gland produces a scent or is simply used to lubricate the nose. It may be used to in marking branches to leave a signpost for other deer of the age and sex of the deer that left the scent. Another suggestion, although there is no evidence supporting it, is that a buck will use this gland to disperse a scent when it snort-wheezes.

Vomeronosal Organ (VNO) (located on all deer):

The VNO is a diamond shaped organ (not a gland) on the roof of the mouth that acts as a second nose. Its primary purpose is to analyze urine. Bucks most commonly use it during the rut to determine if a doe is in estrous. A buck will curl its upper lip and suck air into its mouth so the scent comes into contact with the VNO. It is also believed that urine analysis can detect the age, sex, and sexual readiness of a deer.

Interdigital Gland (located on all deer):

The interdigital gland is located between a deer’s two center hooves, and is the scent deer use to “track” one another. The scent itself comes from a very odorous and cheesy material. Every time a deer takes a step it is leaving this scent on the ground. In return other deer will pick up on this scent and detect which way and how long ago that certain deer was in the area. It is believed that a deer can detect age and sex from this scent. For example have you ever seen a buck during rut with his nose to the ground trotting across a field? The deer is likely tracking a doe from the interdigital gland scent she deposited moments before.

The interdigital gland also doubles as a warning scent for some deer. When deer are alarmed and frightened yet can’t identify the source of danger, they stomp their foot repeatedly in attempt to get the source of danger to present itself. In doing so, the  HYPERLINK “http://www.deerhunter.com/” \o “deer” \t “_blank” deer is depositing more scent on the ground to warn other deer that danger was present in this area.

Preputial Gland (located on bucks):

This gland is located on the inside of a buck’s penal sheath. Not much is known about this gland at this time, but it may simply add lubrication to the area.

Metatarsal Gland (located on all deer):

This gland is located on the outside of the back legs between the toe and the hock of both bucks and does. It is oval shaped ring with white hairs that surround a black callous area that covers a number of enlarged sebaceous glands. Actually it is widely believed that the metarsal gland isn’t a gland at all. The purpose of the metatarsal is widely unknown, but some theories believe it is flared to detect danger or aggression and gives off a scent to alert other deer of danger.