What do the different barks of a roe deer mean?
Jon Snowdon explains the specific purposes of the various different barks of roe deer
A colleague contacted me last week and told me about a roebuck that had barked at his presence in the wood, only to keep approaching him at a distance of about 30m to take a closer look. On identifying him it ran off, and he then heard the roe deer bark continuously.
Why do roe deer bark?
Roe deer bark at certain times of the year and there are perfectly understandable reasons why it is heard more from spring through to well after the rut. The wood is already reverberating to the sound but in the next few weeks the woodland is going to come alive with it. Barking is obviously a communication of some sort but who and what are they communicating with and why?
The alarm sound of roe deer tends to be a series of rapid barks with the first usually more prolonged than following barks. If I am trying to imitate a roe deer bark, for want of a better word I use ‘bouffff’.
The ‘B’ is produced as a guttural sound from the throat, and the ‘ffff’ is pronounced without fully closing the lips, as you would when pronouncing a fully elongated ‘ffff’.
The alarm bark is something on the lines of ‘bouuuffff bouff bouff bouff’ and can go on several times, letting every other deer in the parish know that there is an intruder in their midst. Which is probably exactly why it is used. If you can see the roe disappearing you will also see its rear white caudal patch erected to twice its size, another warning to other deer.
Interesting research was done on this years ago, the results corroborating most of what those of us working in the field with roe deer had concluded.
In one part it mentioned that deer barked even though they were some distance away and well out of sight of the researcher. That is no surprise as it is almost certain that the researcher was detected by the deer’s remarkable scenting capability, and even the noise produced while walking through the wood would be heard at some distance; certainly enough to cause alarm. It was not mentioned in the research but I am sure the researchers would be aware that it is not only sight that sets of the response of deer but a combination of their sensory capabilities.
This is the single bark I hear when moving through a wood and is invariably a response to the deer being suspicious of something that it has not identified. It may be an incoming challenger, male or female.
Females are very territorial, both when they have young and during the rut. It could, of course, be a male challenger to a buck’s territory and this bark can be loud and gruff. The bark lets the other know that he is moving into dangerous ground and often the bark is enough to persuade him to move off. If that doesn’t work, then — as my colleague observed — the deer will approach one step at a time, pausing in between to give a single (bouf) bark. They move their head up, down and sideways to try to see what is confronting them until they either meet the opponent — and a fight may occur — or they are lucky enough to come across someone like my colleague, in which case they will run off, giving the alert bark.
This can go on for an interminable length of time. The suspicious response is the bark I will often imitate, trying to time it so that I persuade a buck closer and get a glimpse of what we have approaching.
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It is almost impossible to tell if a bark is from a doe or a buck; mature does can sound very similar.
When calling bucks it is often the doe that will come rushing in, barking at regular intervals to chase the floozie away from her beau. They can be very aggressive, running right up to you as you call. She can’t be blamed for that as we are, after all, trying to imitate a doe calling for a buck.
The doe will also give the alarm bark if we get too close to her kids, who have either been given a command to stay put or instinctively do so. The doe will run away, often making sure you see her to distract you away from the youngsters. She may also stay off at a distance giving regular intermittent barks to keep you interested in her. Lapwings do something similar in that they will often feign a broken wing to distract predators away from the nest.
Roe females will also make a variety of whistles or squeaks to communicate with their young. I recently saw a young deer, born last year, being chased by a mature buck and she was giving off repetitive high-pitched squeaks. She was voicing the call she would have used to call her mother for help but, alas, mother had pushed her out.
As this year’s kids are about to be born, the young lady will have to learn that mum is no longer there for her.