Buckmasters Magazine

Fear Factor

Fear Factor

By David Hart

What spooks deer? Some fear responses are learned while others are instinctive.

Whitetails are nervous animals, and who can blame them? Everything, it seems, loves the taste of venison. As a result, evolution has taught them to stay on constant high alert. Every unusual sound, scent or sight sends deer looking for cover.

But why does a whitetail spook sometimes and not others? I’ve watched perfectly relaxed deer smell and follow the very track I walked to my stand. I’ve also seen them cross my track and instantly become unglued.

Are these reactions based on the deer’s experience, or are they naturally afraid of anything out of the ordinary?

All hunters know a whiff of human scent will send a buck fleeing into the next county, but all human scent isn’t created equal.

Consider an experiment by researchers Dr. James Kroll and Ben Koerth. They used trail cameras to observe the reaction of deer to various liquids, including human urine, buck urine, doe-in-heat urine and even liquid new-car smell poured into scrapes.

Many hunters not only relieve themselves in the woods, they take care of business from their treestand under the assumption that it has no effect on deer behavior. Some even intentionally urinate in nearby scrapes. Others are careful to pee in a bottle out of fear the odor of human urine on the forest floor will spook deer.

It would make sense that this powerful scent would alert deer just as quickly as the scent of a hunter wearing week-old work clothes. New car smell? That should send deer into the next county. That wasn’t the case, though.

Bucks and does of all ages visited the scrape sites with all the scents at least once and several deer returned on numerous occasions.

Deer certainly smell lots of urine in the woods from a variety of animals. They also smell foreign odors from time to time. But the odor of pee only tells deer that another mammal was there at one time. Sure, fresh urine likely smells different from older urine, but unless the predator that recently relieved itself is standing over the puddle, deer don’t seem to show any fear of the scent. Human urine appeared to be no different.

That’s likely because deer don’t associate the scent of human urine with a human. Unless they can somehow make a direct connection, the scent of pee from a hunter is nothing more than the scent of pee, even if it has a different odor than the urine from a wolf or coyote.


Much of what spooks deer relates to conditioning. University of Georgia professor of wildlife Dr. Bob Warren thinks deer don’t learn to fear something. Instead, he figures they learn not to fear something through conditioning.

Take urban whitetails, for example. Why is the sight of a human walking through the woods in a suburban park met with a casual glance from whitetails, but a human walking through a public hunting area will send deer fleeing?

Much of it depends on what they’ve learned from a life of experience.

Lou Salamone has been hunting deer in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri for about 20 years. He founded Suburban Bowhunters, a deer control service that utilizes bowhunters to reduce urban deer populations. He kills anywhere from 10 to 20 deer a year, so he’s had plenty of experience watching their reaction to a variety of things.

It’s not unusual to walk within 30 yards of a suburban deer. However, Salamone says they seem to know when a human is a threat and when he isn’t. Homeowners apparently are not a threat, but a guy walking directly to a treestand with a bow in his hands is.

“I’ll act like a homeowner if I see a deer as I’m walking to my stand in the suburbs,” Salamone said. ”I won’t look at them, and I stop and bend down to pick up sticks or something – anything to look like I’m not stalking them.”

They also ignore odors that would send rural deer deep into cover. Whitetails that live in suburban environments are bombarded with various scents they rarely smell in big woods. The odors of cars, pets, dryer vents, cigarette smoke and even humans are an everyday occurrence. With enough time, they learn those smells don’t represent danger. Salamone uses that to his advantage.

“If I’m hunting right up next to a house, I can get away with a lot more than I can when I’m hunting back in the woods away from the nearest house,” he said.

Just a few yards can change that, though. Deer become much more skittish when Salamone is hunting farther from a house. Nobody knows how a deer can tell if the scent drifting through the woods is from a human 10 or 100 yards away, although Warren thinks it relates to the quantity of scent molecules. Deer just seem to know.

That’s why Salamone doesn’t take any chances. No matter where he hunts in relation to a house, he’s adamant about reducing his scent as much as possible. Even with extreme caution that includes wearing boots only when he’s standing on grass or leaves, spraying himself with a scent-masking product and washing all his equipment before using it, he admits he still gets winded.

