One fall morning, a young female deer walked right up to me.
I was hunting squirrels in Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area in middle Georgia. Mind you, "hunting squirrels" means I was indeed hunting squirrels, but I was also scouting the area in anticipation of deer season. I had not lived in Georgia very long, and I was still getting to know this forest and its creatures. Hunting squirrels in late September gave me a chance to get out in the woods and see where the deer would be in early October.
Hunting squirrels in Georgia was quite different from what I was used to in Delaware. In Delaware, you could hear the squirrels from quite some distance, noisily cutting tulip cones or acorns. You'd walk up to the tree where the squirrel was, and the squirrel would move around to the opposite side of the tree. Walk around the tree, and the squirrel would continue scurrying around to keep on the opposite side. Eventually, if there were enough intervening branches, the squirrel would take off through the treetops and you'd try to get a shot. Or, if there was not enough cover, the squirrel would continue circling opposite you until he slipped up, and you'd get a shot.
Here in Georgia, although the gray squirrels were the same species as in Delaware (Sciurus carolinensis), they were much smaller and more reddish, and they used this to their advantage. You had to listen carefully to hear the squirrel quietly cutting pine cones, and try to pinpoint the sound without looking toward it. As soon as you turned your eyes to the squirrel, he would stop cutting and sit motionless, and become invisible. You had to watch patiently for the squirrel to make a move. Meanwhile, you could hear other squirrels cutting in other directions. As soon as you gave up on one squirrel and turned to find the second, you'd hear the first one begin cutting again. You just had to stick with one long enough for the squirrel to slip up.
Hunting squirrels in Georgia was like a staring game. Patience. Listening, watching, and patience.
So, this particular September morning, I was walking quietly along a game trail, trying to get close enough to a cutting squirrel to start the staring game. As I approached the top of a gentle rise, near its north end, a noisy crowd was moving roughly parallel to me, approaching the top from the other side, shuffling leaves and dropping their feet clumsily. No way to hear a cutting squirrel over that racket, so I just stopped where I was to wait for them to pass.
As the crowd cleared the rise to the north of me, I saw that the one in the lead had antlers!
All right! I knew exactly where I was going to be next Saturday morning when deer season opened. I didn't want to spook the deer, so I just stood motionless as they cleared the rise and angled away ahead of me.
As they began to pass out of sight, I checked the area, moving only my eyes so as not to make the slightest sound or movement until the deer were well away from me. There was a large oak just my side of the crest of that rise, which would disguise my silhouette and allow me a clear shot down the other side of the rise. Yes, that's where I would be next Saturday.
Just as I was deciding this, a lone young female deer appeared. She was evidently fleeing the herd, and had to sneak to avoid being rounded up again by the buck. She picked her way stealthily but quickly, angling to the west of where the herd had come from. This brought her down my side of the rise.
I remained motionless.
When the deer got within about twenty yards of me, she saw me. Obviously, she didn't quite know what to make of me. She stopped and faced me, but she didn't run away. After a few seconds, she began coming closer.
Deer's eyes are more attuned to motion than human eyes are (we have a similar motion-sensitivity, especially in our peripheral vision, but it is not our main way of seeing detail). When a deer wants to see more detail in a stationary object, it will frequently bob its head or wag its head side-to-side to create relative motion between its eyes and the object of interest.
So, as this deer approached me, she would stop and bob her head up and down, wag her head side-to-side, then approach a few more steps. All the while, her eyes were fixed on me and her ears were cocked forward.
As she got closer, she began to stamp her feet to try to get a reaction from me. It's kind of comical to watch a deer do this. She would raise one forefoot, slowly and deliberately, cock it just so for half a second, then bring it down abruptly like a petulant four-year-old.
But I didn't react.
Finally, the deer began using another sense. She snorted repeatedly to clear her nostrils in order to smell me more clearly.
The deer got to within five feet of me. She stood there for a couple of minutes, occasionally bobbing her head up and down and wagging it side-to-side, stamping her forefeet, and snorting, but I didn't move. With each snort, I could see and hear the mucus spattering on the leaf litter at my feet.
Suddenly, the deer took off. Maybe she got a whiff of my human scent. For whatever reason, she abruptly decided she didn't want to be there anymore, and in the blink of an eye, she was bounding off at full speed in the direction from which she had come.
Epilogue: This story has been haunting me since 1973. There's a fairly simple typographical error, which I'm sure everyone who types in the English language makes from time to time. The resulting sequence of characters comprises two valid, if vulgar, English words, so a spell checker doesn't flag it as an error. Whenever I do it - whenever I intend to type "does not," but instead type "doe snot" - it reminds me of this story.