Recently, I had a chance to talk with several wildlife biologists regarding whitetail vocalizations, I learned one thing for sure - we are only beginning to understand what it’s all about. I don’t have the sophisticated listening equipment some of these biologists do, but I have observed and studied whitetail for quite some time.
I do know for sure, whitetails vocalize to communicate a variety of socially important information and their sounds vary in pitch and intensity. But, most importantly, I know they can be called to us by imitating these sounds. Aside from a doe and her young fawns in the spring, whitetails are most vocal during the fall months and breeding season. Making the right sound at the right time can be an exciting way to fill a tag and put a trophy on the wall.
To begin, we need to understand a whitetail’s sense of hearing. After all, it’s their hearing that we’re trying to reach when using a call. The average hunter would say a whitetail has much better hearing than a human. Actually, our ear drum is more sophisticated. Humans have the capabilities to pick up higher pitch and lower pitch frequencies. But imagine if you had two huge, open-ended cones you could direct and cup sound with. Because of the style of their ears, they are much better at pin-pointing sounds and separating noises. My point - during a stint in a treestand, you may have trouble hearing an approaching buck walking in the leaves because of the squirrels scampering around underneath you. Or, you may have trouble hearing a whitetail grunt because of traffic sounds on a nearby highway. A whitetail, however, can distinguish and pinpoint the location of those sounds much better then we can.
As far as the often-asked question, "How loud should I blow my call?" The short answer is - about as loud as you would if you were trying to get another human to hear at that same distance, maybe a little less. That doesn’t mean if you’ve got a whitetail standing at 500 yards you want to blow the guts out of your grunt call. I guess a better answer would be, "Make the sound the same volume a whitetail would."
Adult deer communicate through grunts, bleats, bawls, bellows, snorts, hisses and wheezes. The two most common sounds are grunts and bleats. Varying the tone, length or volume can give them totally different meanings. Both bucks and does make both grunts and bleats.
Two very common vocalizations are what some call the "contact bleat" and "attention grunt." The contact bleat just simply means "here I am." The attention grunt, I believe, takes it a step further and means "here I am; come to me" or "come follow me." Both of these sounds can be made on a number of blown-through, adjustable O-ring type calls or bleat cans.
Possibly the most commonly heard vocalization during the breeding season is a tending grunt. It can last from a fraction of a second to over a second and has a different tone. This grunt sound differs from the attention grunt in that it sounds more nasal and smooth where the attention grunt is throaty and has a "clicking" sound to it. This sound is made by bucks either when following an estrus doe (or a doe about to come into estrus), while he’s checking different does to see if they are in estrus, when following a trail made by an estrus doe or when trailing a doe during the chase phase of the rut. I’ve had very little luck calling deer to me with this call.
Aggressive sounds like the "snort-wheeze" or "aggravated-grunt" will intimidate or alarm many deer. However, I’ve used the aggravated-grunt, or what some call the "growl-grunt," to call larger, mature bucks to me numerous times. This sound is a longer, drawn-out grunt that is phrased somewhat like a growl. It’s not as common as other whitetail vocalizations, but yet I’ve heard it many times in the wild. It is common to hear before a confrontation between two mature bucks. Their hair gets bristled up, they do a funny looking stiff-legged walk and they posture each other side-to-side trying to intimidate their opponent. It is often made in combination with other aggressive snorts or sniff-wheeze sounds and basically means "I’m king of the hill; hit the trail buddy!"
The "Buck Roar" from Primos is a call designed specifically for aggressive buck sounds. This call was initially intended to do another unique buck vocalization dubbed the "roar," but will work to do several different buck calls. Some may have heard this "roar" sound in the wild and not known it was a deer making it. I would have to describe it as almost like a buck "bark." This is an assertive sound in the whitetail world. Even though this is an aggressive sound, you will be amazed at how well bucks are drawn to it.
Another vocalization that I’ve also had success using is a "breeding bellow." The breeding bellow is made by an estrus doe when she is ready to breed. I’ve only heard this hair-raising vocalization several times in the wild but I’ve listened to it being made by captive does many times. Although I hear this most often with captive does, this call has worked for me numerous times in the wild. It’s an urgent sound resembling a long sheep baa. It basically means "Hey baby, I’m over here and I’M READY NOW!" You can make this sound on several calls. A bleat-can will work but it doesn’t quite capture the volume, pitch fluctuation or tone of the real deal.
Years ago I used to sit outside my buddy’s deer pens and listen to the does make this sound and then try to repeat it. I can actually make it best with my own voice. Several years ago, I harvested a respectable 145 inch 5x5 using this sound. He was skirting me about 100 yards out so I thought what the heck. It actually brought him in on an intense run to search out the source of the sound. I drove a Carbon Express "rocket" through both lungs as he stopped 18 yards away probing the brush for the doe that made the sound.
There’s also a very social buck call some refer to as a "buck bawl." Not to be confused with a distress bawl, this call I believe is basically a "buck bleat." Some call it a bawl probably because it is louder than a typical social bleat. It sounds more like the noise should be coming from a sheep than a whitetail. Late season is the only time I’ve had this call work for me.
Alarm calls, or distress calls tend to be very loud in comparison to other whitetail communication. Most whitetail hunters have heard a snort. There are several different variations of the snort. Some mean danger and some are aggressive sounds. However, I have called whitetail into bow range using a snort. If they snort at me, I snort right back at them. I suppose their curiosity has gotten the better of them.
More often than vocally, whitetail communicate through smells or body language. In fact, a key to becoming good at calling deer is learning to understand or "read" body language. You need to know whether or not you’ve blown the right call, or whether you should change calls or try again. Watch their body posture, their tail positions and movements and their overall demeanor to tell if you’ve "hit a nerve." Watch their ears when you blow your call. If their ears are still searching, you probably need to blow the call again and possibly a little louder. When their ears lock in on your position, stop calling. Your call has been heard, and the ""kiss of death" can be over-calling.
Use other stimuli in conjunction with calling. Use rattling, scent or decoys, or, better yet, "the combination" in conjunction with your rattling. Almost always a mature buck will swing downwind and scent-check the area before he closes the distance. He’s heard "deer sounds," now if he swings downwind and smells "deer smells" it appeases another sense and makes the situation seem more real. Now, what if he swings downwind and satisfies his sense of smell but also sees another deer (your decoy)…get the picture? What makes a situation seem real to you? The more senses you appease, the more the condition seems real. Match the scent to the situation – for instance, if you’re making an estrus bleat close to the rut, a little Special Golden Estrus placed out crosswind from your location can help seal the deal. Or, if it’s early season and you are making soft, social buck grunts, a plain buck urine or curiosity scent like Trail’s End #307 will help you to "put the puck in the net."
Keep your ears open and listen to them communicate for yourself. There is no doubt, a whitetail is a social animal and calls are one tool we can use to get closer to them.
Todd Amenrud is the Director of Public Relations, Territory Manager & Habitat Consultant for BioLogic.