Leonard Lee Rue III wrote with unparalleled authority on white-tailed deer, becoming Deer & Deer Hunting’s first major contributing editor in 1977. Over the years, he penned thousands of articles and “Rue’s Views” columns on deer and deer hunting, as well as 31 books on wildlife and photography. He recently passed away on Nov. 4, 2022, at age 96. Below is one of his Rue’s Views articles from the November 2010 issue of Deer & Deer Hunting magazine.
Q: I have hunted deer for 37 years. Not to brag, but I’ve taken more than 100. With all those deer and all that time, I thought I knew just about all there was to know about deer. However, I just noticed on my last couple of deer that they had long hairs, or whiskers, sticking down beneath their chin. Do all deer have these whiskers and I just never noticed them? Or is this something rare? If it’s not rare why do deer have them?
— B.W., Pigeon Egg Ford, Tenn.
A: I have been studying, hunting and photographing deer since 1939, and I still don’t know all there is to know about deer. In fact, I am amazed at how much new behavior I am constantly learning about and how much I still don’t know. Even now, I often have to tell my readers that I just don’t have the answer to some of their questions. I can answer this one, though.
All deer have whiskers, or vibrissae, beneath their chins. The whiskers serve the same purpose as a cat’s whiskers, they provide spatial distance information.
A common instance where this would help is when feeding in the dark. The deer’s chin whiskers allow it to accurately gauge how close its head is to the ground. The whisker’s extra length is needed because a feeding deer, does not hold its head horizontal to the ground but at a steeply inclined angle.
Q: In 2007, I brought my family out to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming during the elk-rutting season. Just a few miles from the Roosevelt Junction we saw what I thought was a most unusual situation. We were watching a pack of wolves heading out to the Lamar Valley. As we watched through our binoculars, we discovered a couple of white-tailed does and their fawns that were also watching the wolves. What seemed so odd was that while several of the deer were watching the wolves the rest of them kept right on feeding. The deer were less than 200 feet from the wolves. I thought the deer would leave the area as soon as the wolves got that close — or at least would be extremely alert. My question is why did the deer basically ignore the wolves? Also, have you seen whitetails in Yellowstone? I saw whitetails in the park years ago, but these were the first I have seen there in years.
— T.B., Ordway, Colo.
A: Both whitetails and mule deer are making a comeback in Yellowstone. I began seeing them again after the fire of 1988. The loss of so many mature trees and the resurgence of grass, forbs, and berry bushes provided ideal deer food. Perhaps surprisingly, wolves are helping, too. Although the wolves feed on the deer whenever they get the opportunity, they have reduced the number of elk in the park by about 10,000. Removing that many elk has reduced the competition for newly sprouted browse.
As far as the deer’s reaction, all predators — through body language, posture and attentiveness — betray their emotions and intent to the prey species. The wolves were probably heading back to their den area, with full bellies. If they had given off any indication they were hunting, those deer would have been gone as soon as they discovered the wolves. I have seen this many times with many species all over the world.
I have also noticed this when doing photography. When I have a camera, I act as a hunter as I try to get closer to a creature to take its picture. Game species recognize this and respond as they would to being hunted.