Text & Photos by Tommy Kirkland
Here the buck displays an instinctive willingness to defend its mate. Usually the mouth doesn't open with the tending grunt unless it is drawn out.
-- The silence is broken. There along the edge of the forest are faint echoes of a few soft grunts. Setting your sights in that direction, you search the landscape. With the anticipation of a rutting buck, you are suddenly shocked beyond all reason!
The sporadic grunting, though slightly different from a buck, is not coming from a male deer. It's a matriarchal doe with her offspring; and another intriguing and unpredictable aspect of behavior unfolds in the whitetails' world of vocal communications.
To evade predators and to establish a social hierarchy for procreation, whitetails rely not only on scent, sight and body posturing, but also an amazing assortment of vocal sounds. There are distinct vocalizations for maintaining social structures of the herd, sounds for breeding and sounds for defensive alertness - warning one another of impending danger.
As soon as a newborn whitetail hits the ground, vocal sounds play an important role in its development. When the bedded newborn is concealed and if no danger is present, the parenting female will command the fawn with what is known as a maternal grunt. This sound is drawn out like the typical grunts of rutting bucks, yet is somewhat softer and not quite as deep and hollow as the grunt from a buck. Being a brief command, the parenting female uses this form of communication to signal the fawn to rise from its bed. Nursing and grooming usually follows.
A fawn can display a mewing vocalization when responding to its mother. This vocalization can be used if the newborn becomes restless or hungry and needs attention from its mother. Young does in the social herding network can also exhibit mewing sounds, and this behavior is usually heard from young does that are still with their maternal mothers.
As bucks seek out does, they will periodically vocalize a grunt sound. This sound is used to pronounce dominance to other rival bucks and to possibly attract receptive females for breeding.
When the infant fawn is in need of immediate attention it will echo the woodlands with a bleat call. This bleat signals that the fawn is in danger or is hungry. However, the fawn's bleat can also attract nearby predators - particularly if the bleats become continuous and develops into a bawl vocal sound. The sound is loud and carries more of a distressed tone. These vocalizations are vital for the mother and its offspring in developing a solid relationship.
When whitetails begin to congregate after being separated by predators, they will produce a grunt sound. This is done more so with does and helps them to remain together. This particular grunt sound, different from a rutting buck, is highly social. On rare occasions, young bucks in bachelor groups will make this social grunt.
With the need to establish and maintain the whitetails' social interactions come communications for danger. As many hunters afield can attest, the snort is by far the most common and effective vocalization used by deer to warn one another of impending threats. This vocalization is a loud sudden explosion of air from a whitetail's nostrils. It can occur just once or in a rapid series of short, fast snorts.
Once bucks are chasing does at full speed, they will usually perform short fast grunts. They can also display a grunt-snort vocalization while pursuing the females.
The snort is very distinct and can be heard for quite some distance - well over 100 to 300 yards, depending on foliage and weather. Whitetails will also use the snort to try and get a predator to move - especially if they are having difficulty pinpointing it visually. The snort is predominantly displayed by the matriarchal doe; but one of her female offspring can also sound the alarm - taking the role of a protective sentinel.
At times, there are distress signals (body posturing) used in conjunction with the alert snort - particularly the foot stomp. Although the foot stomp is not a vocal communication, sometimes the front hoof hitting the ground produces a thumping sound to alert other deer in the vicinity. The foot stomp can signal danger when a whitetail instinctively refrains from snorting. It can also be used in combination with snorting; and the stomp is also used to attempt to get response from a predator when vision cannot effectively detect it.
Although vocalizations from whitetails occur throughout the year, deer undoubtedly intensify their larynx usage as the rut gets underway. The grunt is very distinct and utilized by rutting bucks. However, as mentioned before, females can occasionally be heard grunting over social disputes or to locate one another. Even so, there is little chance in not recognizing a grunt from a rut-crazed buck even when foliage obscures a hunter's field of view.
To establish and maintain dominance, bucks use the grunt when rival bucks are detected in the area. Their instinct is to convince the other buck to move on. This grunt sound can also be followed up by a grunt-snort vocalization, which is usually short and not as intense as the snort alert vocalization. The grunt-snort is usually echoed once. Yet bucks really start displaying it more often when searching for estrous does as well as attempting to out-dominate other bucks.
As females enter estrous and bucks encounter one another, males go wild with the grunt-snort-wheeze vocalization.
Yet the most intense and unique display during the rut is when bucks go all out with the grunt-snort-wheeze vocalization. It is usually performed in a rapid sequence with a short grunt - immediately followed by a quick snort and then a lengthy drawn out wheezing sound. In all, this grunt-snort-wheeze tends to indicate that a buck is not going to tolerate an intruding buck and puts bucks on the edge for serious competitive battles.
Once females are near or in estrus and receptive to a breeder buck, a whole new set of sounds unfold. The most common is the tending grunt. When a buck is in pursuit of a doe, the buck can vocalize one short grunt or several in succession. It is also displayed when a buck stands guard of its mate and tends the female - especially when other intruding bucks attempt to get in on the action.
Vocalizations from deer vary in intensity and duration. Also, the amount of testosterone a buck possesses as well as its rutting disposition (aggressiveness, etc.) dictates the degree of vocalizations.
Young bucks are usually not as communicative and loud as the more mature and dominant bucks that strive to breed. Also, older does with the matriarchal status tend to emit more vocalizations than younger females. This is due in part to hierarchy and the rearing of fawns.
The communicative realm of whitetails is quite diverse and varies depending on a host of circumstances. Learning to recognize and decipher deer sounds will undoubtedly aid in the overall understanding of the animal's social hierarchy. In turn, this ability combined with effective calling techniques will certainly increase the hunter's odds of taking the whitetail of choice - be it a buck or doe.
Once the heat of the rut winds down, the vocalizations do as well. The deer enter the post-rut and, in time, bucks shed their antlers - the next installment here at Buckmasters.com.