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Does Human Scent Bother "Civilized" Deer?

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September 01, 2009

Does Human Scent Bother "Civilized" Deer?

By Scott Bestul

Got some mail yesterday from a reader in New York state who had read my “Sniff Test” column (where I employed the services of a drug-sniffing canine to unravel some scent trails) in the August issue of the magazine. The reader wondered about the response of deer to smelling human scent vs. their relative exposure frequency to that odor. In other words, does a civilized deer—such as a suburban/farmland animal that encounters human scent all the time—react less severely than a deer living in a wilder area?

Also, the reader wondered, can a deer differentiate between human scents? Apparently, this reader’s property is hunted by other deer hunters as well as some upland bird hunters.

In my opinion, most deer (civilized or not) react to human scent as they would the scent of any potential predator, and their response to that scent is usually based on a perceived-threat basis. That is, if the scent is hot (fresh) they may become highly alert or even flee. If the scent is cold, most deer are not going to be overly alarmed. And, of course, there are a myriad number of reactions in between. I have had deer follow my tracks to the base of my tree, trailing me as if they were curious to know where I’d gone.

I don’t believe for a second that civilized deer are any more naïve than their wilderness cousins about human scent, and in many cases are probably smarter about it; they know which scents (and sounds) are normal and present no danger, and which don’t.

Overall, I think it behooves all hunters to try to reduce their scent (foot trails, body odor, etc) as much as possible. Doing so might be the difference between hunting a mildly-alert deer and one that comes unglued when it encounters a scent trail. But I also never kid myself; the whitetail nose is typically good enough that there is nothing we can do to avoid detection all the time. Does this make sense?

Comments (18)

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from buckhunter wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

I have 3 giant bucks that regularly visit the backyard of a home I have rented in town. You can stand within 30 yards of them. I can't get them that tame on my farm.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from RJ Arena wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

When I used to live in Pa., I would get huge bucks in my front yard everyday, you could pull up to the house and they would look up when you opened the car door, but they would not move(less than 30 ft. away), and on grocery day I swear they would follow you into the house if you let them, but opening day they were gone. About 2 months later I would see them again.I guess I should not have left the old Field & Stream mags. in the recycle bin next to the wood pile.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from jjas wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

I think "city" deer do become a bit more accustomed to human scent than deer that don't encounter them everyday do. Having said that, I think when a deer (city or rural)......

1.Encounters human scent in places that it normally doesn't.
2.Sees humans in the woods in the dark when they normally don't.
3.When the leaves drop and the cover is gone.

.....all bets are off and the natural instinct of the deer once again prevails and they are once again on full alert!

Jim

+5 Good Comment? | | Report
from Devil_Dog wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

The 'freshness' of the human scent causing a corresponding level of alarm makes sense. But what I would want to know is what happens when a hunter practicing good scent management moves through the woods. Any scent he leaves will be 'hot', however there should be very little of it. Does a minute amount of 'hot' scent trigger a greater response than an abundance of 'cold' scent?

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Bryan01 wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

I pretty much agree with jjas - deer do learn to distinguish when and where humans pose a threat and react accordingly

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from 2Poppa wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

I think it is all about the association and the encounter, individual deer have had with humans.

I've told the story before.
Three years ago,I was texting a message while sitting in the middle of a field.A rather cautious,alert doe approached me as I kept my attention on the cell phone.

She came within 8-feet of me,and kept tilting her head and raising her nose to smell the air. She slowly walked a complete circle around me,while sniffing the air and keeping her eyes on me.

I had a bag of Sunflower seeds in my lap,and I began to place them on the ground, as I talked to the doe in a low soothing voice.She was with me for over 20-minutes,while we were observing each other.

We encountered each other 2-more times prior to the big gun season in Kentucky.She always approached,but with caution.

The third day of big gun season,our paths crossed again. I was down in the bottom of a creek bed,when I noticed her coming in for a morning drink at the water hole. She came in,like she was on a rope. I noticed that she had a spot on her hind quarters,where a buck had rubbed her hair off.

As she drank with caution,I watched from the other side of the creek bed.After several sips, she nervously walked to my left,and began to look into the thick cedars.

