By Any Measure… Whitetails are Nature’s Superstars

By Charles J. Alsheimer 

I’ve had a storied career as a nature photographer and outdoor writer. My travels with camera have taken me from Australia’s Outback to the wilds of Alaska and points in between. During this journey, I’ve filmed a vast array of wildlife, from kangaroos to grizzlies.

When it comes to wild animals, there is friendly debate as to which animal ranks as North America’s most athletic. Some argue that squirrels, big cats or mountain sheep are the best all-around when it comes to athleticism. Others say antelope, bears or birds of prey top the list. There is no question that some animals can run faster, jump farther and see better than whitetail deer. However, after pursuing most of North America’s big-game animals with camera, I’ve yet to find one that can offer the whole physical package like whitetail deer. Few animals can live with man and beast and still survive. The whitetail can. In short, it can out-maneuver, out-jump, outrun and out-survive anything walking the continent — including man.

Speed Demon

You don’t have to spend much time around whitetails to know they have speed to burn. There may be a few animals in North America that can outrun a whitetail, but when it comes to putting the pedal to the metal or turning on a dime, the whitetail has few peers. On more than one occasion, I’ve been able to monitor a deer running in the open along side of an automobile. The top speed I’ve witnessed was slightly more than 40 miles per hour. This is pretty impressive considering the world’s fastest human barely tops 20 mph. Of course, a whitetail really shines in an obstacle-strewn forest, where deadfalls, thick brush and other natural hazards are the norm. Certainly topography and natural conditions dictate a deer’s speed in each situation, but it’s safe to say that a mature whitetail can easily run 25 mph in a forest setting. The consensus among experts is that whitetails are more sprinters than marathon runners. I’d have to agree with this assessment, though I have seen whitetails run up to a mile before stopping.

Scale Tall Buildings?

Through the years, I’ve heard all kinds of statements concerning how high a whitetail can jump. Some say a deer can clear a 7-foothigh fence from a standing position. Others say they can easily clear an 8- to 10-foot-high fence if it has a running start. During the past 25 years of observing and raising whitetails, I have to admit that I’ve never seen one clear an 8-foot-high fence. I have seen many that have tried, but none made it. I have no doubt that the right deer during the right conditions could clear an 8-foot fence, but I’ve never seen it done. In every case where I’ve seen a buck or doe try to leap a high fence, they’ve hit it between 6-1/2 and 7-1/2 feet high. Whether they can clear 8-, 9- or 10-foot-high fences is immaterial. What impresses me most about the whitetail’s jumping ability is that it stands only 36 to 42 inches high at the shoulders and is capable of catapulting its body over obstacles more than twice its height. That’s impressive! By comparison, Olympic high jumpers cannot clear an 8-foot-high bar and most are taller than 6 feet. In my mind, a whitetail’s horizontal jumping prowess surpasses its ability to clear high fences. A deer’s ability to chew up yards of ground with each bound is legendary. Two autumn’s ago, I photographed an incredible breedingparty sequence. An estrous doe was being pursued by a dominant buck and several lesser racked bucks. In one exchange, the dominant buck chased an intruding subordinate buck. With the dominant buck bearing down on him, the subordinate buck turned on a dime and ran for his life. Unfortunately, a 4-foot-high cattle fence stood in his way. At full throttle, the subordinate buck cleared the fence in one fluid motion. I was shocked by the amount of ground the airborne buck covered. When things calmed, I measured the distance the jumping buck had flown through the air. It was just shy of 35 feet. I’ve seen a lot of running, jumping and bounding from whitetails in my life, but nothing like that scene. It’s something I’ll never forget.

Heavyweight Contenders

When confronted, whitetails will nearly always attempt to outrun their enemies, be it man or beast. However, there are times when they will choose to stand their ground and confront their opponent. Simply put, they can dodge and weave or stand their ground and duke it out with the best of them. Even the biggest buck has cat-like reflexes that allow him to elude slashing antler tines. Of course there are times when “attitude bucks” opt to brawl rather than slash and jab when confronted by an adversary during the rut. During these confrontations, fighting can resemble Greco-Roman wrestling matches, in which opponents try to out-muscle each other by pushing and trying to throw each other to the ground. During these skirmishes, it’s usually a given buck’s gift of strength, balance and leverage that wins the day.

Ultimate Survival Machine

In nature there are no gold medals for achievement. An animal’s ultimate award is its ability to survive to see another sunrise. For this to happen, each whitetail must use all of its physical and sensual abilities. Every gift — be it running, jumping, sight, hearing or sense of smell — must hit on all cylinders for a whitetail to elude danger. When it comes to surviving, very few animals on earth can stack up to a whitetail. Their speed and jumping ability are legendary, but few outside the hunting fraternity know of their fine-tuned senses.

Sense of smell: You don't have to be around whitetails long to realize that they survive more times than not because of their ability to sniff out danger. Of all their senses, their sense of smell is the one that impresses me most. Speculation has it that deer can smell anywhere from a hundred to a thousand times better than man. Truth be known, we will probably never know what the real number is. However, what all deer enthusiasts do know is that a whitetail’s sense of smell is remarkable. By way of example, my whitetail research facility’s south fence line is 450 yards from the nearest woods. During the rut, when there is a wind out of the south, my bucks pace the south fence staring across open space toward the woods where wild deer are bedded. As they stand statuesque they often sniff and test the wind coming from the woods’ direction. This example tells me two things. They can smell other deer at least 450 yards away and they can sift through all kinds of odors to pick up the smell of an estrous doe. That’s pretty impressive stuff, if you ask me.

Eyesight:Whitetails might not possess the eyes of birds of prey, but don’t ever let anyone tell you deer cannot see as well as humans. Research done at the University of Georgia has shown that deer don’t have the same cellular structure as people but they certainly have the rod/cone cell make up to suggest they can see certain colors. Specifically, blue and yellow colors can most likely be seen by deer. Because deer see very well into the blue wavelength of light, they are able to see extremely well in dim light. So their nighttime vision is very good, equipping them with the ability to survive predation any time of the day or night.

Hearing: Though a whitetail’s hearing ability doesn’t get as much attention as its ability to smell, it should. Time and time again, I’ve witnessed the whitetail’s unbelievable hearing. It’s been my experience that the deer’s ability to hear far exceeds that of a human. This is better understood through the writings of noted whitetail expert Leonard Lee Rue III, who summarizes the whitetail’s ability to hear: “The auditory canal openings in deer and humans are the same size; about one-third inch in diameter, but a deer’s much larger ear allows more sound waves to be picked up and funneled. “Another advantage that deer have is that their range of hearing is much wider than humans’. Most human adults can hear frequencies in the range of 40 to 16,000 cycles per second. I know that deer can hear frequencies as high as 30,000 cycles and perhaps beyond. I often use a ‘silent’ dog whistle while doing photography, to get a deer’s attention and cause it to look at me alertly. These devices have been machine-tested to 30,000 cycles, and although humans can’t hear them, dogs and deer respond readily.” When you put all the physical attributes a whitetail possesses together, is it any wonder that they can survive unlike few animals on earth? They are incredible creatures, and despite the many advances in hunting technology during the past 20 years, man is still at a disadvantage when it comes to outsmarting a whitetail. Whitetails are the real deal; ultimate survivors. Their athleticism and physical attributes have allowed them to outmaneuver and outsmart the cagiest creatures for centuries, and this will no doubt be the case until the end of time. They truly are nature’s superstars.