The Whitetail Flag

BY Mark McCollough

I am a dyed-in-the-wool still hunter – always was, always will be. My father taught me this type of deer hunting when I was a small lad. “Know the wind, and always choose to hunt a piece of woods so the wind is in your face. Take one careful step forward. Stop for a few minutes. Scan through the trees (including behind you). Look for something that it out of place; the horizontal line of a deer’s back, the flick of an ear or tail, the twist of an antler. Then take another step. Roll your foot to soften the sound in the crispy leaves. Feel the stick that could snap under your foot.” Those were my Dad’s instructions, and after 50 years of deer hunting I have dragged out a deer many more Novembers than not.

Still hunting is not about how much area you cover, but how well you cover the area you hunt in a day. I’ve snuck up on deer in their beds and have had deer bed down within 10 yards of me. Still hunting is a game of who sees who first. Even after decades of experience, deer see or smell me first more often than I first see them. All I have to report after many days afield is, “Just flags!

Deer Signals

Deer communicate many ways including by grunts, wheezes, and the classic “buck snort.” They also use scents and smells from their many scent glands to let each other know of their comings and goings. Deer and their kin also use their rumps and tails as a significant form of communication. But what does all that tail-wagging mean?

Our favorite quarry, the white-tailed deer, gets its name from it’s famous white appendage. But why don’t all their cousins, elk, moose, caribou for example, also have a flag to communicate? As a species, white-tailed deer have been around much longer (3.5 million years) than us humans (Homo sapiens are youngsters at just 200,000 years). The white-tail is believed to have evolved from Odocoileus brachyodontus, that seems to be most closely related to Europe’s roe deer.

The wolf’s fang and icy bite of winter have worked for millenia to mold the size, coat qualities, antlers, and behavior of our North American deer. The dire wolf, short-faced bear, and saber-toothed cat of the Pleistocene did far more than modern predators to shape the extravagant size of the moose and fleetness of the deer that we see today.

As deer species colonized forests and grasslands from the tropics to the arctic, their body shape, antlers and rump patches evolved according to several ecological rules-of-thumb. We learned about Allen’s Rule in ecology class: the limbs, ears, and other appendages of birds and mammals living in cold climates tend to be shorter than in animals of the same species living in warm climates. Thus moose, caribou, elk, and roe deer that evolved in the subarctic have smaller, rounded ears of modest size, shorter legs in comparison the body, and a tail that is relatively small. Whereas, the white-tailed deer evolved in temperate forest and has large ears, longer thin legs, and a luxurious tail.

Regional Differences

A fellow named Bergmann proposed another rule-of-thumb: to better conserve heat, animals at higher latitudes are larger and heavier than those closer to the equator. Thus, the northern moose, caribou, and elk are the largest species of deer in North America. Even within a species this axiom holds true. An average, mature (3 ½ year) Maine white-tailed buck tips the scales at about 175 pounds, whereas a buck of the same age in Texas would average just 85 pounds (field dressed).

Elk and caribou communicate with rump patches instead of their stumpy tails. Moose, who have almost no rump patch, may use the light interiors of the hind legs to communicate. White-tails, muntjacs, and sambars are deer species that evolved to feed in small groups around the edges of dense forests. In these species, the tail is lifted to expose light, and highly-visible underparts. White-tails have taken evolution one step further to warn their brethren with long, white hairs that flank the rump and tail and are flared when there is danger.

What deer are saying with their rumps and tails has been the subject of great controversy among biologists. “Flagging” by white-tails is undoubtedly a warning signal between deer, but there are several hypotheses for the behavior. Flagging is often accompanied by stamping feet or loud snorts to tell the predator, “I know that you are there.” A bouncing white flag helps fawns to follow their mothers in dense forest when fleeing from a predator. Flagging may be a way for the doe to decoy the predator away from a hidden fawn, much the same way as a killdeer does a “broken wing” act. Or flagging may allow deer in a social group to keep track of each other as they flee through dense habitat.

The easy bounding gate of a flagging whitetail is not the fastest means of escaping a predator. Mule deer have a similar slow-escape called stotting. When deer are badly startled or surprised at close range they gallop with their tail straight out and not highly visible.

Not to Flag

Sometimes deer choose not to flag, more so when they are in dense cover. Flagging can expose them to predators (hunters), and they may opt to suppress their instinct to flag. When approached by a stick-snapping, leaf-crunching hunter, white-tails must evaluate their risk and decide to flag or not to flag. One study showed that when approached by humans, white-tail bucks flagged and snorted slightly less than does.

May you have the best of luck in encountering that wise Maine buck that skulks through the dark cedars and never raises his tail to give away his location.

Mark McCollough will be deer hunting from his home in Hampden, Maine and can be reached at markmccollough25@gmail.com

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