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Can Whitetails Reason?

Sometimes, it's a mistake to give deer too much credit for thinking.

Can Whitetails Reason?

Will a whitetail buck avoid silhouetting himself by not walking a ridgetop? My brother, Barry, and I have debated this question for decades. He believes whitetails know they have a silhouette and will avoid skylines or the crests of wooded ridges during dusk and dawn hours. I don’t buy it. All deer absolutely pay attention to moving silhouettes and react to unidentified movement accordingly, but I don’t believe they can reason well enough to know they have their own silhouette. Obviously, one of the biggest mistakes a hunter can make while hunting species like wild sheep or pronghorns is to silhouette themselves.

If deer could talk, they would probably laugh at some of the things we give them credit for. In my opinion, a lot of “overthinking” takes place by modern whitetail hunters. Sitting in blinds or stands for countless hours gives us time to think, but people need to think more from a deer’s perspective than our own. Much of what deer do involves no reasoning, but should instead be credited to pure behavioral instincts. Any prey species’ ability to survive and learn increases with age and experience. Longevity also depends on teaching from their mothers.

I feel the whitetails we hunt today are smarter than those hunted a century ago. Adaptability to their environment is a trait: A genetic characteristic inherited by whitetails. These traits are actually what makes them so challenging to hunt. Not to belittle the species in any way, but I feel we humans give deer more credit than they deserve. A whitetail’s life is governed by only three basic things: hunger, security, and sex. Boredom and curiosity are two other factors we’ll save for another study.

I’ll use examples of other species in this article. Certain animals and species have the ability to remember specific events. A variety of species are able to make rational decisions — right or wrong. Some have the ability to use tools and solve problems. A chimp will quickly learn that a square peg doesn’t fit into a round hole. Wild chimps use tools (rocks) to open nutshells. They use sticks to poke into holes smaller and deeper than their hands or arms. A wide variety of animals like elephants, canines, pigs, and ravens regularly engage in decision-making. I once watched a crow catch nightcrawlers from my lawn every bit as efficiently as any robin. An unarmed person can get a lot closer to crows than someone carrying a gun. No shot needs to be fired. Crows and ravens will quickly fly away from anyone carrying a firearm. Impressive!

What is this buck thinking? Is he trying to decide if it is safe to cross the open field? Is he studying your ground blind and wondering if it was there the day before? We often give the game we hunt too much credit for thinking.

The difference between “thinking” and “reasoning” needs to be defined. Look up “sentient” in the dictionary. It’s defined as “the ability to perceive or feel things.” Almost every conscious being, man or beast, has some level of ability to feel emotion, form attachments, experience pain/pleasure, or detect unseen danger. Many have distinct personalities among their own species. That fact is often misused, abused, or misunderstood, thus establishing a belief that animals are little different than humans. That is simply not true. Animals can be sad or in pain, but most don’t shed tears, even though they have tear ducts to lubricate their eyes. I’ve heard examples of pets in sadness or pain shedding tears. The big difference is that man has a soul. Souls are spiritual. They encompass character, consciousness, memory, perception, reasoning, and more. Nonhumans don’t have beliefs. I won’t go so far as to say animals don’t have souls or display emotions at all, but human souls are rational and at an entirely different level above most animals.

What is the biggest factor that sets humans apart? In my opinion, it’s the mastering and use of language.

Language is a necessary factor in the ability to understand and make rational decisions. Imagine if deer could talk and warn each other about potential danger in advance?

In North America, dogs and horses are the most common species humans can relate to. Horses and canines have the ability to show far more emotion than deer, goats, cattle, white mice, cats, etc. Prey species are much more aware of pain and security than predatory species. Although there are lots of examples otherwise, our relationships with dogs and horses are usually much deeper than those with cats or pigs.

Although deer and other species can be clever, cautious, and evasive, they don’t possess conceptional intelligence. They can’t do math, start a fire, write, or sing a song. I once saw a guy on TV claim his horse could do math. He would say to his horse, “How many times does seven go into 21?” The horse would stomp his foot three times. Then he’d say, “What’s two plus three equal?” The horse would stomp five times. Amazing? Somewhat, but a horse cannot do math. The horse had been trained to stomp three times when the guy raised his left hand. When the guy “accidentally” dropped his hat while asking what two plus three equaled, the horse was trained to stomp five times. Try asking it square-root problems.

