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 naive 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?