November 10, 2013

Allen Afield: Running deer go against the wind

Hunters take notice of this whitetail behavioral trait.

By Ken Allen

The fall just before my 13th birthday, the late Will French, my great-uncle, pointed out a whitetail behavioral trait that he had learned in his 80-plus years, watching these critters in forests and fields. I have verified his observations while hunting and photographing deer for decades.

When a hunter jumps a deer in circumstances that force this ungulate to flee with the wind, the frightened animal instinctively turns into the opposite direction as soon as possible to run with its nose pointed into the wind. Any whitetail that doesn’t follow this rule proves the exception.

Wind moving toward prey animals tells the story of what lies ahead on the trail. Wind moving with them points out nothing but what is behind them, and deer already have tricks to deal with trailing predators.

A jumped deer pushed with the wind swaps directions within 100 yards to a quarter mile, because this wily prey wants to travel into the wind as quickly as it can and then sneak back past the hunter and out of sight. Folks can bet on this tactic and take the winnings to the bank.

This tendency for whitetails to turn into the wind has screwed up many a deer drive. Let’s say a wind is blowing from the Northwest, and inexperienced hunters set up a drive to push deer to the Southeast toward a stationed hunter. Frightened deer may go Southeast for a short distance, until they can turn back into the wind.

For consistent deer-driving success, hunters must 1) drive deer into the wind and 2) put a stander on the game trail’s downwind side.

Animals stand or walk with their noses into the wind. This instinctive behavior allows an amateur meteorologist (like me) to predict weather with simple observation, say of cattle in a pasture. The herd stands pointed into the wind, showing observers the wind direction. Knowledge of cloud types, dew, etc. allows folks to make a forecast for the next 12 to 24 hours after a simple glance at bovines.

Weather signs dealing with wind work so consistently that ancient rhymes describe how wind direction forecasts weather. One common ditty is this: “When wind blows from the west, the weather is best.”

Herding animals such as cows occasionally stand with noses poking in multiple directions – a weather sign in itself. An approaching storm creates unstable, swirling air, causing such critters to be looking toward winds coming from varying directions at once.

Hills and mountains dominate Maine terrain, instigating a behavioral quirk of deer. When fleeing, deer often move to higher ground before circling back downhill into wind, so wise hunters climb upward at a diagonal angle, giving them a chance to bump deer that ascended the hill and are running downhill at an angle.

And speaking of driving deer, I’m basically a still hunter. When deer move to feed at dawn, mid-day and sunset, though, I may take a stand.

In short, I dislike driving deer and one reason involves this problem: When driving in Maine was unquestionably legal during my youth, hunters commonly drove deer to friends. With poor woodsmen involved, though, drivers would often get lost and standers would go to the wrong crossing, so hunters looking for lost buddies were common.

Since the 1970s, driving deer in Maine is allegedly illegal, but according to George Smith in his “George’s Outdoor News” 3/27/13 blog, “Maine game wardens have never liked the law change but have not cited a group of three or fewer hunters for driving deer since the exception was added to the law.”

If deer driving with two or three hunters is indeed illegal here, Maine would be one of the few places in the world where government has prohibited driving big-game animals. I’d like to see lawmakers get into this driving-law question again.

Nationwide, hunter-orange laws have decreased shooting incidents during drives, and even before hunter-orange laws, shooting statistics while hunting often occurred on stormy, foggy days anyway.

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at:

KAllyn800@yahoo.com

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