The snowshoe transforms its coat from brown to white in winter, but that can backfire if the weather doesn’t cooperate. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

It’s early autumn and you’re strolling along an aspen ridge, shotgun at port arms, while a light northwest wind flows through the canopy causing leaves to tremble with a sound like falling rain. Your state of alert gradually wanes as you proceed, pausing occasionally to plan a path that will offer the easiest passage and the best potential shot opportunity.

You step forward and a grouse explodes from nearby cover, shattering your composure, which you fight to regain as you acquire the target and fire. Leaves, and perhaps a few shreds of aspen bark float down, but no feathers. You’ve just been undone and outdone by a few of the adaptations game animals employ to avoid us, as well as other predators.

Like many prey species, the snowshoe hare has a hard-wired behavioral strategy. When faced with potential danger, the flight-or-fight response is triggered by the release of hormones that prepare the body to either hold tight and confront the threat or flee. It may hold tight waiting for danger to pass, or it may bound off on powerful padded feet. We still don’t know whether a choice is made and some scientists speculate a prey animal can literally be immobilized by its own body – frozen with fear.

In addition to the powerful legs from which it derives its scientific name, Lepus, the hare also employs a (sometimes) very effective camouflage strategy. Part of the year its coat is a dull brown. In winter it turns white, helping the hare blend into its snowy environs. However, an early fall snow or a premature late winter thaw could undermine this adaptation.

The ruffed grouse might try to go unnoticed as a hunter approaches, but that strategy can be foiled if the hunter brought along a hunting dog. Bill Marchel/Star Tribune/TNS

The ruffed grouse, too, experiences a flight-or-fight response, which makes it sometimes more vulnerable to hunters accompanied by man’s best friend. While we don’t see them hunkered in the brush with their mottled brown plumage, our dogs can smell them and will lock on point if the bird holds tight. It is not until we move in close or nudge the birds that they employ the other half of the strategy by taking flight.

While there’s no hard science to prove it, they also seem to have an uncanny ability to put a tree between themselves and those who pursue them. Perhaps it’s a strategy for avoiding their principal natural predator, the goshawk, which wings through the thickest forest, using its tail as a rudder to twist and turn among the branches.

The wild turkey uses its powerful legs and wings to escape predators either by dashing or flying away. Before that occurs however, it employs remarkable vision to locate and identify potential danger. Their stationary field of vision encompasses 300 degrees, which expands to a full 360 degrees with a slight turn of the head. Six different types of cones, two of which are actually double cones, help them see color even better than humans. They can also assimilate detail and detect movement much more quickly.

White-tailed deer have a battery of protective measure at their disposal. While their hearing is probably on a par with ours, their larger, moveable radar-dish ears are better designed for capturing sound and funneling it to sensory organs. In full daylight their eyesight is more than adequate, but extra rods and a tapetum lucidum on their retina, which reflects light back onto rods and cones give them far greater vision in low light.

Their most important defense, however, is their olfactory sense. We really don’t know how much more effective it is than that of humans but it’s at least an order of magnitude, possibly several. Their long nose is packed with sensory organs designed to detect the slightest scent, and then to discriminate it. From a single sniff of urine they may be able to distinguish the sex, fitness, status and quite possibly individual identity of the deer that deposited it. Given all that, our own aroma must seem quite intrusive. And while they occasionally hold tight, like the hare or the grouse, using their tan pelage to conceal them, they can and often do, depart the scene most expeditiously.

Knowing the tools game animals use to detect and avoid us can help hunters. By employing stealth, silence, scent control, camouflage or dogs, depending on which game we pursue, hunters can improve their odds. Still, the game eludes us more often than not. That’s the essence of fair chase, and what keeps us going afield.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer, registered Maine guide and certified wildlife biologist who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.