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"Deer Talk" Activity

Objectives: Students will 1) Recognize how deer use non-verbal communication for mutual protection and interaction within a group and 2) learn the importance of this language to the survival of the group.

Grade Level: 4th-8th grade

Subjects or Academic standards:

  • Science:
    • F.4.1- Discover how organisms meet basic needs
    • F.4.2- Investigate how organisms respond to cues
    • F.8.7- Understand that behavior evolves through adaptation
  • Physical Education:
    • D.4.1- Experience the opportunity for enjoyment while participating in physical activity
    • D.8.3- Enjoy learning new activities

Method: Students practice deer "body language" in a predator/prey simulation.

Materials:

  • 2-3 white or brightly colored handkerchiefs
  • Cones or other markers to mark either boundary and the middle of the playing field.

Background:

This game is played using some of the body language (visual communication) of the white-tailed deer, particularly the alarm displays. These actions are made my both male and female deer during all seasons of the year. First, read the "real" deer alarm displays, and then read below for the version that kids need to know to play the game.

Deer Alarm Displays:

  • Foot Stomp - The deer will lift its forefoot slowly, pause, and then stamp downward with great force. This is used when a deer is alarmed but cannot identify the object of its suspicion.
  • Head Bob - The head is bobbed up and down. The deer begins to lower its head toward the ground as if to feed but then quickly jerks its head back up. This is a typical response to an unidentified object or motion.
  • Tail Flag - The tail is held up and wagged loosely from side to side exposing the white underside and rump patch. The tail flag is used when running from danger, real or imagined. This helps to keep the group together when fleeing.
  • All Clear - When a deer wags its tail once, in a casual side-to side tail flick, it often is an "all clear" signal.

Preparations:

  1. The playing field for this game is made up of two parallel boundary lines and a middle line, with about 75 feet in between. The entire playing field should be about 150 feet. One end is the boundary of the wolves (Predators), the other end is the boundary or safe haven for the white-tailed deer.

    arrangement of playing field

  2. Students will portray a heard of deer and wolves. The students portraying the deer will exhibit the different alarm displays as described below. Explain these behaviors to students.

Kid's Game Alarm Displays

  • Foot Stomp - Slowly lift one foot at a time and stomp your foot on the ground. Made by the general deer population.
  • Head Bob - Bob your head up and down. Made by the general deer population.
  • Tail Flag - A whole arm wave with the white or colored handkerchief in hand. The lead deer use this signal or display to alert the other deer to run.
  • All Clear - A quick hand wave with a white or other color handkerchief. Used by the lead deer.

Procedure:

  1. Select students to represent 3 wolves, one acting as the lead wolf, to about 22 deer. You can add another wolf if the kids seem to be having trouble. Also, you need to pick 3 lead deer who receive a white or colored handkerchief which represents their tail. The lead wolf does not receive anything.

  2. Begin the wolves at one end of the playing field while the deer start on the opposite side of the center line from the wolves. Ask the lead deer to spread out among the other deer while they eat and say "munch, munch, munch." The larger deer population needs to watch the lead deer for signs of danger, and have their backs to the wolves. Only the lead deer face the wolves and they must alert the other deer if the wolves get too close.

  3. Instruct the wolves to sneak up on the deer from their end of the playing field. The lead wolf will coordinate with the rest of the pack to see what strategy they want to use (e.g. attack slowly on one side, walk in a few circles to try and fool the deer, etc.) The, lead deer should raise their tails (handkerchiefs) as the wolves get close. This should alert the deer population, who should stop eating and "foot stomp" and "head bob" in reaction to the warning. The deer population should only look at the lead deer closest to them.

  4. When the wolves get really close, the lead deer should do a "tail flag" which is a signal for all of the deer to run to the boundary or safety. It is up to the lead deer as to when to change the from a "tail flag" to an "all clear." The wolves will try and catch a deer (one deer for each round). If they do, the deer who are caught become wolves. The deer population is safe once they reach the boundary line. The "lead" deer can also be tagged. If one of the lead deer are caught, she or he passes the flag to another deer who has already made it to safety. The wolves can decide to be tricky, and go back and forth from their home base to very close to the deer population before actually trying to catch a deer. If the wolf were to go back to home base, the lead deer should give an "all clear" signal, and then the other deer can go back to eating.

The game is over when most of the deer become wolves and/or the kids are ready to switch. The lead deer should become wolves in the next game, and the wolves should become part of the regular deer population. Everyone should try and take a turn and be a different character in the next game.

* Note for the "lead" deer: It may be tempting for the lead deer to have the entire deer population run each time predators come near, but keep in mind that deer need to conserve energy. If the entire deer population run rather than using their other signals to keep each other on alert, then the deer could weaken and use up energy that they would other wise need to survive.

Follow Up Questions

  1. Discuss what was realistic and what wasn't in this game. (All deer signal each other, not just the "lead deer", this was a simulation and not an example from real life, etc.)
  2. Was it difficult to be the "lead deer"? If yes, how so? If no, why not?
  3. Was it difficult to be a wolf? If yes, how so? If no, why not?
  4. How well do you think the non-verbal communication or "deer talk" worked for your group? Do you think that "deer talk" works well for the white-tailed Deer?

This activity was produced by Jolene Kuehn, Wildlife Education Assistant with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 2002.

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