Pavlov's Doe: Can Deer Pattern Humans?

Pavlov's Doe: Can Deer Pattern Humans?

Hunters, especially bowhunters, spend considerable time and effort trying to pattern whitetails. We study sign, place trail cameras and glass from afar in an effort to discern some routine in their daily movements. Deer aren't nearly as habitual as we might like, but occasionally we pick up patterns we can exploit.

What about the other side of the coin? Naturalists wax philosophically about how nothing moves through the forest undetected. Bowhunters certainly cause little disturbance, but we still deposit scent, make noise and otherwise leave evidence of our presence. There's little doubt deer detect us, even after we've left. We also know they react by avoiding where we are, or were. For the most part, it's just a negative response to a foreign odor, sound or movement. They also learn from their encounters. But is it possible deer can learn not only to avoid where we are, but where we might be? Can whitetails actually pattern us?


My first suspicion that deer might have such an ability came after I had owned my own land for a few years and had the luxury of erecting permanent stands. Over time, I noticed success rates were dwindling. It could have been for any number of reasons. But I also noticed the heavy trails that first prompted me to erect those stands had shifted, usually to the downwind side. It appeared the deer had actually learned to avoid those locations.


Later, I tested my hypothesis on a late-season hunt in North Carolina. It was a typical Southeastern guided operation, with shooting houses and ladder stands strategically placed on food plots and major travel corridors. Each had a name and a history, often related to some hunter who'd killed a deer there. What few deer we saw, and there weren't many, were obviously pressured.

I asked the outfitter if he had a portable climber I could borrow. When he replied in the affirmative, I then pointed to a spot on their property map far away from any established stands and asked if I could hunt there. Again a "yes." What a difference it made! The deer showed up earlier, moved closer and just seemed generally more relaxed, despite my presence. I was convinced, but validation from the scientific community wouldn't come until more than a decade later.


Ironically, it came indirectly from North Carolina in the form of James Tomberlin's master's thesis at North Carolina State University (though the research was done in Maryland). During his radio-collar study of deer movement, he found evidence that deer frequented open areas and passed by permanent stands at night, but never during the day. Voila!


Animal Behavior 101
In a sense, Tomberlin's research validated what we already knew. For years, self-proclaimed whitetail experts have advanced the notion whitetails can pattern humans based on little more than their own experience, which certainly cannot be discounted.

There are two forms of behavioral conditioning: classical and operant. Remember Pavlov's dog from sixth-grade science? Back in the 1890s, Ivan Pavlov experimented with classical conditioning by ringing a bell every time he fed his dog. Over time, he conditioned the dog so eventually it would salivate every time he rang the bell, whether food was present or not.

Operant conditioning, on the other hand, involves the use of consequences -- positive reinforcement and punishment -- to modify behavior. Parents know all about that.

Deer feeders offer a great example of operant conditioning from the whitetail world. Deer are born knowing corn is food but have no idea what a feeder is. The first time they hear its metal rattle they very likely run away from it. Over time, they become conditioned to the sound and are rewarded with food. Eventually, they learn to associate the clanging sound with food and will even come to the sound of an artificial feeder call. If the feeder is on a timer, they can also be conditioned to come at the same time every day.

It also works in the opposite direction, to elicit a negative response. Whether it's innate or learned, deer tend to avoid humans when they smell, see or hear us. But what about when we're not there? Tomberlin's study suggests deer can learn to associate inanimate objects like permanent stands with humans, and then avoid them whether they are occupied or not.

Other studies on deer and elk have shown that animals tend to avoid buildings, other structures and roads; and at least in the case of roads, avoidance increases during hunting season. It may be merely a reaction to negative encounters with humans, or it may be learning to avoid physical features associated with humans. More research is needed, but the whitetail is arguably the most adaptable land mammal on the face of the earth. So, it's easy to believe they're adapting not only to our presence but also to our behavior.

The Good News
I'm not suggesting you trade all your ladder stands for a climber; far from it. I've killed plenty of good deer from permanent or semi-permanent stands. They can be effective, particularly if you heed this advice:

Don't over-hunt them. Every time you use a stand, you disturb the area, leave more scent and make your presence known.

Move them around. One of my favorite bowhunting areas is a small section of a much larger patch of woods. For some reason, deer seem to concentrate there, and I've learned that in order to be consistently successful, I have to move my stands about every two years. Usually, a move of just 50-100 yards is sufficient to tip the odds back in my favor.

Bring a climber. If you go on a guided hunt, ask if you can bring a climbing stand with you. Most good outfitters and guides work hard for their clients, but when you shuttle dozens of hunters through every season, it's simply not possible to move every stand every year.

Tip Of The Month: Your first time on a particular stand is usually the most productive, especially if your goal is a mature buck. Even the most meticulous hunter makes his presence known, and the element of surprise diminishes with each visit.

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