They certainly do. And they smell, too — very well, as any hunter can attest.

Why? Two reasons: Deer For Today and Deer For Tomorrow.

First, Deer For Today. Like any wild animal, deer have an inborn drive to survive. They use their amazingly receptive noses to sniff, with approximately 297 million olfactory (scent) receptors on constant alert, even when they’re asleep. In comparison, dogs have 220 million and humans have just 5 million. (Having spent a lot of time on airplanes and in crowded elevators, I think that’s more than ample).

Deer can smell danger from a mile upwind. Hence the billion-dollar industry selling scent-masking clothing, soap and potions to hunters. Unfortunately for mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes, all of which haunt Iowa and Illinois, they don’t have the money to buy it. Even if they did, they’d probably get kicked out of the store before they got to the checkout. Forget buying online: the package delivery folks wouldn’t wander into the wilderness.

And it’s also why hunters try to position themselves downwind of predicted deer travel paths. One whiff of Homo sapiens-hunter and even the youngest deer instinctively know to vamoose, post-haste.

Another aspect of survival is food. Deer can smell fallen, rotting apples from afar, likewise freshly cut crops or even acorns, they’re favorite fat-building food in the fall.

But what about Deer For Tomorrow, a.k.a. procreation?

I will refer to only four of their many glands in this column, but knowledge of them can help a deer hunter in the quest of odocoileus virginianus.

The tarsal gland is a fat pad under a section of hair on the inside of both lower hind legs on deer that emanates a very pungent substance onto the hair. During the mating season (rut), both sexes urinate over these tarsals into a spot of bare ground where bucks have scraped away grass and leaves. Since each deer’s tarsal scent is unique, it serves as a calling card to let other deer know who’s been peeing around the neighborhood.

That enduring scent is so strong that I have detected it when I was far as 50 yards downwind.

Some hunters cut these glands from both sexes of harvested deer and hang them near their hunting stands to attract other deer. Note: wear gloves and store them in baggies to keep the smell off you. That stench is as permanent as a mother-in-law who comes for a “short visit.” It’s commercially available for those who don’t have any of the Real McCoy because they’re not very good at this hunty-thingy yet.

The interdigital glands hide between the two segments of the split (cloven) hooves and a small amount of scent secretes with every step. Also a calling card unique to each deer, the trail of a doe in estrus is often followed by a love-struck buck. The gents also leave interdigital trails, alerting boss bucks of interloping whipper-snappers horning in on his girls. It’s another scent sold to hunters, who drag a cloth soaked in it to their stands in hope of Old Mossy Horns following it to them.

Sensing danger, a deer will stomp a front hoof, sometimes repeatedly, causing a large amount of interdigital scent to squirt out. I’ve been busted many times by this. The sound alerts nearby deer, but the scent lingers for a long time. I’ve watched deer approach the area hours after such a stomping and head out for Splitsville faster than you can utter something you’d get your mouth washed out with soap for saying.

The preorbital glands have nothing to do with getting ready for around on the International Space Station. They reside immediately in front of each eye and, in addition to cleaning out the night’s sleep crud, they leave a scent that is unique to each whitetail. Bucks often rub this gland on a twig overhanging a scrape to let the gals and other guys know he’s lurking.

Finally, the forehead gland, which is just where your 4-year old would guess it is. Mature bucks push it mercilessly against trees, shrubs, fence posts (anything that will stay still long enough) during the rut, again to signal their presence. Their otherwise gray hair turns reddish, dark brown, or even black with this heady musk.

The whitetail has many other glands and senses designed to aid them in their two life quests: Deer For Today and Deer For Tomorrow. Next time you’re afield, whether hunting or observing, try to detect some of these tactics for yourself. Get out, but please be safe. After all, it’s a stinking jungle out there.

Tom Charlton is a resident of Davenport and has hunted and fished in 20 states and across Canada. Please email your comments and column topic suggestions to him at or to the editors at


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