When you spot a deer, study its tail. What you observe will help you make smart hunting decisions. Of course, the deer’s body language is important to watch, too. It goes hand in hand in with what the tail is doing.
But the tail’s actions are a very visible, clear and direct indication of that animal’s intentions. Here’s what to watch for and what it means. We’ll start with tail movements of happy, relaxed deer and then ease into tail behaviors of agitated animals.
Wag or Swish
Casual, gentle and occasional side-to-side tail wagging or swishing is a good sign. These relaxed movements indicate a deer at ease. Some deer wag more than others, and whitetails will swish more at various times of year — for example in summer into early bow season, when there are still lots of pesky bugs around. If you’re hunting and the deer you’re watching is swishing and wagging casually now and again, relax. Everything’s perfect, and you have time to make decisions and prepare for a shot.
Like wags or swishes, occasional sharp twitches of the tail are no cause for alarm. These twitches or switches — much like a cow or horse does with its tail — are common in all ungulates when they are relaxed and unconcerned.
A feeding deer will stop often and lift its head up — often quite abruptly — to look for danger. Did you ever notice that a whitetail’s tail will flick before the animal puts its head back down? If you’re conducting a stalk or on stand waiting for the opportunity to get your gun or bow up, a tail flick might indicate an opportunity to get a little more prepared, because that deer is going to put its head back down. But be ready to freeze when the head randomly pops back up.
So far, we’ve covered the tail movements of deer that are unalarmed and at ease. Now we’re moving into tail behaviors of whitetails that have some cause for concern and are already on the alert, or at least rapidly getting there. As a hunter, these behaviors indicate that something is starting to alarm that deer, and it might be time to make your move for a shot. Indecision could cost you.
The first sign that a deer is troubled comes when that long tail goes half mast — straight out behind the animal — and stays there rigid for a few seconds before dropping and then flicking right back up. The half-mast tail is often accompanied by a stiff-legged posture and perhaps even some hoof stomping. The deer isn’t fully alarmed yet but senses something wrong — it caught a molecule of bad scent on the breeze, thinks it sees something out of place or saw an errant movement on your part.
This situation is probably beyond the point of no return. If you act quickly and smoothly, though, you might be able to get a shot if that deer is in range.
Similar to a whitetail with its tail at half-mast, a deer on alert but not quite ready to call your hand will flare its long rump hairs to increase the amount of white-space visible and give surrounding deer a little warning flash that something might be amiss.
If you see a whitetail spreading and flaring its rump hair, that deer knows you’re in the area and is warning other animals as it tries to pinpoint your whereabouts.
Those casual and occasional tail flicks discussed earlier are good things. But jerky, fast, abrupt tail flicks in sequence — often accompanied by a stiff-legged march — combine to create a sure signal that a whitetail knows something is wrong and is getting ready to make its escape at any moment. When you have a bow in hand, your shot opportunity is probably gone. With a gun, you might still have a chance if you get your firearm up smoothly and aim quickly.
When that full flag goes up — 10 or 11 inches of broad white tail flashing above the additional snow white of the animal’s rump — we know that deer is ready to go or is already in full flight toward safer environments.
Flagging serves a dual purpose. First, it warns other deer in the area that danger is near. This is why does, with their matriarchal duties, flag more than bucks do. And flagging tells predators that further pursuit is useless. That can save a deer valuable energy it might need later.
Whitetails flag more in open areas — such as fields, clearcuts and food plots — than in woods or brush. This is not a hard-and-fast rule but a tendency. Flagging serves its main purpose better — warning other deer — where other animals can see the signal. In cover, flagging doesn’t do members of the group quite as much good, and it might call unneeded attention to the flagging deer.
I always find it fitting and have to smile when I’m outsmarted by a whitetail and it bounds away with its flag up and bouncing. That long tail really is really waving goodbye side-to-side, as if to say I’ve been beaten by a superior opponent again.
Not all deer flag. Some whitetails, especially bucks, tuck their tails when they flee. This is especially true when bucks are alone, but it also seems to be the case when bachelor buck groups are together. Bucks just don’t have the biological responsibility to warn each other or other members of the herd of danger.
Perhaps it is survival of the fittest for the males — you snooze, you lose. This also might be why bucks seem to have shorter tails than does in many cases and less white on the rump.