As scavengers, buzzards eat road-killed rabbits. Whenever a vehicle approaches, they fly away and then quickly return to eat more of the rabbit until another vehicle approaches. With over a four-foot wingspan, why don’t they just pick up the dead rabbit, fly off, and eat it elsewhere? Hmmm. Am I missing something here? No, it’s the buzzard that’s missing something.

I witnessed one of the smartest things I’ve ever seen a whitetail do 40 years ago. It was a late-season hunt in northwestern Montana. Loggers were cutting down big larch trees that had a lot of black “corn silk-looking” lichen hanging from them. Snow on the ground around freshly fallen larch revealed the fact deer were hammering the lichen as a fresh food source they couldn’t otherwise reach, so I hung a stand over a freshly fallen larch. That afternoon, eight whitetails found the tree and went into competition for the good lichen. One of the eight deer was a button buck. The mature deer kept bullying him for the best feeding spots. Suddenly, that button buck snorted. The other seven deer ran away, while the button buck stayed to claim the best stuff. Eventually, the other deer all drifted back in and started to once again bully him. He snorted a second time. All the other deer vacated again. He stayed. I watched this happen three consecutive times before most of the lichen had been consumed. That little buck was sharp!

I’ve known black Labs that were very smart dogs; others of the same breed, not so much. I know a guy who raises Jack Russell terriers. They are a fearless breed that will fight dogs or other animals twice their size without hesitation. The breeder kept four males and multiple females. He said one dog would be the alpha male for several years, but when that dominant male showed any weakness from age, the other males would soon join forces and kill him. An old buck eventually gets rejected by his group and is replaced by younger males. This also happens with elk, wild sheep, and multiple other species. It happened to my buddy Marty, too…


I feel whitetails can “think,” up to a point. They perceive their environment, feel pleasure/pain, satisfaction/dissatisfaction, etc. in ways humans cannot relate to. They feel hunger, thirst, heat/cold, fear, stress, and aggression. They know the security of thickets and the insecurity of open areas, but they don’t feel or react to these things the same ways humans can relate to, or understand. Animals have awareness within themselves and of their surroundings, but they are not aware as to why they feel pain, or what they might do to avoid it. If deer were really smart, they would avoid crossing major highways and quit trying to jump high barbed-wire fences.

My brother and I used to guide bowhunters on a seven-mile stretch of the Milk River in north-central Montana. This property was strictly kept bowhunting-only for years. The whitetails living there quickly learned they were safe, unless we got within 50 yards or so of them. They’d stand back in the brush and let us drive right past them. Where gun hunting was permitted, deer would take flight hundreds of yards away from any approaching vehicle. Smart deer learn to run from the engine noise of an ATV hundreds of yards away. These are just a few examples of adaptation by the species.

Do deer dream? A good friend of mine once saw a 3½-year-old buck run a single doe all over the hardwood ridge he was watching. After more than an hour, the buck finally stopped, tongue hanging out in exhaustion, and lay down about 40 yards away. Soon after, the buck rolled completely onto his side like a dead animal would lay. After a few minutes, my buddy thought maybe the buck had died of a heart attack. When he used binoculars to check its rib cage for movement, he saw both front legs of the buck slightly kicking, just like dogs routinely do during a “chase dream.” That buck was chasing that doe in his dreams!

My Lab, Corky, was a very smart dog. He quickly grew to recognize our vet’s office. He would stare at it when we drove by. Whenever I pulled into the vet’s parking lot, Corky would instantly go into lockdown. He quickly learned that a trip to the vet was seldom fun. He took on one porcupine in his life. After that incident, anytime he came across another porkie, he made sure to give the prickly critter plenty of space.

I once read that chimps are very fascinated with themselves and their own bodies in mirrors. Dogs will also occasionally stare into full-length mirrors, and I’ve even witnessed them watch TV. But most of them show very little interest, even when watching a dog-food commercial.

