Deer smarts: Intelligence or instinct?


Some deer are pretty smart cookies.

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 intelligence or instinct 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.

Field smarts

But sometimes deer just seem smart. In Whitetail Savvy (2013), 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 disappeared.

Finally, tracks were found leading to an old root cellar in the middle of a field.

Trail cams confirmed that the buck spent every day during the hunting season bedded down in the root cellar.

Another intelligent deer discovered that hiding in a storm sewer under a major highway was a safe place to avoid hunters.

Despite constant traffic and road noise, this buck crawled into a large pipe every day during the hunting season.

My own experience

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. I use it to store lumber, old pipes and other junk. 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. One almost ran me over.

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 days.

Another example of deer learning and intelligence has unfolded right outside my house. Twenty years ago, deer never came close to the house. They might walk across the yard or watch from the edge of the woods, but they were too wary to come close.

In recent years, however, as coyote and bear populations have increased, deer seem to feel more secure closer to the house, especially at night.

Several times a month I hear coyotes yipping not far from the house, but I’ve never seen one in the yard.

I love the sound of coyotes, but I’m sure it unnerves the local deer. I think that’s why deer now bed down right next to the house.

Sometimes I spook deer from these spots at night, and other times I find used beds in the morning, and they are right up against the foundation.

Such positions may provide protection from wind, but I think safety from predators is the primary reason deer stay close to the house.

Deer also seem able to interpret human behavior. I’ve lived on the ridge for 33 years, and though there’s plenty of hunting taking place nearby, the yard is safe.

Often I walk the 150 feet from my garage to the house, especially late in the day, and a deer or two will be in the yard just 20 feet from the driveway.

I can stop, yell, wave my arms or even lift my arms into a shooting position, and the only response I get is a snort or stomping feet.

Experience tells the deer they are safe. When I encounter deer in the woods, usually I only get to see that big white flag as they flee.

Learning from experience is clearly a sign of intelligence.

I conclude that at least some deer are pretty smart cookies.


Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!

Previous articlePa. small farms making water quality strides with their plans
Next articleGet your weather geek on and learn how inversions impact ag
Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.


  1. You love the sound of coyotes? Man, I’m not sure what that means! I hear it and my primal fear receptors go haywire and I feel like screaming and I certainly can’t sleep.

  2. Unfortunately, most people learned their ‘scientific facts’ about deer from Disney movies. So the people in Detroit and other cities decide about deer for the rest of Michigan. We have many, many traffic accidents cause by deer here. A lot of the reason they run in front of vehicles can also be explained instinctually, a combination of instincts to flee from damage and to stay with the herd. If their group already crossed the road they’ll run in front of a vehicle rather than away from the vehicle. We see this all the time here.


We are glad you have chosen to leave a comment. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated according to our comment policy.

Receive emails as this discussion progresses.