The silence is broken. There, along the forest edge, are the faint echoes of a few soft grunting sounds. Setting your sights in that direction, you search the landscape.
With the anticipation of a rutting buck, you are suddenly shocked when you finally catch a glimpse of the deer.
The sporadic grunting is not coming from a male deer: It’s an old matriarchal doe with her offspring.
And so another intriguing and unpredictable aspect of behavior unfolds in the whitetails’ world of vocal communications.
From the late spring and summer months when newborn whitetails are born, vocal sounds play important roles in fawn 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 call is a little different from the typical grunts of rutting bucks. It is somewhat softer, and not quite as deep and hollow as a buck’s grunt. 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. The maternal grunt can also be used to command the infant deer to bed down.
Females also use this grunt to call relative deer, primarily mothers and daughters, when the herd gets separated. This is a common occurrence when predators such as coyotes run deer herds — sometimes temporarily separating the members.
When whitetails start to congregate after being separated by predators, they can continue to vocalize. This is done more so with does, and it helps them to remain together.
This particular grunt is highly social. On rare occasions, young bucks in bachelor groups can be faintly heard displaying this vocalization, as well.
Yet that is most likely due to the imprinting young bucks received — having just recently been weaned from the female clan.
A fawn can display the mewing vocalization when responding to its mother — especially if she “grunts” for the fawn.
Although the mew is typically a response vocalization, it can be used if the newborn is becoming restless or hungry and needs maternal care.
Surprisingly — and contrary to popular belief — young does in the social herding network can also exhibit mewing sounds; this behavior is usually heard from young does that are still with their maternal mother.
When the infant fawn is really in need, be it danger or nutrition, the woodlands will echo with the bleat call. This call is sure to get the mother’s attention.
However, the fawn’s bleat can also attract nearby predators — particularly if the bleats become continuous and develop into almost a bawl. This is a louder vocalization that really sounds like an amplified bleat, but it carries more of a distress sound.
These vocalizations are vital for the mother and her offspring in developing a solid relationship so her maternal instincts can rear and teach the infant.
Hunters focusing on antlerless harvest claim to have good success in mimicking fawn bleats. These calls are basically designed to attract female deer — but bucks have been known to investigate bleat calls, as well.
With the need to establish and maintain the whitetails’ social interactions are 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 nasal passages. It can occur just once or in a rapid series of short fast snorts.
The snort is very distinct, and can be heard for quite some distance — 200 to 500 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 commonly displayed by the matriarchal doe, but one of her female offspring can also sound the alarm — taking the role of a protective sentinel.
Although bucks will sound the alarm and snort, some hunters claim bucks under heavy pressure keep totally silent — not vocalizing at all when sensing danger.
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 an actual vocal communication, sometimes the front hoof hitting the ground produces enough of a thumping sound to alert other deer in the immediate vicinity.
The foot stomp can signal danger when a whitetail instinctively holds off on exhibiting a snort. It can also be used in combination with snorting, and it can be used to attempt to get response from a predator when the deer’s vision cannot effectively detect danger.
Although vocalizations from whitetails occur year-round, deer undoubtedly intensify their larynx usage as the rut gets under way.
The grunt is a very distinct form of communication used by rutting bucks. However, as mentioned before, females can occasionally be heard grunting over social disputes or for locating one another.
Even so, the male’s grunt is by far a trait to recognize bucks when foliage obscures your vision.
Bucks can also charge or trot toward a female and grunt once or even several times in sequence.
To establish and maintain dominance, bucks use grunts when rival bucks are sighted or scented. Their instinctive objective is to try and get the other buck to move on.
This grunt can also be followed up by a grunt-snort vocalization that 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.
But 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.
The 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.
Mature bucks can also charge and grunt-snort-wheeze at female deer as the rut heats up. This vocal really tends to indicate that it is associated with achieving dominance, and it is usually displayed in conjunction with aggressive body gestures.
For example, when bucks use this vocalization, they usually swing their heads and necks upward as they end the sequence with the drawn out wheeze. This rapid head/neck movement is used to intimidate rival bucks.
Besides these common rut vocalizations, rutting bucks can also just exhibit a singular “wheeze” vocal with no grunt or snort. All in all, though there is usually a pattern to whitetail communication — the sounds described can be combined together or used just once, occasionally making deer calls erratic and unpredictable.
Once females are near or in estrus and receptive to the breeder buck, a whole new set of sounds unfold.
The most common is the tending grunt. It is displayed when a buck stands guard of his mate and tends her — especially when other intruding bucks attempt to get in on the action.
The tending grunt is usually a softer, lower-sounding vocalization than the common grunt used by bucks on the move. It is usually drawn out in comparison to the common grunt.
This is also another whitetail vocal that some hunters use to try and attract rutting bucks.
Even though the sound of bucks slamming antler tines is not an actual vocalization, it is considered an indirect form of deer communication.
Fights will undoubtedly draw bucks from all directions; it is a signal that a receptive female is around.
However, that isn’t always the case when hearing the echoes of clashing antlers. Many buck fights actually occur prior to actual breeding times.
During the prerut and once signposting behavior kicks in, many mature bucks establish the “pecking order” before females actually start releasing sexual pheromones.
Therefore, rattling under situations where the hierarchy has already been set in stone might not attract the number of bucks one might expect. Defeated bucks are gun shy and highly reluctant to investigate rattling sounds.
Of course, if a female is in peak breeding mode, certain bucks with bold attitudes can and do still investigate buck fights.
Vocalizations vary in intensity and duration from deer. Also, the amount of testosterone a buck possesses, as well as its rutting disposition (aggressiveness, etc.), also dictates the degree of vocalizations.
Young bucks are usually not as communicative and loud as mature, 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.
But 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.