I know youre not going to believe this but there was a time when hunters would wear red plaid jackets, used open sighted 30-30s, and wouldnt know the difference between a cover scent and potpourri if you asked them. Yet, they still killed deer. Heck, just a couple decades ago I killed a deer while sitting in a homemade ground blind made from a bent electrical conduit frame and covered in bulk scrap fabric that I believe was striped.
Deer hunting has come a long way since then. Not only have we used advancements in technology to improve our hunting equipment, we have also used it to give us a better understanding of our quarry.
Years ago when I first started deer hunting it was a common thought that deer, and most mammals other than humans were color blind; only seeing the world in shades of black, white, and grey. In the past few years weve figured out that we were probably wrong in this assumption and deer see a lot more colors than we originally thought.
In the early 90s, a study was conducted at the University of Georgia regarding what deer can really see. The conclusion of the study was that deer are not completely color blind, but rather red/green color blind like some humans. Im one of those humans. Since we cant really stick a color pallet in front of a deer and ask them what colors they see, let me describe what I see in hopes that this helps you understand them better.
Im often asked to explain what I can see and the best way to put it is, I can see colors, just not the same ones you do. Subtle differences between colors are lost on me. Rainbows, I can see maybe two colors in them, just dont ask me which two because I dont know. In the woods, reds, greens, and browns all blend together while blues and purples tend to stand out. Thats why hunters in red plaid jackets could hunt without worrying about the deer seeing them.
Another finding from the study is that deer lack a UV filter on their eyes, meaning it might be possible for them to see UV light. So those UV inhibiting sprays you see advertised might be worth the investment.
More recent studies have also determined that when talking about visual acuity, deer dont see as well as we do. Their vision is slightly blurry, along the lines of 20/40 vision which means they could barely pass a basic Department of Transportation eye exam to get a drivers license. You just thought that when a doe was bobbing and weaving its head it was trying to get you to move, it was actually just trying to get you into focus. This might be one of the reasons that decoys work so well. Deer recognize the shape as deer-like but have to get close to see the detail which puts them into bow or rifle range.
While deer dont see as clearly as we do they can still detect motion fairly easily. So as a hunter all this means that the biggest key isnt wearing the latest camouflage but sitting still.
Raise your hand if you have ever been busted by a deer that heard you blink your eyes 1000 yards away in a stiff wind? Weve all been there right. Being really quiet, not making a sound, but somehow a deer hears us and bolts out of sight. They must have supersonic hearing then right? Right?
Well, not so much. According to research conducted by Dr. Kenneth Risenhoover at Texas A&M University, deer can hear only slightly better than we can. Since the researchers couldnt make a noise then ask the deer "Did you hear that?" they hooked sensors to anthisized deers heads to measure the electrical response when noises at certain frequencies were played. This gave them a fairly good idea of what frequencies a deer can hear and it is right around the same range you and I can hear. So, in reality a deer isnt going to bust you at a great distance if you make a small sound. Plus, those dumb looking deer whistles on the front of cars, they dont really work because if you cant hear them neither can the deer.
While deer cant hear any better than you, we can make the assumption that they can pinpoint where sounds come from better than you or I can. Go ahead; try to turn your ear backwards, without touching it, to hear something behind you like a deer can. Cant do it can you? If you can I want to see pictures. When you make a sound the deer can tell exactly where it came from easily, so you need to be quiet.
Also, deer are in their natural habitat in the woods, like you are in your recliner. If you are sitting in the house watching television while munching on Cheetos and there is a bump in the attic you notice it, stop what youre doing, and listen for it again. If it is a slight noise you might just dismiss it but if it sounds significant you go check it out because its not natural. If a deer is browsing on acorns and hears metal hit metal, or a cough, or squeak of a ladder stand shifting, it stops what it is doing and listens. If the noise is loud or strange enough, it might bolt. If it is soft and only happens once, then it will probably go back to feeding.
So a deer cant hear any better than you can and really sees worse than you do, but when it comes to the sense of smell, he kicks your rear. Im not even going to pretend to understand the research involved or try to interpret it for you but studies have shown mammals have around 1000 genes related to the ability to interpret smells. In humans less than 40% of these genes are actually functional while other mammals use all 1000. So other mammals, that includes deer, are capable of deciphering hundreds, if not thousands of more smells than we are. Plus, studies conducted on roe deer in the 1970s show that their olfactory epithelium (the area inside the nose that actually catches the scent) is up to nine times larger than ours. So not only can deer interpret more scents but they have a larger area in their nose to catch these scents.
If that doesnt make you feel bad enough, even more recent research has indicated that deer are able to interpret pheromones and scents at the same time independently of each other. So a buck can smell a doe and you at the same time, meaning that cover scents might not be nearly as effective as we once thought. The best way to combat this is to not leave any scent at all, although that seems almost impossible sometimes.
The sport of whitetail hunting has come a long way and through the use of scientific research we have gained a better understanding of the deer we chase, knowing more about them than ever before. What weve figured out is that our grandfathers in their red plaid jackets really knew what they were doing.