I silently took the safety off as I noticed a wide-beamed buck making his way to the water. He snorted, as I seen the cold-air and mucous fly from his nostrils!
She did,what I call the egyptian walk, proceed to walk up to the calling,cavorting,love hungry,lothario.

Just as she walked by the lonesome lothario,he snorted one more time,mucous and all. He was less than 25-feet,up an incline,from where I was standing. I didn't even contemplate,on the pulling of the trigger,as I had seen him during muzzle loading season with the "Twin-Broomstick" Bucks,I mentioned in a previous blog.

How did this all happen?
My first encounter with the young doe wasn't threatening in any obvious way to her. She associated me,as a non-threatening entity,and our encounter/moment was somewhat rewarding for her.

I forgot to mention,that I wear prescription glasses,and I believe that is how she could visually recognize me from a distance. Another friend had crossed paths with her,and she came directly up to him,as he wears prescription glasses also.

I believe it's all about the encounter and association,with humans,in their earlier years,as to how they relate to humans.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from country road wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

I have to agree with jjas that it isn't scent alone. For many years I've seen big bucks begin to appear only three or four days after the season ends. (Our season lasts some ten weeks.) Once the activity leaves the woods, those old bucks know the threat is over for the year. Last year there was a buck with an unbelievably wide rack (for this area) that I saw four days in a row from the window of my cabin and he showed up beginning three days after the season ended. The third day he had a buddy with him that would have made a nice trophy, too. I swear they go to graduate school if they make it through their second year.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from swilmot1 wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

Hunters will all have different opinions on this situation because each ecounter will always be different from person to person. Bottom line is that deer all have survival instincts and will aproach each situation with caution. Like 2Poppa explained very well if there first ecounter is in a none threatening way then your scent and presence way not be threatening to them, but another hunter with a different scent and look maybe a whole different story

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Thomas Murray wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

There is a Columban Fathers Monastery in a town nearby that I have been a guest at several times. They allow no hunting on their 80 acres, and there is a large soccer field where I have literally watched dozens of deer graze at dusk. I have stood probably 50 yards from them in plain sight and while they will look up at me, they don't startle seem quite acclimated. I work at a camp, and live on 100 acres of hardwoods bordered by farmland, and we have people on our trails regularly. I notice that most of the time, the deer will pay careful attention to us when we are hiking, and will usually wander off away from us, but they don't seem overly alarmed. However, during hunting season in stand, these same deer are just as wary as you can imagine, and so I think they are smart enough to understand context-by that I mean that early in the morning, when it is still dark, and they can smell something but can't see it, they are far more spooky then when they can hear a troop of 5th graders, see them from a long way away, and so don't get surprised by them.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from shane wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

Yeah makes sense. I find that the deer in the middle of nowhere are a little more sensitive to it. Humans in suburbia and farmland means normal. Humans in their territory mostly means hunters.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Gunslinger wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

Apparently they are fenced raised deer as no deer in my neck of the woods will stand still if they see/smell you.I own a farm that is completely surounded by woods, and they never ge moe than 25 yds from the woods. So as son as I see a deer, I got to decided if a shootable animal or not. I do see many deer in my pasture, day and night, but the close to the stables and apparently never get my scent. I feel they born with a built in radar detector for humans,. But if you hunt near catttle, horses, pigs, sheep, thats another story those animals scent kills the human scent in my way of thinking,

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Hunter Savage wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

i say it all depends on the location that they smell it in . some locations that they expect it to be they handle it well , but the areas they frequent that is normally sent free i think it puts them on edge and raises the alarm factor

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Gunslinger wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

Also, I doubt there is a ELK in the country that can't smell you at 100 yds unless you batherd in a special scent killer. I am not a stalk hunter due to my diabilities, so I must Stand hunt of Vehicle hunt when I hunt the Rockies. Here at home, I drie my 4 wheeler to within l00 yds of my ground bling, then I spray my entire outter wear with Turpintine deluted by 50%. Thats a must for your shoes and pant legs. As for all theses Luers, not worth a dime in my book, much rather have a bottle of Vanilla flavoring on a cotton ball hanging from a close by limb. Love my ground blinds, as if get in need of a 30 minute nap, can do so and will be no movement seen from the deer. But as i stated earlier, my friend has a Dog that goes hunting with him and the dog lays by his side,.If that dog smells or sees a deer or other animal he makes a whinning noise to alert him of some strange being near by. Shoot-um-often and straight.

