Every fall I hear about a big buck someone has been tracking and watching for weeks. But when the gun season arrives, that big buck vanishes, only to reappear a few weeks later. Are deer really that smart?
Keen senses of smell, vision, and hearing have a lot to do with deer "intelligence." Deer often sense the presence of hunters long before hunters sense them. But is intelligence or instinct responsible?
Actually, it's natural selection at work. Those individuals, males and females, that are most wary and hyper-vigilant tend to survive hunting seasons. And thanks to experience, older deer tend to be bigger and more impressive physically. Those individuals get to breed, at least for a few years, and pass on the genes that promote adaptive behavior and survival.
But sometimes deer just seem smart. In a new book, Whitetail Savvy (2013, Skyhorse Publishing, $29.95), author Leonard Lee Rue III devotes a short chapter to "Instinct vs. Intelligence." He cites several examples that seem to illustrate deer intelligence.
In one case a big buck was seen routinely on a farm except during the hunting season when it disappeared. Finally tracks were found leading to an old root cellar in the middle of a field. Trail cams revealed that the buck spent every day during the hunting season bedded down in the root cellar.
Another intelligent deer discovered that hiding in a storm sewer under a major highway was a safe place to avoid hunters. Despite constant traffic and road noise, this buck crawled into a large pipe every day during the hunting season.
I've made a similar observation in my own backyard. About 50 yards from the house, there's a small shed on the edge of the woods. I use it to store lumber, old pipes, and other junk. It's open on two ends, but the interior stays dry and protected from the wind.
A few years ago on a cold January day, I came out of the woods near the shed. As I approached, three deer bolted from the shed. One almost ran me over. Upon closer inspection, I found three beds on the dry dirt floor. Since then, I've found deer "hiding" in that shed quite a few times, especially on snowy days.