“They stop and smell the ground where I walked,” he said. “If I’m close to the house, it doesn’t seem to spook them much, but if I’m away from the house, they will often turn around and leave.”


If the faint smell left by a boot sole is enough to alert deer, why do some hunters insist of firing up a cigarette in their treestands? One hunter who asked not to be identified smokes in his treestand, even during bow season. A 40-year veteran of the deer woods, the southern Maryland resident has killed countless whitetails during his hunting career, often with a cigarette in his lips.

“I had to put my cigarette down so I could pick up my muzzleloader and shoot the biggest buck of my life,” he said. “I don’t think it matters.”

He’s not alone. Millions of Americans (an estimated 42 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control) smoke cigarettes.

“I’ve watched deer walk downwind of the smoke from a chimney and from someone burning leaves in his yard a quarter-mile away,” the Maryland smoker said. ”I could smell it, so I have no doubt the deer could smell it, too. It didn’t seem to bother them one bit.”

Warren has heard of deer hunters puffing away in the woods, but he thinks their success comes only when the wind is favorable or when bucks are delirious with love.

“It’s pretty amazing what bucks will ignore during the rut,” he said. “I can’t say for sure, but it makes sense that they might not pay attention to something as foreign as the smell of a cigarette during the rut.”

Warren figures whitetails are not entirely unfamiliar with various smoke smells. However, the distance from the source of the smoke might play a role in the fear factor because the density of the molecules is different.

Although we might never know if deer flee at the whiff of a Marlboro, one thing is certain: If they can smell the cigarette, they can probably smell the person holding it. Deer that are hunted regularly already know the smell of a human poses a risk. The addition of smoke could increase their fear.


Whitetails in different situations react to sounds differently, too. Salamone has watched deer go about their business as lawnmowers rumbled in the next yard and homeowners fired up noisy cars. That likely comes down to conditioning. They hear those things all the time, and they have no reason to associate the sound with danger. On the other hand, whitetails hunted on a regular basis seem to know the sound of danger. All-terrain vehicles are a prime example.

“I’ve watched deer react to the sound of a four-wheeler approaching on numerous occasions,” says Stephen Butler, a 43-year-old hunter from Lynchburg, Virginia. “It doesn’t spook them as long as the sound is constant, but the deer will stop what they are doing to listen and look.”

He recalls watching a handful of does and small bucks feeding in a clover field when the faint rumble of an ATV grew louder. The deer lifted their heads and looked in the direction of the sound. The machine came within 100 yards on the bordering property before eventually moving away. The deer went back to feeding. However, Butler has also watched deer react to an ATV a different way.

“I heard [an ATV] approaching, and the deer all stopped eating and looked,” he said. ”As soon as the engine cut off, they were gone. They seem to know a human is coming as soon as the four-wheeler stops.”

In some situations, deer can be conditioned positively to the sound of an engine. I spent several days turkey hunting on a private ranch in the Texas Panhandle where the landowner poured corn on the ground as he drove through the woods on a four-wheeler. Not only were the deer not afraid of the machine, they were actually attracted to it. As the rancher motored down the trail, bucks and does trotted toward him.


I returned to the same ranch the following autumn with my two sons with the intent of tagging a couple of those bucks. However, I had no intention of letting them shoot a buck as it ran to the sound of the landowner’s ATV. Even if I did, it wouldn’t have mattered. The deer didn’t come running, preferring instead to wait for the cover of darkness to come to the corn, despite that the ranch’s deer were rarely hunted.

Do whitetails have innate ability to know when something poses a risk or when it doesn’t? There’s no way to tell, but it sure seems that way.

As Salamone suggests, urban deer seem to know when a human in their woods is hunting them and when he isn’t. That’s why we need to take all the precautions we can, no matter where we hunt.

It’s okay to relieve yourself under your treestand, but if you must drive an ATV, park it as far away from your stand as you can. And leave the cigarettes in your pocket until you kill a deer. The odor of smoke might not spook deer, but why take a chance?

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This article was published in the September 2015 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

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