To anyone:I have a new neighbor who just moved in and has become a great friend, He has learne I'm a gun nut and somewhat a hunter both here and the Rixkies. He has decided to begin to want to go with me but has no equiptment. He wants me to tell him what to buy in way of Fiearms. My advice of course is my opinion only and it as follows: For deer here, a Rem 700 in 270; For Elk a Rem 700 30-06; For small game/and pratice a 22 Win Mag: For birds a Auto 20 ga and as a side arm a Rev in 357 or 44 mag, in case encounters a Griz out west. Now you guys give me your opinions, please?He is a great guy and I sure do not care to give him falsh imfo. He hs shot my guns as feels conforable wih each. Shot-um-straight and often as you can.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from dave the bowhunter wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

i think it depends aot on how much there harassed,,i live where some deer come in to town that pretty jumpy in town,but where they live out side of town they get hunted,,in another spot in a different town where they dont get hnted or messed with thye are as tame as can be and walk around there all day long ,and there is some nice bucks that do it ones a 18 inch wide 6x6,and a 17 inch wide 5x5 and some nice 4x4`s like that and there all tame

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Archery 101 wrote 4 years 32 weeks ago

I head into my woods about once a week and every time I see 3 to 7 deer. They come within 30 yards of me before they trot away.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from RobinHood wrote 4 years 32 weeks ago

Any animal can be used as a good indicator as to the reaction of another animal. Humans for instance, we all become accustomed to our personal surroundings, and should something out of the normal occur, whether it be a smell, sound, or visual cue, we react abnormally, or direct our attention differently than before we were presented with that stimulation. Urban deer are more accustomed to noise and scents, but should a scent be in a place it normally isn't, or a noise be out of place, or a stand show up in a location it was not before, the deer is going to act accordingly. While you may be able to use some background noise to your advantage in an urban setting, it isn't a free pass to not shower, make all the noise you want, and move around a bunch while hunting.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from dave the bowhunter wrote 4 years 32 weeks ago

i set in a corn feild on the edge where some deer couldnt see me and they never heard me and i had a range finder they was 500 yards from me,and the wind was blowing stright toward them i never dah my clean hunting chloths on and i watched theese edeer spook from me after about ten miniutes,and i know they smelt me no way they seen or heard me i know they can smell a person atleast that far away ,and that is over a quarter of a mile,, all the sudden they looked my way and took off on a dead run,

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from FloridaHunter1226 wrote 4 years 17 weeks ago

It makes sense to me. Deer are smart creatures. Like you, I think that deer can tell when and whether or not to be on high alert. They are not stupid animals, they know when danger is present.

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from jjas wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

I think "city" deer do become a bit more accustomed to human scent than deer that don't encounter them everyday do. Having said that, I think when a deer (city or rural)......

1.Encounters human scent in places that it normally doesn't.
2.Sees humans in the woods in the dark when they normally don't.
3.When the leaves drop and the cover is gone.

.....all bets are off and the natural instinct of the deer once again prevails and they are once again on full alert!

Jim

+5 Good Comment? | | Report
from 2Poppa wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

I think it is all about the association and the encounter, individual deer have had with humans.

I've told the story before.
Three years ago,I was texting a message while sitting in the middle of a field.A rather cautious,alert doe approached me as I kept my attention on the cell phone.

She came within 8-feet of me,and kept tilting her head and raising her nose to smell the air. She slowly walked a complete circle around me,while sniffing the air and keeping her eyes on me.

I had a bag of Sunflower seeds in my lap,and I began to place them on the ground, as I talked to the doe in a low soothing voice.She was with me for over 20-minutes,while we were observing each other.

We encountered each other 2-more times prior to the big gun season in Kentucky.She always approached,but with caution.

The third day of big gun season,our paths crossed again. I was down in the bottom of a creek bed,when I noticed her coming in for a morning drink at the water hole. She came in,like she was on a rope. I noticed that she had a spot on her hind quarters,where a buck had rubbed her hair off.

