The Science of Fear: Fluid Motion

Written by Science of Fear, Suburban Deer Behavior

deer hunting

Understanding fluid motion in the context of deer hunting is part of the science of fear.

The idea of fluid motion concerns how a hunter must maintain an alert distance from a whitetail deer in order to make a successful shot. I briefly discussed alert distances in the previous installment of this series. Alert distance is the distance between the hunter and deer right before the deer becomes alarmed enough to flee. We have found that whitetail in suburban America tolerate a greater degree of human contact. I mean, they really don’t have much of a choice, do they?

Yet even though suburban deer allow us to come closer, it does not mean we can just casually walk up to them. These deer still look for a very particular kind of human behavior they consider safe. This differs quite a bit from deer in rural areas who are not so used to human contact. As a result, suburban whitetail deer have come to relate to their human neighbors in more complicated ways. We predators, in an effort to adapt like our prey, should approach suburban deer differently than rural deer. Our hunting needs to take into account the alert distances of suburban deer. Establishing and controlling alert distances is one of the most effective skills of the modern still hunter.

Hunters adapted still hunting, which is one of oldest techniques, for this very purpose. It’s a skill requires patience, endurance, and focus. The twenty-first century has seen the art of still hunting slowly die off and each year fade more. I myself have practiced still hunting throughout New England ever since my uncle Dennis taught me as a kid.

That complex relationship I mentioned means that whitetails tolerate human activity in places they have come to expect it. This is called conditioning. Deer expect the casual outdoor enthusiast to hike or ride a mountain bike on a trail. Whitetails observe humans on these trails much more closely than a rural whitetail might. Once we step off these trails, however, and enter a kind of non-human walking zone, deer quickly go from being alert to fleeing.

What fluid motion really is and why it matters.

Deer have also come to expect fluid motion. The average non-hunter never notices a deer standing twenty yards off the trail. They’re focused on something else, be it a conversation, cell phone call, or the music in their headphones. And this is the main point. Deer who have developed a complex relationship to human behavior maintain an alert distance as long as the human does not stop their movement. In most cases, a sudden stop in fluid motion will activate the flight response.

A hunter must maintain their fluid motion when they spot a deer off the trail. We should practice learning how to walk by a deer, draw our bow, and make an ethical shot before the season begins. Hunters need to understand that in the majority of cases, you can pass by the deer before it even takes flight.

I have harvested many deer with this method over the years. I have walked backwards past deer, made small circuits of constant motion to pass for a better chance, and replicated any other motion deer associate with safe human behavior.

What does this mean for classic still hunting?

Although I won’t say that it never works, I would argue that the modern technique of blending in with everyday human behavior is much more effective. I consider it a kind of modern adaptation of classic still hunting. Whitetails have adapted, too, and can distinguish between specific human behaviors. Classic still hunting is simply an obvious threat.

Most of this comes down to the age old saying, “We saw the deer when we least expected it.” A moment like that reveals an important fact regardless of what part of the country you’re in. We are most likely to see deer when we behave the least like hunters and the most like everyday citizens. It could be when we are closest to our vehicles, talking to our companions on our way out, or just plain not being hunters.

For a more in-depth look at modern still hunting tactics and urban deer behavior, including how camouflage affects a whitetail’s interpretation of human threat, refer to The Urban Deer Complex—Real Tactics of the Part-time Hunter. For more of The Science of Fear series, stay tuned for the next installment, The Science of Fear: The Strongest Memory.


(Visited 113 times, 2 visits today)

Last modified: August 28, 2018

3 Responses

  1. phil@thesidehill says:

    I have been using non threatening/non predatory behavior to deceive deer for years now. Early in my bowhunting career I learned this lesson as i was heading into one of my stands. I used to sneak in and out of my stands very carefully. Crouched, slow, silent movements…very predatory in appearance. One day as I was sneaking in, i rounded the corner of a finger of brush protruding from a thicket into open hard woods when I heard a deer stomp, snort and bolt. this deer saw me sneaking and immediately recognized my movement as predatory. it wasn’t until a few days later that I noticed a deer watching me walk casually down a trail on the same property…I saw the deer from a ways off but i never broke stride or even acknowledged the deer’s presence by looking directly at it. this deer let me pass within 15 yds. As i got down the trail a ways i stopped and turned around to watch this deer step out of the woods and cross the trail with zero regard for my crossing just a few moments before. Deer are particularly adept at perceiving predatory/threatening behavior.

  2. Mark Cailler says:

    I read this article a few weeks ago. And thanks to what I read here. I was able to harvest my first suburban deer in 14 years. Try it it works.

  3. Dan Williams says:

    Some of the closest, most intimate encounters I’ve had with deer have been with animals that I’ve decided not to kill, or ones that occurred outside of hunting season. These encounters, whether in or out of hunting season, were made possible by my ability to instantly behave in a non-threatening way. I’ve found that dropping to the ground “on all fours”, not looking directly at the animal and even mimicking “herbivore behavior” has a very calming effect on deer. Once I spent about 15 minutes in the corner of a greenfield with a 2-1/2 year old 4 pt buck who must’ve thought I was the weirdest looking deer he’d ever seen. He browsed, groomed himself and inspected me from as close at 5 yards before losing interest and moving on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *