Whitetail Hunting photo

Most of you who commented said, no, deer do not have a sixth sense but are ultra-aware of their surroundings and possess five senses that are finely tuned beyond our reckoning. But a whopping 68 percent of those who voted said yes, deer do have a sixth sense.

Although I do see the romantic appeal that buckhunter describes, I’m with the “Nays” on this one. Bestul, however, is with the majority and wrote a column a few months back arguing the point. And while I remain unconvinced, I will say that Scott’s column absolutely opened my mind to the possibility.

It’s printed below in case you missed it.

The Sixth Sense

by Scott Bestul

For no apparent reason, just beyond bow range, the buck stopped. He licked his nose–the classic behavior of a whitetail trying to smell just a little better–and his body tensed. Then he took a single, hesitant step backward. Game over, I remember thinking. The buck never gave any indication of what he’d detected, but his confident stroll morphed into a slinking retreat–and he was gone like a vapor. Why? It’s the question behind a long-debated topic among hunters: Do deer have a sixth sense, an innate ability to detect danger even when the five known senses seem beaten? Many hunters dismiss the idea, arguing that whitetails like the one I mentioned above nail us by some stray molecule of scent, whisper of sound, tic of movement unreadable to us but clear to the deer. But the debate has been renewed of late thanks to, of all things, natural disasters and combat.

Danger Detection

Both animal and human behavior during recent tsunamis and earthquakes supports the idea that many species can react to disasters long before they occur.

In The Nature Principle, Richard Louv details how animals sensed the Asian tsunami of 2004 and fled to higher ground, where they were joined by native Jarawa people alerted to the storm by a variety of anomalies in their natural world. In Iraq and Afghanistan, notes Louv, the U.S. military has found that some soldiers are better than others at detecting roadside bombs. Among the most proficient spotters? Young men who have hunting backgrounds, “with plenty of experience…in an environment that demands better use of the senses.”

When I asked Dr. Steven Reppert, neurobiologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, whether deer might possess a sixth sense that helps them survive, he said, “Most researchers recognize that there are more senses than the traditional five. It’s just a question of which wind up on whose list.” On a less scientific level, so many people claim to have experienced “the sense of being stared at” in a crowded room that the phenomenon, though unprovable, can’t be totally dismissed.
Deer and Hunters**

I believe that most of the time, a fleeing white flag is linked to one of the five common senses. But I’ve also hunted and observed whitetails long enough to believe they’re capable of more. If researchers recognize more than five senses for humans and other animals, why not a sixth for deer? If a person, with his pathetically dulled survival instincts, can feel someone’s eyes on his back, why can’t a whitetail–a predator magnet–feel a hunter’s eyes?

So what can we do about it? Well, there’s the recently introduced HECS suit ($150), a garment lined with fibers to insulate the electromagnetic field we all supposedly exude. Or you can do what I’ve done for over 25 years and have seen work scores of times. When I have deer close, I don’t look directly at them for more than a second or two. If there are multiple animals, I shift my gaze from one deer to the next. And I try to calm myself–especially with a deer I intend to shoot–by breathing deeply and trying to relax (for more on this, see “Invisible Stalker,” Feb. 2012, p. 28). I believe this reduces any predatory vibe I might emit. Sounds like hocus-pocus? Fine. Tell that to the next buck that busts you for reasons you can’t explain.