Wildlife: Are deer as smart as they sometimes seem?

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Every fall I hear about a big buck someone has been tracking and watching for weeks. But when the gun season arrives, that big buck vanishes, only to reappear a few weeks later.

Are deer really that smart?

Keen senses of smell, vision and hearing have a lot to do with deer "intelligence." Deer often sense the presence of hunters long before hunters sense them. But is it intelligence or instinct that's responsible?

Actually, it's natural selection at work. Those individuals, males and females, that are most wary and hyper-vigilant, tend to survive hunting seasons. And thanks to experience, older deer tend to be bigger and more impressive physically. Those individuals get to breed, at least for a few years, and pass on the genes that promote adaptive behavior and survival.

But sometimes deer just seem to be so smart. In a new book, "Whitetail Savvy" (Skyhorse Publishing), author Leonard Lee Rue III devotes a short chapter to "Instinct vs. Intelligence." He cites several examples that seem to illustrate deer intelligence.

In one case a big buck was seen routinely on a farm except during the hunting season when it seemed to disappear. Finally tracks were found leading to an old root cellar in the middle of a field. Trail cams revealed that the buck spent every day during the hunting season bedded down in the root cellar. That's a clever buck.

I've made a similar observation in my own backyard. About 50 yards from the house, there's a small shed on the edge of the woods. It's open on two ends, but the interior stays dry and protected from the wind.

A few years ago on a cold January day, I came out of the woods near the shed. As I approached, three deer bolted from the shed. Upon closer inspection, I found three beds on the dry dirt floor. Since then, I've found deer "hiding" in that shed quite a few times, especially on snowy and rainy days.

Learning from experience is clearly a sign of intelligence. I conclude that at least some deer are pretty smart cookies.


Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 8 to 10 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling) or online at www.wvly.net. Or visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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