As she drank with caution,I watched from the other side of the creek bed.After several sips, she nervously walked to my left,and began to look into the thick cedars.

I silently took the safety off as I noticed a wide-beamed buck making his way to the water. He snorted, as I seen the cold-air and mucous fly from his nostrils!
She did,what I call the egyptian walk, proceed to walk up to the calling,cavorting,love hungry,lothario.

Just as she walked by the lonesome lothario,he snorted one more time,mucous and all. He was less than 25-feet,up an incline,from where I was standing. I didn't even contemplate,on the pulling of the trigger,as I had seen him during muzzle loading season with the "Twin-Broomstick" Bucks,I mentioned in a previous blog.

How did this all happen?
My first encounter with the young doe wasn't threatening in any obvious way to her. She associated me,as a non-threatening entity,and our encounter/moment was somewhat rewarding for her.

I forgot to mention,that I wear prescription glasses,and I believe that is how she could visually recognize me from a distance. Another friend had crossed paths with her,and she came directly up to him,as he wears prescription glasses also.

I believe it's all about the encounter and association,with humans,in their earlier years,as to how they relate to humans.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Archery 101 wrote 4 years 32 weeks ago

I head into my woods about once a week and every time I see 3 to 7 deer. They come within 30 yards of me before they trot away.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from buckhunter wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

I have 3 giant bucks that regularly visit the backyard of a home I have rented in town. You can stand within 30 yards of them. I can't get them that tame on my farm.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from RJ Arena wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

When I used to live in Pa., I would get huge bucks in my front yard everyday, you could pull up to the house and they would look up when you opened the car door, but they would not move(less than 30 ft. away), and on grocery day I swear they would follow you into the house if you let them, but opening day they were gone. About 2 months later I would see them again.I guess I should not have left the old Field & Stream mags. in the recycle bin next to the wood pile.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Devil_Dog wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

The 'freshness' of the human scent causing a corresponding level of alarm makes sense. But what I would want to know is what happens when a hunter practicing good scent management moves through the woods. Any scent he leaves will be 'hot', however there should be very little of it. Does a minute amount of 'hot' scent trigger a greater response than an abundance of 'cold' scent?

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Bryan01 wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

I pretty much agree with jjas - deer do learn to distinguish when and where humans pose a threat and react accordingly

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from country road wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

I have to agree with jjas that it isn't scent alone. For many years I've seen big bucks begin to appear only three or four days after the season ends. (Our season lasts some ten weeks.) Once the activity leaves the woods, those old bucks know the threat is over for the year. Last year there was a buck with an unbelievably wide rack (for this area) that I saw four days in a row from the window of my cabin and he showed up beginning three days after the season ended. The third day he had a buddy with him that would have made a nice trophy, too. I swear they go to graduate school if they make it through their second year.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from swilmot1 wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

Hunters will all have different opinions on this situation because each ecounter will always be different from person to person. Bottom line is that deer all have survival instincts and will aproach each situation with caution. Like 2Poppa explained very well if there first ecounter is in a none threatening way then your scent and presence way not be threatening to them, but another hunter with a different scent and look maybe a whole different story

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Thomas Murray wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

There is a Columban Fathers Monastery in a town nearby that I have been a guest at several times. They allow no hunting on their 80 acres, and there is a large soccer field where I have literally watched dozens of deer graze at dusk. I have stood probably 50 yards from them in plain sight and while they will look up at me, they don't startle seem quite acclimated. I work at a camp, and live on 100 acres of hardwoods bordered by farmland, and we have people on our trails regularly. I notice that most of the time, the deer will pay careful attention to us when we are hiking, and will usually wander off away from us, but they don't seem overly alarmed. However, during hunting season in stand, these same deer are just as wary as you can imagine, and so I think they are smart enough to understand context-by that I mean that early in the morning, when it is still dark, and they can smell something but can't see it, they are far more spooky then when they can hear a troop of 5th graders, see them from a long way away, and so don't get surprised by them.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from shane wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

Yeah makes sense. I find that the deer in the middle of nowhere are a little more sensitive to it. Humans in suburbia and farmland means normal. Humans in their territory mostly means hunters.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Gunslinger wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

