I figured out how to get close to deer at summer camp. It was a great camp, where we slept outside and cooked our own meals. A wilderness camp, except not the kind where they force you to belay off things.
The forest was full of black-tailed deer (Odocoileus columbianus), including does with fawns. I had never seen so many, never so close. In the fall, there was hunting in this forest. As we campers blundered along, deer would fling up their heads, stare, and take off running and bounding.
I ached to get closer. I tried freezing when a deer spotted me. I would freeze, they would freeze – and then they'd run. One day, instead of freezing, I looked away, leaned over and examined a manzanita bush, tugged at a leaf, pretended to eat it. I glanced around and the deer were still there. After a while they put their heads down and started eating again. They'd look around from time to time, but stayed calm.
This casual attitude turned out to be the way to allay their fears. Don't stare like a predator, don't go out of sight (like a lurking predator), just act like a fellow grazer. I may have hammed it up unnecessarily, assessing and rejecting leaves, snorting daintily, looking around wide-eyed for mountain lions, shaking off hypothetical flies, but if the deer thought I was emoting too much, they didn't say.
Herbivores often hang out with other species of herbivores. There's safety in numbers. The deer didn't think I was a deer, but they did seem to think I was a creature behaving in a way they understood, a non-dangerous way.
I tried moving closer, browsing as I went. That worked too. It was shocking how close they'd let me get. But then I'd get too close, and my un-deerlike nature would become too obtrusive, and they'd sail away.
(All I wanted to do was get close. But if I had gotten closer, I would have wanted to pet them and scratch them at the base of their ears. And if they had let me do that, I would probably have tried to pick ticks off them, and move their ears around like antennae picking up station KDOE, and the next thing they knew I would have been trying to get them to chase sticks. I do see that they had to draw the line somewhere.)
People have been trying to get close to deer for predatory purposes for a long time. Before guns came to North America, getting within bowshot of deer was something people schemed to do far more often than they do today.
Apparently just acting innocent wasn't enough, because Indians across the country had developed this to a high art. They had deer outfits. Made of deerskin.
Thomas Jefferson Mayfield, (previously blogged about) described how the Choinumne who partly raised him did this. “[T]hey prepared the horns and hide of the deer and placed them over themselves. The head of the deer was hollowed out and was fitted over the head of the hunter. The skin covered the back of the hunter.”
Then they went into their vegetarian act. “A short stick was carried in the right hand and was used to imitate the forelegs of a deer when the hunter bent forward. The bow and arrows were carried in the left hand. He would imitate a deer feeding and rubbing his horns on the brush, and many other actions of the deer, until he approached quite close to the game. Sometimes the hunter would work an hour to get just ten feet closer to the deer.”
In The Way We Lived: California Indian Reminiscences, Stories and Songs, a Pomo woman talking about the hunting exploits of her grandfather, says “My grandfather said he put the deer head on when he want to go out hunting. He used to go out among the deer.”
Apparently the deer let him get close, but they couldn't quite figure him out. “The deer wanted to smell his behind.”
Yes, yes, a hazard all spies and double agents face. What to do, Mr. Bond? “He always just turn around and sit down.”
There are modern bowhunters who also wish to get close to deer. While I am only slightly informed on this subject, I gather they generally have high-tech bows. They dress in camouflage, not in deer suits. And like me, they don't get so close that they have to sit down.