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How Smart Are Deer? (Compared to Other Animals)

How Smart Are Deer? (Compared to Other Animals)

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Through intelligence-assessment tools and EQ tests, we can estimate the intelligence and mental capacities of certain animals, such as chimpanzees, ravens, rats, and elephants.

But what about deer? How smart are deer, exactly?

Deer can’t problem-solve like chimpanzees or do mathematics like horses, honeybees, and bears, but that doesn’t mean they’re less inferior than these animals.

They’re certainly intelligent in their own right, but just how much?

Are Deer Smart?

We’ve yet to properly estimate deer intelligence, so there’s no one-word answer to this question.

They’re certainly not as smart as dogs (few animals are), but they’re certainly not “stupid,” either.

When it comes to survival, deer make full use of their senses—particularly their keen sense of smell.

Whitetail deer have 297 million olfactory receptors, which is on par with a canine’s 300 million.

That strong sense of smell not only helps deer find food but also detect and avoid the presence of predators in their area.

That advantage already makes deer naturally smarter than humans. Humans have only 7 million, so we can’t even begin to compare.

Still, deer aren’t as equipped as other wild animals in terms of sight and hearing.

A deer’s hearing range is similar to a human’s—20 Hz to 20 kHz—with the additional ability to detect sounds within the low ultrasonic spectrum.

That sounds impressive, but it’s certainly not as impressive as other animals out there.

Their sight isn’t the best, either, at only 20/100 vision. This means at 20 feet, deer can see as well as humans at 100 feet.

But it’s unfair to measure intelligence through sight, smell, and hearing.

Deer may not be equipped with the best sensors (sans hearing), but when it comes to their adaptability and reaction time, they’re true geniuses of the wild.

After all, they properly adapt to food shortages, avoid dangerous situations, and know when to defend themselves.

So all in all, deer have intelligence befitting four-legged herbivores. They’re not ultra-smart, but they don’t really need methodical thinking to eat grass, forage for berries, breed, and sleep.

The fact that they’re not extinct despite years of hunting means that they’re at least doing a good job of living long enough to make grass-eating babies.

How Smart Are Deer?

Deer are intelligent, but not all of them express the same level of intelligence.

Like humans, deer have unique personalities. Some are inherently curious, entering human camps with the bravery of a wild lion, while others are skittish and untrusting, avoiding human contact as much as possible.

The former get killed much easier than the latter, so they’re often considered the “dumb” ones.

They’re the same deer that’d find dead carcasses on the side of the road and dive head-first into traffic despite all the warning signs.

Oftentimes, their intelligence (or lack thereof) are influenced by their age, testosterone levels, experience with humans, and their own unique personalities.

The old adage “With age comes wisdom,” rings true here. Older deer are often much harder to hunt than younger deer; not because they’re faster or stronger, but because their wariness and hyper-vigilance allow them to survive hunting seasons.

And if they’re lucky enough to breed, they’ll pass on the genes that promote adaptive survival and behavior.

That said, it’s no secret that deer are easier to hunt than other wild animals.

Their feeding destinations, travel routes, and bedding locations are just so transparent that they’d basically lead us to them directly.

They also tend to walk around during daylight, which makes them even easier to spot.

You’d think that if deer truly were intelligent, they’d hide their tracks more effectively. That way, they won’t be at risk for hunting.

But deer don’t have that kind of foresight. They don’t have critical and metacognitive thinking capabilities like us. They can manage their way through obstacles or escape predators, but that’s the limit of their capacities.

That doesn’t mean they’re “dumb,” though. In fact, this just shows that deer are far more intelligent than we give them credit for.

As to how intelligent they are, there’s really no way to tell. Apart from the EQ scale, which measures intelligence through the size of a creature’s brain, we’ve yet to observe their thinking capabilities in a controlled environment.

What’s the Encephalization Quotient of Deer?

The Encephalization Quotient (EQ), also known as the Encephalization Level (EL), compares the intelligence of different species as per the size of their brain as well as the raw brain-to-body mass ratio.

This measurement only applies to mammals, though; we’ve yet to discover how to measure the intelligence of animals outside this group.

EQ is measured through the following formula:

  • EQ = Brain Mass / 0.12 × Body Weight ^ 0.66

Humans have an EQ of roughly six, meaning that their brain mass is, on average, six times greater than a typical mammal.

Deer have an EQ of 1, meaning they’re of average intelligence.

To put that into perspective, Border Collies, Standard Poodles, and German Shepherds—three of the smartest dog breeds alive—have an EQ of 2.3, 2.2, and 3.1 respectively, which shows higher-than-average intelligence.

Are Deer Smarter than Domestic Farm Animals?

Although deer aren’t as smart as chimpanzees, raccoons, or elephants, they’re certainly smarter than most domestic farm animals. There’s no question about it.

Animals bred for food, like cows, sheep, and chickens, haven’t had to worry about predators for hundreds, even thousands, of years.

As a result, their survival instincts have dampened to almost nothing.

If they’re left on their own to survive, they’d either starve to death or be mauled by wild coyotes before they can even say “baa.”

Deer don’t have that disadvantage. They’ve always been wild animals, so they’ve learned how to forage and survive on their own.