Apparently they are fenced raised deer as no deer in my neck of the woods will stand still if they see/smell you.I own a farm that is completely surounded by woods, and they never ge moe than 25 yds from the woods. So as son as I see a deer, I got to decided if a shootable animal or not. I do see many deer in my pasture, day and night, but the close to the stables and apparently never get my scent. I feel they born with a built in radar detector for humans,. But if you hunt near catttle, horses, pigs, sheep, thats another story those animals scent kills the human scent in my way of thinking,

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Hunter Savage wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

i say it all depends on the location that they smell it in . some locations that they expect it to be they handle it well , but the areas they frequent that is normally sent free i think it puts them on edge and raises the alarm factor

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Gunslinger wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

Also, I doubt there is a ELK in the country that can't smell you at 100 yds unless you batherd in a special scent killer. I am not a stalk hunter due to my diabilities, so I must Stand hunt of Vehicle hunt when I hunt the Rockies. Here at home, I drie my 4 wheeler to within l00 yds of my ground bling, then I spray my entire outter wear with Turpintine deluted by 50%. Thats a must for your shoes and pant legs. As for all theses Luers, not worth a dime in my book, much rather have a bottle of Vanilla flavoring on a cotton ball hanging from a close by limb. Love my ground blinds, as if get in need of a 30 minute nap, can do so and will be no movement seen from the deer. But as i stated earlier, my friend has a Dog that goes hunting with him and the dog lays by his side,.If that dog smells or sees a deer or other animal he makes a whinning noise to alert him of some strange being near by. Shoot-um-often and straight.

To anyone:I have a new neighbor who just moved in and has become a great friend, He has learne I'm a gun nut and somewhat a hunter both here and the Rixkies. He has decided to begin to want to go with me but has no equiptment. He wants me to tell him what to buy in way of Fiearms. My advice of course is my opinion only and it as follows: For deer here, a Rem 700 in 270; For Elk a Rem 700 30-06; For small game/and pratice a 22 Win Mag: For birds a Auto 20 ga and as a side arm a Rev in 357 or 44 mag, in case encounters a Griz out west. Now you guys give me your opinions, please?He is a great guy and I sure do not care to give him falsh imfo. He hs shot my guns as feels conforable wih each. Shot-um-straight and often as you can.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from dave the bowhunter wrote 4 years 33 weeks ago

i think it depends aot on how much there harassed,,i live where some deer come in to town that pretty jumpy in town,but where they live out side of town they get hunted,,in another spot in a different town where they dont get hnted or messed with thye are as tame as can be and walk around there all day long ,and there is some nice bucks that do it ones a 18 inch wide 6x6,and a 17 inch wide 5x5 and some nice 4x4`s like that and there all tame

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from RobinHood wrote 4 years 32 weeks ago

Any animal can be used as a good indicator as to the reaction of another animal. Humans for instance, we all become accustomed to our personal surroundings, and should something out of the normal occur, whether it be a smell, sound, or visual cue, we react abnormally, or direct our attention differently than before we were presented with that stimulation. Urban deer are more accustomed to noise and scents, but should a scent be in a place it normally isn't, or a noise be out of place, or a stand show up in a location it was not before, the deer is going to act accordingly. While you may be able to use some background noise to your advantage in an urban setting, it isn't a free pass to not shower, make all the noise you want, and move around a bunch while hunting.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from dave the bowhunter wrote 4 years 32 weeks ago

i set in a corn feild on the edge where some deer couldnt see me and they never heard me and i had a range finder they was 500 yards from me,and the wind was blowing stright toward them i never dah my clean hunting chloths on and i watched theese edeer spook from me after about ten miniutes,and i know they smelt me no way they seen or heard me i know they can smell a person atleast that far away ,and that is over a quarter of a mile,, all the sudden they looked my way and took off on a dead run,

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from FloridaHunter1226 wrote 4 years 17 weeks ago

It makes sense to me. Deer are smart creatures. Like you, I think that deer can tell when and whether or not to be on high alert. They are not stupid animals, they know when danger is present.

0 Good Comment? | | Report

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