Whitetail Body Language: 5 Tail-Tell Signs to Know
Bloodshot eyes roll back in their sockets. Chipped hooves kick dust into the air. Coarse hairs stand on end as a parched tongue licks quivering nostrils. Tails thrash back and forth. It’s all about the non-verbals when reading whitetails and their behavior. Deer aren’t as vocal as turkeys or elk. (But they are more vocal than many hunters think.) That said, you must rely on non-vocal communications to see and understand what deer are feeling and thinking.
The Tail Flick
Deer get their name from their behind, more specifically, the large white patch on the underside of the tail. It sends all sorts of messages to other deer. These are signals hunters can pick up on, too, so long as they know what to look for.
Real Life Example: I’d already filled my 2012 Kentucky buck tag. A friend of mine needed a place to hunt, so I offered to take him. We sat in the stand nine mornings in a row before work. On the ninth, a 4-year-old 10-point I had history with came busting through cover. I grunted and rattled to him. He stopped, flicked his tail and kept trucking on down the ridge.
I knew we had him. Three flicks of the tail gave him away. This is a sign of acknowledgment between deer. I knew he heard me even though he never looked our way. It was only a matter of time before he swung back through to confront the challenger. About 45 minutes later, the bruiser came running back to us, stopped broadside at 10 yards, and took a broadhead to the rib cage courtesy of my good buddy.
The Takeaway: Don’t give up after calling to a seemingly unresponsive deer. Watch their tail along with the rest of their body to see the big picture.
The Tail Tuck
Up next is the tail tuck. This signals a deer is reluctant, subordinate, fearful or injured. These bucks are oftentimes loners and anti-social. Anytime I see a deer tuck its tail, or receive a trail camera photo of this action, I immediately mark that deer as a timid (or injured) one.
Real Life Example: Having this intel completely changed my approach to hunting one specific deer — my deer from 2009. He ran in an area inhabited by two bucks that were bigger-bodied than he. His actions reflected this. I knew I couldn’t get aggressive with him. So, I set up shop near a preferred bedding area and refused the urge to call and rattle. I shot him as he made his way to a nearby pond. Because I observed him act timid once, I completely changed the game plan to fit his personality.
The Takeaway: Knowing different possible meanings behind tucked tails provides clues as to what deer might be thinking. Before the shot, a tucked tail means a timid or shy deer. After the shot, it means you likely hit the mark. A wounded deer generally tucks its tail between its legs. If you miss, the tail usually stays raised after the shot.
The Rigid Tail
A straight, flat tail is a sign love is in the air. This is a common occurrence among does during the rut. It can mean a doe is in estrous, or nearing estrous, and is ready to breed. Most times when you see this, the doe is accompanied by a buck (or bucks).
Real Life Example: Several years ago, I was set up on the edge of a thicket. A doe ran through out about an hour into the hunt. Does usually have their tails raised when running. This doe didn’t. Hers was stretched out parallel to the ground (and mouth wide open and panting). I knew she was in estrous and that a buck couldn’t be far behind her. Ten seconds later, a solid 130-inch 10-point came trotting out. I stopped him before taking the shot.
The Takeaway: Knowing she was in estrous gave me an advantage. I was already prepared and waiting to take the shot when the buck entered the open. If I hadn’t known, I may not have gotten the shot off in time.
The White Flag
The raised tail is without a doubt the most infamous, yet hated, tail talk of all. It’s generally the last thing you see as that giant buck bounds over the hill and out of your life.
Real Life Example: I have too many stories about spooked deer to share them all here. I’ll pick the most heartbreaking of them all. It was fall of 2013, sometime around late September. I’d chased this deer for three years and it was on that day he stepped out two full hours before dark. He walked straight toward me and stopped at 30 yards. Then, a woman and her kids walked down the hill to the creek. The buck raised its tail and dashed from the field along with every other deer.
The Takeaway: There isn’t much you can do when that happens. You’re at the mercy of your environment, including trespassers. The best thing to do, even when you mess up and spook deer, is learn from the experience and keep hunting. Set a conscious goal to never see the white flag and you’ll spook less deer.
The All-Clear Swish
A deer that wags its tail once from side to side is saying all is well. It feels there is no eminent danger. If a deer initially spooks, but then signals all-clear swish, you can relax again and continue the hunt.
Real Life Example: This happened right before I tagged a nice South Dakota buck in 2016 (pictured above). Something spooked it. After his investigation, he used this body language to signal the all-clear.
The Takeaway: Don’t take a low-odds, bad shot opportunity when deer spook. Wait for them to calm back down (if possible). If you see this signal, they’re generally relaxed again.
It takes an extensive understanding of whitetail behavior to consistently knock them down. Strive to be fluent in whitetail body language. The more you know how they communicate, the more apt you are to understand them. And the more you understand them, the more likely you’ll be to fill that deer tag.