Furthermore, deer have a better sense of, well, everything, compared to most farm animals—including smell, hearing, and yes, even sight, as poor as it is.

Deer can smell danger approaching from miles away, even against wind and snow. They’d hide away as soon as they realize a predator is within the vicinity.

If you miss a shot or spook a mature buck, it’ll be extremely difficult to relocate it. The buck will remain in the surrounding area, but it’ll be hyper-vigilant of your presence. It’ll hide a safe distance away from your platform until you leave elsewhere.

The same can’t be said for domestic animals.

Are Deer Smarter than Dogs and Cats?

Dogs and cats are superior to deer in many ways, including intelligence. They can solve problems and learn new things in ways that deer can only hope of doing.

This is further exacerbated by the fact that dogs—particularly hunting dogs, like Border Terriers, Beagles, and Bloodhounds—are often used to hunt deer.

These dogs can easily outsmart and chase down a deer until the animal is exhausted, which not only shows their intelligence but also hunting skills.

Deer intelligence seems to be limited to staying out of sight when they catch a whiff of a predator or when they hear guns going off during hunting season.

However, people who own deer have reported that they can be trained to do tricks. They’d even go as far as saying they’re easier to train than dogs.

Still, we don’t have conclusive evidence to state that deer have superior intelligence to dogs and cats. Theoretical evidence shows that dogs and cats are indeed smarter than deer.

Intelligence Observed In Deer

Deer are simple creatures; they have no need for problem-solving skills like crows, hyenas, and bears. They eat, breed, hide from predators (and human hunters), and sleep.

But sometimes, deer would do things that’d boggle our human minds.

Since non-human intelligence can’t be measured with verbal scales, it’s instead observed through the following means:

  • Social learning
  • Habit reversal
  • Responses to novelty
  • Problem-solving
  • Mathematical ability

Some of these are observed in deer, as listed in Leonard Lee Rue III’s 2013 book, Whitetail Savvy.

One of his more noteworthy observations was when he found a deer purposely hiding in an old root cellar.

Trail cams revealed that the deer had spent almost the entire hunting season in the root cellar, where it’s safe from hunters.

When hunting season ended, the deer went about his day as if he didn’t just display an incredible sense of survival.

We can only guess how the deer knew exactly where to hide during hunting season.

Another deer hid inside a storm sewer to hide from hunters during hunting season. The buck did this every day at around the same time for the same length, until hunting season ended.

Some people have also observed deer crossing at the crosswalk. They’d somehow realized that cars slow down and stop at crosswalks, and have exploited the crosswalks as a result.

This proves that deer have the cognitive ability to both encode and recall actions performed by humans.

What’s the Difference Between Deer Instinct and Deer Intelligence?

Using the above examples, you’re probably wondering if they’re showing deer intelligence or if deer are just demonstrating survival instinct. The truth is, it’s both.

By definition, instinct is an innate, fixed pattern of behavior performed in response to certain external stimuli. Instinct isn’t learned, it’s inherited. It’s what helps deer avoid dangerous situations and survive.

Intelligence, on the other hand, provides a certain amount of plasticity to the ever-changing conditions of the environment.

When deer modifies its actions in accordance to individual experience—like hiding in a shed during hunting season, crossing a crosswalk, or other out-of-the-ordinary characteristics—this isn’t instinctive behavior, it’s intelligence.

Although not much when compared to humans (or other animals, like dogs and chimpanzees), we can’t dismiss it entirely.

As a species, deer are among the most adaptable game animals in North America.

Although they lack the capacity to strategize, plan, or formulate ideas, they’re smart enough to find food, mates, and a path through the woods to hide from predators.

For four-legged creatures, this is more than enough to prove their intelligence.

Do Deers Make Good Pets?

With an EQ of around 1, deer are of average intelligence. They have high survivability and know how to adapt to most situations. But does that mean they make good pets?

In most states, it’s illegal to own deer as pets—and for good reason.

Deer that were raised by humans don’t have much chance of survival once released into the wild.

Most of the deer’s survival intelligence comes from experience, and deer raised by humans are protected from the true reality of the wild.

Even if they aren’t illegal to own as pets, they still don’t make good pets. They can certainly be tamed and trained to do basic commands as fawns, but they become almost unmanageable as they grow past the stage of infancy.

Domesticated deer and deer bred in captivity would sometimes attack humans during mating season and can turn into bloodthirsty creatures when protecting their young.

Furthermore, male deer have huge antlers that can puncture the skin and cause serious injury. They’re much stronger than they look and won’t hesitate to attack if they feel threatened.

If you find an “abandoned” fawn, don’t take it in. Leave them alone. The mother will likely be back, and she won’t be pleased to see you around her precious baby.

If the mom doesn’t come back, or if you hear it calling for two to three days in a row, notify your local Fish and Wildlife Department.

Trained employees will take the fawn in and raise it in captivity, later releasing it once it’s own enough to fend for its own.

Final Thoughts

The answer to the question, “how smart are deer?” is a bit subjective. Other than measuring their EQ (which gives approximate results at best), there’s no real way to measure the intelligence of deer.

However, we do know that they’re of average intelligence according to how they react during survival situations.

They’re certainly not smarter than dogs, cats, or even pigs, but they’re smarter than domestic farm animals like cows and sheep.


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