I think it was in 1970 or '71 when I first heard a buck grunt.
But I didn't put it together that the noise was actually a whitetail's vocalization. Sounded more like a fence creaking to me.
But the sound did in fact come from a young buck, rutting behind a herd of doe on the edge of a field, just after dawn during the early part of that long-ago bow season.
My initial observation about a fence making the weird noise made sense because the young whitetail was moving fast into the woods, crossing near an old rusted barbwire fence. But it continued on with grunt after grunt.
Back then grunt tubes and deer calls were not on the hunting gear market. The now ubiquitous hunting shows on hunting TV channels did not exist either.
Now, 50 years later, deer calls, specifically grunt tubes, have evolved into a multi-million dollar business as hunters and wildlife researchers dig ever further into researching the ways animals communicate.
The following is my rough categorization of deer calls, not intending to be all.
One thing learning about wildlife teaches, there is a lot more we don’t know than what we do.
Lost call: When a doe is separated from her family group, she will sometimes "blat." Fawns will often bleat when separated too.
Doe grunts and bleats: Quite common. An older doe often grunts, especially around younger deer in a family group when on the move. But the sound is usually soft and difficult to make out, especially when the wind is blowing and the leaves are as crunchy as dry cereal.
Hunters who hear a deer grunt and are not able to see the animal, can’t always assume that a buck is making the sound. Many "buck" vocalizations have a higher pitch, sounding more like the female of the specie. Usually older bucks have a deeper grunt, but that’s not always the case. When I call bucks, I like a higher grunt. A low grunt can intimidate a buck and I don’t want to do that!
Bleats tend to be higher pitched than grunts. And deer calls on the market are often adjustable to replicate either.
Buck grunt: A little deeper and louder than the doe grunt, but very similar. An old doe and a young buck can sound just about the same to me.
Breeding or tending purr: Breeding bucks, that is the ones which are active breeders during the rut, will often "groan and moan" — which sounds like a long, drawn out grunt when near a doe nearing the peak of her cycle.
I’ve heard that purr or moaning sound from a big buck last a minute or even longer, quavering and oscillating, reaching high and low points in pitch.
Tending grunts: Bucks will in a way, "talk to themselves" or mutter under their breath when on the trail of a doe in estrus. These grunts sound like a number of very short, cut-off grunts in quick succession.
Ticking: This is a rare call, and I have only heard it a few times. Bucks make a soft ticking sound, best replicated by taking a hair comb (large size) into the stand and rubbing your thumb across the teeth. Bucks make this sound when breeding is imminent.
Some have hypothesized that bucks are actually gritting and grinding their teeth. I don’t really buy that. But the ticking sound is often accompanied by a long, low moaning grunt.
Grunt-wheeze: Bucks make this call when they want the company of other bucks to spar and/or are separated from their bachelor group. I vividly remember an early autumn evening when a 130-class or so eight-point (that’s a big buck) walked out into a clover field, 20 yards from my tree stand and stood in the middle of a field and emitted a number of "grunt-wheezes," calling the other bucks to the clover field. Sounds a bit like a loud sneeze to me.
Warning snort: Of course we have all heard this warning call that the whitetail has discovered us and has to tell the whole world about it.
And as more and more research and field observations are cataloged, more classifications for various whitetail speak will undoubtedly expand our knowledge further.
One thing is for sure, we are just beginning to hear what deer really say and just beginning to decipher whitetail vocalizations and what they mean.
Musings: New research into elephant communication indicates that they have the ability to "talk" to each other up to five miles away! Elephants actually "speak" in the lowest frequencies, below our range of hearing.
So lower frequencies "carry" animal messages further than we had thought possible. So we can’t be surprised when there will be "silent" deer calls on the market, taking advantage of frequencies beyond our hearing. Remember the "silent" dog whistles which operate on the same principal?
After all, maybe we just hear a little snippet of the total whitetail language because our hearing does not have the range, both on the high and low end of the auditory scale.
And maybe our modern grunt calls only function in part of the whitetails' auditory range.
Oak Duke writes a weekly column appearing on the Outdoors page.