The Science of Fear: Flight Distances

Written by Science of Fear, Suburban Deer Behavior

urban deer behavior

Flight distance is the first topic we tackle in The Science of Fear series.

This might seem like a simple topic, but you might be surprised at just how complicated it really is. The flight distance of a whitetail in rural woods completely differs from that of a deer in an urban environment. The diversity of flight distances is so great that it would be impossible to write down a list of estimated flight distances for each part of the country.

Further things complicate the issue beyond the diversity of flight distances. We must also factor in the changes that occur in the actual area the deer are fleeing. For example, if an area that was opened just for archery becomes suddenly opened to gun hunting as well, deer will adjust their flight distances. What was a safe flight distance for an arrow will not be a safe flight distance for a bullet.

The study of conditioned behavior provides psychological evidence for this adjustment of flight distances. I believe that knowing conditioned behavior is essential for successful and adaptable hunting methodology.

There are two stages of flight in animal behavior. The first is alert distance and the second is escape distance. The second part of this series, The Theory of Fluid Motion, discusses alert distance in greater depth.

Escape Distance

Flight distance and escape distance are interchangeable terms. The conditioning process for flight distance is pretty simple. A stimulus at a certain distance, in this case a human, initiates the flight response. But what does this conditioning for the flight response look like in an urban environment?

In rural areas with heavy gun hunting, whitetails immediately begin the flight response when a hunter enters their sight. Deer calibrate their flight response from years of being conditioned to gun hunting. They know the risk of human contact even at great distances.

For suburban hunters, the theory of flight distances looks a bit different. Constant human exposure has resulted in deer who are forced to create more complicated responses to potential threats. If urban deer had the same flight responses as rural deer, suburban woods would be a constant melee of frantic deer running for their lives.

We have found that deer in archery only suburban areas tolerate a greater proximity to humans than they do in gun hunting suburban areas. The reaction can differ depending on the context, like if a human is walking on a trail or veering off it. But when it comes to heavily populated ares, deer have come to learn that humans are much like themselves. Humans are habitual creatures. We use trails and they use runs. Deer understand that pattern.

Where this theory becomes most dangerous to deer, and most effective for the evolving hunter, is in the dissection of the alert distance. That brings us to part two of The Science of Fear, The Theory of Fluid Motion.

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Last modified: August 28, 2018

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