The following information on white-tailed deer calls comes from Chapter 4 of How to Hunt Deer by Edward A. Freeman. How to Hunt Deer is also available to purchase in print.
In the mountain area of the west, the white-tail gives way to other species. The former have never learned to make the annual migration that is necessary in a region of heavy snow fall and as a result the mule deer is in possession of the area. In the few localities where the Virginia deer is found, it is necessary to use slightly different hunting methods. Difficult travel conditions and greater visibility in the more open woods force the successful hunter to use glasses for spotting game at a distance, and long-range guns equipped with telescope sights are needed in order to shoot deer which are often in, or across, ravines where any chance of a close approach would be almost impossible.
Similar conditions exist in the open, near desert country of the southwest where most of the deer will be found in the brush-filled ravines, and cover for successful stalking is almost nonexistent.
I have heard that the use of sticks or antlers to simulate the noise of a fight between two bucks has been successful in attracting deer to hunters along the Mexican border. This may be successful in that area as deer act differently in different sections of the country, but I doubt the effectiveness of this action in the northeast. Most of my hunting has been done in this area and I have been fortunate enough to be a spectator at several buck fights. I have also examined the arena where other such contests have taken place and I have never seen any evidence to show that other deer were attracted to, or showed any interest in, these fights. If this is so, it would seem to be a waste of time to try to attract deer by such a noise.
I have never used any of the deer calls that are on the market. I have been quite successful in bagging my deer without the aid of such deer calls and I would have to be convinced of their effectiveness before I would buy one. Perhaps I have been missing an aid to hunting enjoyment by not trying them. I know that most animals can be attracted by some sort of a noise, and the fact that I have never called a deer is not proof that they cannot be called. I know that the cry of a fawn will call a doe during the summer months, yet I have never heard this call in the hunting season. The fawns are large enough to be on their own at this time and the doe has other things on her mind. I have halted running deer by imitating the cry of a fawn, but I have also stopped them by making other sounds. I have found that if a deer hears any sound that it cannot immediately locate and identify, it will stop and make sure that it is not heading into danger.
I have never heard an uninjured deer make any vocal sound during the hunting season except the sound made by startled deer. This sound (more nasal than vocal) seems to be more of a warning to other deer than a challenge to combat. Perhaps I am wrong in thinking this way, but until I hear another deer answer, and accept this call as a challenge, I will continue to believe as I do at the present time.
One evening I was traveling a trail that was located near the foot of a beech ridge which was the feeding ground of at least a hundred deer. Across the trail from this ridge was the daytime bedding ground for these same deer. I traveled this trail for about two miles at a time when the deer were moving from the bedding grounds to the feeding area, and in this distance I was challenged no less than eight times by bucks which wanted to cross the trail. None of their deer calls were answered by other bucks even though there must have been dozens of them within hearing distance. If this sound is a call to combat, this experience should have provided some evidence of the fact. I heard no calls made by any deer other than the ones which were alarmed by my presence.
Many people think that when two bucks fight, the fight is over the possession of one particular doe. My observations show that this is not the rule. On one occasion I saw two bucks fighting and there was a doe present as an apparently disinterested spectator. At the scene of a few other encounters, I have seen tracks that showed that there might have been a doe present, but most of the fights which I have checked seem to have been the result of casual meetings and were fought without spectators. The rut is the cause of the fighting, but the object seems to be the driving of the weaker male out of an area rather than a desire for any one female.
I have never used any of the commercial scents to attract deer, but any scent that is based on sexual attraction should be effective if properly prepared and used.
The use of deodorizers to remove or disguise the man scent can do no harm, unless the substance used is something that is repulsive to deer.
I have tried to conceal my odor by adding the odor of deer and I am sure that this practice has aided my hunting at times. I usually add the deer odor by obtaining the glands that are located on the inner side of the back legs of a doe and rubbing these glands on my clothing. The odor from these tufts of hair is strong and distinctive enough to hide the human odor, and, as it is a natural deer odor, it is not offensive to the deer.
While bearing this scent, I have had bucks follow my trail for long distances and nothing except lack of patience prevented me from shooting some of them. I would lay a trail and then I would fail to wait long enough for them to overtake me. I am sure that it was not just a coincidence that they followed my trail, for on one occasion a buck followed me across an open field to within two hundred yards of my house before he decided that he was wasting his time. I had waited for him for over an hour and then I had left the stand to go to the house for something to eat. The big disadvantage in making a scent trail such as this, is that a man can never be sure that a buck will find and follow the trail.
If the hunter could know something of a deer’s mental ability, it would help in hunting the animal. There is a great difference of opinion among hunters about this matter, with some men giving the deer credit for having an almost human intelligence and others claiming that they have practically no brain power at all. There is no way that I know to evaluate this mental power except to observe the actions of deer in different situations and try to draw some conclusion from these actions. Since there is a difference in viewpoint of different men, there will always be a difference of opinion in their findings, and as a result there will always be room for argument. What one man might consider instinctive action on the part of a deer, might be construed as planned strategy by some other man; and this inability to distinguish between the reasons for certain actions of the deer is where we fail in trying to establish their reasoning powers.
Any hunter who has hunted deer as part of a driving gang has probably had the experience of having some wise old buck avoid the drivers by slipping back through their lines or by hiding until he has been passed. Judging by human standards, this action shows that the buck has evaluated the situation and has acted in such a manner because it is the wisest thing for him to do in order to save his life. Looking at it from a different angle, the deer’s actions are purely instinctive. If the men who are waiting have used proper caution, the buck can have no knowledge of their presence and, not having this knowledge, the safest thing that he can do is to run from the drivers. However, a deer’s instinctive reaction to danger is either to run or to hide. It is more apt to run from an unexpected danger than from one that it is aware of. Another thing which has a bearing on the decision to run or to hide is the stubborn resistance to being forced to travel in a direction not of its own choice.
I once had the opportunity of being able to watch the actions of three deer during a drive, from a vantage point on a hill that overlooked the locale of the drive. Five men drove from the south towards three men who were covering the northern exits to the piece of woods being driven. There was at least a half mile of open fields to the west and such an area is usually an effective barrier to deer in the daylight hours. I was located to the east in another area of open country. Directly below me, there was a section of about fifty acres which had at one time been an open pasture which had grown up in alders, birch and scattered firs with considerable open ground between them. As the drive progressed, three deer broke from the heavy woods and entered this old pasture where they hid in a thicket of small firs. This thicket was about fifty feet wide and not more than twice as long. The deer stayed there until the drivers had passed them by. If we give these deer credit for thoughtful consideration in their actions, we must assume that they had some knowledge of all factors with which they had to contend, and this seems hardly possible. It is very doubtful if they had any knowledge of the men who were waiting. Unless they had retained some memory of a previous chase in the same location, there is no reason why they did not flee in that direction except that they did not wish to run. If these deer had had a thorough and complete knowledge of conditions and were able to reason and plan, they would have known that there were no watchers to the west and could have escaped in that direction. It seems to me that these deer acted on impulse, instinctively doing the right thing to escape danger.
Intelligence usually increases with age, and if age in a deer denotes wisdom, then deer that have survived a dozen hunting seasons should be almost impossible to bag, yet often these old timers are no harder to hunt than many a younger deer, and the only reason that more of them are not killed each year is the fact that so few of them reach a ripe old age.
I kicked a venerable old patriarch from his bed one day when hunting conditions were next to ideal. I failed to get a shot when I started him and he avoided me when I tried to stalk the position that he used to ascertain my intentions. When he left that place, he took a direction which, I was sure, he would not follow for any great distance. I assumed that he would circle for a time, leaving tracks for me to follow, going on to some vantage point to await developments.
Picking out the most probable of these places, I left the track and went there with the hope of arriving before the deer. I stationed myself near the top of a knoll, about a hundred yards from a deer trail where I had a good view of the area which I expected the deer to travel. He was walking when I saw him coming and he walked up the knoll which I was on until he was about a hundred feet from my position where he stopped to watch his back trail. There was no question that he was not an old deer. He was very grey about the head and face and the antlers were very scrubby and misshapen, showing that he was far past the prime of life. One ear was split from a bullet, or fight, and there seemed to be a healed scar under his eye extending along his cheek. We stood there for several minutes, he watching his back trail and I watching him. He never once looked anywhere except towards his back trail and I was able to step from behind the tree that I had used for cover and stand there in the open. When the deer finally decided that there was nobody on his trail, he turned and saw me standing there. It was a good ten seconds before he reacted to the situation and bounded to shelter.
