It’s the developing headgear on white-tailed deer that get all of the attention at this time of year.
Look what people write when posting trail camera pictures on social media. The focus is on how big a buck’s antlers are already, or how big they might be come fall.
Of course, that’s understandable. Those bony crowns fascinate, when covered in velvet, when hard and shiny and when they’ve dropped off in winter. Summer – months ahead of hunting seasons – is no different.
But take a moment to consider the other end of deer, too. Their distinctive white tails are pretty amazing in and of themselves.
In fact, it’s a deer’s white tail – as much as anything else – that tells you what it’s thinking.
If you’ve been to an airport you’ve seen flaggers telling pilots where to go and when based on how they move colorful flags around. Mariners used to commonly share information the same way a century ago – and still do on occasion – and lifeguards sometimes do today.
Whitetails operate the same way.
The position of their tails, how they’re moving, even how the hair on them is standing, is all about communication.
A whitetail casually wagging its tail from side to side, much like a horse feeding or resting in a field, is showing signs of contentment. That gentle movement says the deer is at ease. If you’re watching it – or even hunting it – that’s an indication the deer is unaware of your presence and calm.
A tail wag can also serve as an all-clear signal. It tells all of the deer in a group that whatever it was that seemed suspicious has been deemed a non-threat.
The story is different if a deer is holding its tail stiff and straight out behind it.
It won’t leave it that way for long necessarily. A deer holding its tail parallel to the ground may drop it and then flick it right back up, quickly and repeatedly.
It will also usually display other signs that it’s on guard, like raising and dropping its head or walking stiff legged.
But in any case, that stiff tail is a sign the deer senses trouble. It’s not ready to flee just yet, but it’s worried and in the starting blocks, so to speak.
And if it starts flicking its tail side to side and flaring its white hairs, well, that’s an indicator of what’s probably coming next.
That’s the tail held in an upright position, so that it looks like a white canvas sail.
When you see that, the deer is about to take off or already has. That distinctive white flag – the tail might be 10 to 12 inches or longer on a big deer – combined with white rump hairs gets the attention of every other deer in the area.
Deer, and fawns especially, follow that white flag through dark woods like a flashlight beam through a dark room as they run from danger.
Sometimes deer hold their erect tails still. Sometimes they wag them slightly side to side, especially if they’re loping away rather than going full speed.
But either way, a tail standing straight up means that deer is going, going, gone.
Whitetails sometimes tuck their tails, too.
Bucks – which as a general rule have a little less white on their rumps than females, and sometimes shorter tails – are often tail tuckers, especially if traveling alone. With no one else to warn, danger can cause them to tuck their tail in tight to their body.
Like an erect tail, that’s also often a sign they’re planning to head for parts unknown. They may slink rather than bolt, but they’re still leaving.
So when hiking this summer or hunting this fall, take a few moments to direct your gaze to the back ends of deer. There’s information aplenty there.
Some will tell you that the eyes are the window to the soul. But – at least when it comes to whitetails – the tail offers a glimpse of the future.
Bob Frye is the Everybody Adventures editor. Reach him at (412) 216-0193 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at EverybodyAdventures.com.