Deer Senses and What They Mean for Bowhunters

by | Apr 4, 2017 | Bowhunting, Featured, Wildlife

Any bowhunter with experience in the whitetail woods can tell a tale or two of getting busted by wary deer.

There they sat, not moving a muscle while concealed in the latest camouflage, which had just been washed with super scent-eliminating detergents. And yet as a deer moved into range, its head snapped in the hunter’s direction, its eyes fixated on the hunter while stamping its hoof. As the deer bounded away, the bowhunter wondered what tipped it off.

Understanding how whitetails see, hear and smell the world helps bowhunters avoid detection while afield. Let’s look closer at each of the deer’s senses and how they use them to stay safe.


Camo helps hunters blend into their surroundings and go undetected while afield. Photo Credit: John Hafner

In recent years researchers have learned much about how deer see, and what colors they can detect. For years people assumed whitetails were color blind, but now we know they can see certain colors better than we can. According to researchers at the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia, a deer’s eyes have only two color receptors while humans have three. That means they can’t distinguish between greens, oranges and reds that well, but can see differences in yellow, blue and violet shades.

Even more important than the whitetail’s ability to identify some colors is its ability to detect motion. Researcher Bradley Cohen at the University of Georgia said most of their perception highlights the ability to determine stationary from moving objects.

To avoid detection, most bowhunters wear camouflage for concealment. Camo helps hunters blend into their surroundings, but deer can detect some light shades of gray in camo patterns. Further, the fine details of camo patterns probably don’t have much effect on deer. They simply don’t see the fine details our eyes detect. The take-away here is to avoid blue, yellows and light gray, and those in the violet to ultraviolet spectrums.


Whitetails can hear some ultra-high-pitch sounds beyond human detection. Their large ears scan the area, searching for noise that might signal an approaching predator. Photo Credit: John Hafner

Bowhunters sometimes think whitetails can hear even the faintest noises we make while waiting for a shot. Their large ears scan the area as if on swivels, searching for noise that might signal an approaching predator. While impressive when witnessed firsthand, a deer’s sense of hearing actually isn’t vastly superior to our own, according to researchers. However, whitetails can also hear some ultra-high-pitch sounds beyond human detection. When hunting with others, always speak in low voices and wear clothes made of soft materials that make little noise when moving through brush or sliding across bark. At close range, such foreign sounds can send deer fleeing.


Bowhunters often use scent-eliminating sprays to reduce natural human scents. In addition, hunters should always heed the wind’s direction to stay undetected. Photo Credit: John Hafner

The whitetail’s nose is its best defense against predators. Their ability to smell danger probably sends more bowhunters home empty-handed than any other of its great senses. To put into perspective how a deer’s sense of smell compares to ours, consider these numbers: The human nose has about 5 million olfactory scent receptors, a dog has roughly 220 million, and a deer has nearly 300 million.

Therefore, many products try to swing the odds back in the bowhunter’s favor, but stats like those make it clear that deer have a huge advantage in smelling danger. Take as many precautions as possible to reduce scent, but realize that bowhunters must always heed the wind’s direction to stay undetected.

After examining how well whitetails are equipped to detect danger, we can better appreciate the awesome accomplishment of getting within bow range of a deer, regardless of whether you shoot or pass up the opportunity.

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