Dogs trained to find shed antlers quickly learn to spot them even before they can smell them. Most people don’t realize a whitetail buck never sees his own antlers (except in still water), until right after he sheds them, and I’m guessing he probably doesn’t give a rip about what he “scores.” I had the rare opportunity of watching a buck shed his remaining antler one winter. He shook his head aggressively side to side. The antler flew off, landing probably 20 feet from where he stood. He never walked over to look at it. If I were a buck, I would have checked out my own rack, but then again, that’s just me. I try not to look at my own body in a mirror anymore…

While mature whitetail bucks like this one can make us believe they can reason and solve problems, it is my opinion that they operate mostly on instinct and experience.

Wild deer are born conscious enough to feel pain, pleasure, and danger. Newborn fawns know they are defenseless and hold tight when danger approaches. Within weeks, fawns are smart enough to run hard when threatened. That is instinct, rather than conscious thought. Try to put a fresh grizzly hide onto the back of a horse that has never seen or smelled a griz. Interestingly, dogs and other canine species easily sense that human babies are vulnerable, defenseless, and harmless.

Most animals demonstrate instinctual behavior. Many can detect negative intent by predators, and oftentimes they run or hide from unseen threats as a result. Some growl, bark, or make calls. I once watched a bull moose make the loudest sound I’ve ever heard come from a mammal. I was hunting spring bears in Montana when I heard it. I had never before or since heard anything like it. I later spoke with several very experienced moose hunters from Canada and Alaska, who had never heard a moose make a sound that loud. Plus, it was in the spring, so it had nothing to do with the rut. I stalked closer and actually watched that bull do it several more times from 50-60 yards, a minute or so apart. I was hunting over two miles from a buddy who also heard it!

Animals know pain and suffering, but cannot relate to it the same way we can. Fish feel little pain, regardless of how much they fight when hooked. Monarch butterflies eat toxic milkweed. Birds quickly learn not to eat Monarchs. Yes, birds puke. Pets remember past events, recognize people, and can learn tricks. But wild animals are not able to rationalize at nearly the same level as humans. Rational thinking is the ability to “think through” situations or problems with reasonable logical thought and action. We see lions, tigers, and leopards in circus acts. Sasha Siemel said, “We’ll never see a jaguar in a circus ring.” The reason is that jaguars have a much shorter fuse and temperament. They simply will not tolerate training attempts. Jaguars attack quicker than other big cats. Any circus trainer who tries to shove a wooden chair into the face of a snarling jaguar quickly learns a painful lesson.

Whitetails rely on instincts with a degree of rationale, although differently than how humans would weigh the same odds. For instance, a deer knows crossing an open field or highway in broad daylight is risky business. A rational thought would be to cross the same open field or highway very slowly, or with more caution, rather than running or not crossing either one at all. Deer crossing an open field at night prefer a tailwind; using their night-vision eyes to protect their front, and their nose to protect their rear. Likewise, a buck will check standing corn by walking across the rows on the downwind side of the field to take advantage of the wind coming down the rows rather than across them. Toddlers are soon taught the dangers of roads, but until then, they think or act irrationally through no fault of their own. The same goes for toddlers and stairs. With whitetails, a lot of risk is learned through experience and memory. A buck with very wide antlers quickly learns how to walk or run through a willow thicket without hanging his rack up between narrow trees. That’s not something he is taught.

Dogs and horses can recognize their masters from a distance. They can identify the sound of your truck engine. Dogs, deer, and horses recognize their “neighbors” by long-distance sighting. Most wild animals are born with a natural fear of human beings. How do they know? Why some species turn into maneaters is a whole different topic.

I’ve come to believe that mammals can rationalize on a basic level, without ever speaking. Dogs and wolves might be related, but they are nothing alike. A wolf has the ability to evaluate risks and act accordingly. Wolves seldom hunt alone, because they know it’s unsafe and less productive to do so. By the same token, coyotes will at times hunt in packs, but more often choose to venture for themselves. When a pack of wolves sees a grizzly bear, they know it’s best not to attack it. On the other hand, when wolves meet dogs, deer, or elk, the outcome is ugly, instinctive, and very normal.

So, can whitetails reason and rationalize? Yes, in my opinion, to a point. Can whitetails think? They think they can. But the fact that humans have the ability to think rationally, logically, and emotionally, all at the same time, makes us smarter than most animals…I think!

*The author, and his twin brother, Barry, are bowhunting icons who have spent decades studying whitetails and other game.

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