That deer must have had similar experiences during his life, for the hunting method that I used is a more or less standard procedure. He must have had the experience of running from one danger only to run into another and yet, in this case, he was apparently unconcerned with anything other than the hunter who was on his trail. This action leads me to believe that deer do not expect danger at all times and that they make no plans for such encounters, but deal with each emergency as it develops. I do not believe that the old buck connected me with the danger which he expected to follow his track, but considered me to be an entirely new danger. In any case, if deer have the power to reason intelligently, that old buck should never have allowed himself to get into any such predicament.
Many hunters think that deer are afraid of gunfire, giving them credit for knowing that bullets come from guns and that these bullets can kill. This knowledge is far beyond a deer’s capability. I have seen one deer killed while another deer, not knowing just where the danger was located, stood around uncertain of what to do. I have seen a group of deer mill around bewildered while hunters shot eighteen futile bullets at them from a distance. I have undershot a deer, the bullet striking the ground beyond the deer, and the animal ran directly towards me, away from the place where the bullet struck. I fired five shots at a deer which was crossing a field and as soon as the deer had entered the woods, another deer crossed the field at the same place. I missed two shots at him and when he reached the edge of the field he stopped and looked back, as if to see what all of the noise was about. After a few experiences of this sort, it is hard to convince me that deer have much fear of gunfire. Of course, any unusual noise is a danger signal, but I do not believe that they connect the sound of a gunshot with injury and death. In fact, I doubt if deer have any conception of death.
When we hunt in the vicinity of a game reserve and the deer run into the reserve for safety, we are apt to assume that they know that they will be safe in the protected area. This may or may not be the case. It is probable that, in many cases, the reserve is the logical place for the deer to go and when they arrive there and find that the hunter does not follow them, they bed down for the day. I followed a large buck for six miles directly to a game reserve. A few days later I followed another from the same section of woods and he traveled in an entirely different direction for nearly the same distance and then took refuge in a large swamp. In both cases I am sure that the deer were unattached bucks in strange territory and that, when started, not having a doe to depend on for safety, they headed for their home range. Did their decisions result from careful thinking or did they act on instinct?
I was hunting with a group near a large game reserve and we were unable to locate any deer on the first afternoon of hunting. The consensus of opinion was that the deer were on the reserve so I covered a large part of this reserve the next morning. I found very few signs of deer. That afternoon I found a large concentration of deer bedded in a large area of cutover land that had grown up to an almost impenetrable jungle of small spruce and fir. This tract was not over two miles from the reserve, but most of the deer preferred it as a sanctuary. They preferred natural cover to legal protection. Instinct or reasoning?
Many cases of deer entering farm yards and even buildings, while trying to escape from dogs, seems to indicate that they know man will protect them in an emergency, but in reality the deer will face almost any danger to avoid dogs, and when they turn to man for protection, it is as a last resort in their panic.
I was going to work in my woodlot and as I approached the place I met a deer with a dog about a hundred feet behind it. The deer was near the point of exhaustion, and when it saw me it tried to jump over a brush pile, landed in the middle of it and had to scramble over the rest of it on its knees. I shot the dog and as soon as the deer realized that it was no longer being chased, it stopped trying to escape and stood there resting, not over fifty yards from me. That deer stayed there all morning with me cutting wood in plain sight of it. Did that deer use reasoning power or was it so exhausted that it was indifferent to its fate?
An incident that happened on a tennis court is convincing evidence that deer have very little reasoning power. There were no eye witnesses to this incident, but the tracks told the story. The court was enclosed on three sides and about half of the fourth by a high fence. Deer entered this enclosure, tempted by the chemicals used to keep the grass from growing. Instead of leaving by the open entrance, they tried to leave by one of the fenced sides. They leaped repeatedly at the fence, being thrown back and to the ground, until they finally broke through. This is similar to the tests that men use in studying animal intelligence. In this case it seems to place the deer in a poor position when it comes to reasoning power.