The Deer Hunter's Guide to Whitetail Glands

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Are You Making Sense of Scents?

Do you know whitetail glands? (Ryan Orndorff illustration)

Some old-time deer hunters preached that upon taking a rutting buck, the first thing a hunter should do is cut off the animal’s dark and musky hind-leg glands, as they could taint the meat. Other veteran hunters said don’t touch the stinky things, they could taint the meat. And still, others are completely indifferent one way or the other.

And that’s about as far as understanding whitetail glands went.

Today’s deer hunter carries a better understanding into the woods.  A whitetail has, and depends on, glands far removed from those odiferous back leg brushes known as tarsals.

Do you really know the complete variety of glands on a whitetail, what each one does, and how that function might impact your hunting? If not, you will now.

Tarsal Gland

Location: On the inner surface of hind leg.

Description: This is a patch of extra-bristly hairs, each growing out of its own fat pad based below the skin. The fat pads secrete an oily substance that coats the hairs. Tarsal gland hair is stained noticeably darker than the rest of the inner leg. The tarsal is often black on rutting bucks.

Function: A whitetail’s tarsal gland can be considered its resumé or bio. The scent indicates a deer’s sex, health and dominance status within the herd. Bucks are famous for urinating over their tarsals and rubbing them together during the rut as an advertisement of their dominance to other bucks and virility to local does. Special bacteria strengthen the tarsal “brew,” and sometimes it’s so strong that even a human can smell it from some distance.

Hunting Notes: Save tarsal glands from a deer you shoot. Get them from other hunters’ kills too. Use plastic gloves and carefully cut them out, then vacuum seal and freeze. Thaw and hang about 3 feet off the ground near your stand. Buck tarsals will bring in dominant bucks for a challenge, but doe glands may get any buck to come in for a look at the new girl on the block.

Gland Fact: All whitetails -- does, fawns, little bucks and big bucks alike -- urinate on and rub their tarsals.

Don't Miss: The Anatomy of a Whitetail Scrape

Metatarsal Gland

Location: On the outer surface of lower hind leg.

Description: A puff of white hair just above the hoof and projecting rearward.

Function: Metatarsals don’t appear to be as hardworking as tarsals, as metatarsals don’t emit scent. Some researchers believe metatarsals serve a thermoregulatory purpose, helping the animal measure cold conditions and manage biological reactions.

Hunting Notes: There is no known way to consider metatarsal glands in your hunting plans.

Gland Fact: Metatarsals are proportionately larger in northern whitetails than in southern deer.

Interdigital Gland

Location: Between (inter) the two “toes” (digitals) of a whitetail’s cloven hoof.

Description: A sparsely haired sac, found on all four hooves of a deer and secreting a dingy yellowish fluid to the ground.

Function: The interdigital gland is a deer’s calling card. Odor is left in the deer’s track, allowing other deer to know an animal was in the area, whether it was a buck or doe, and, if a buck, how big or dominant it is. Does’ interdigital gland secretions can tell a male she is ready to breed; that’s when you see bucks bird-dogging, nose to the ground. Interdigital scent also reveals how old the track is, and even which way the deer is traveling.

Hunting Notes: Some manufacturers offer interdigital scents, which can be used to mask scent on your walk in to your stand . . . and perhaps bring a buck to you along the same route.

Gland Fact: When whitetails stomp to try and startle you into moving, they are also leaving a deposit of interdigital “warning” scent at that spot, for other deer to smell.

Preputial Gland

Location: In a buck’s penile sheath.

Description: Okay so this one may be a little X-rated. The preputial gland increases functionality during the breeding process.

Function: The preputial gland makes the breeding process easier.

Hunting Notes: No use for the hunter.

Gland Fact: If you shoot a really big buck, hopefully it benefitted from the services of the preputial gland often, and passed along its superior genes.

Preorbital Gland

Location: In front of the eyes.

Description: A slit immediately ahead of each eye.

Function: The preorbital may serve dual purposes. Research shows that ungulates beyond whitetails use preorbital secretions to leave scent markings and communicate. It is also likely that the preorbital gland serves to help flush and clean the eye, as attested by the green crusty buildup on the eyes of any whitetail shot in cattails or other similar seedy environments.

Hunting Notes: Little use for hunters. However, you can remove this gland and use it similarly as you would a tarsal gland (but with less potency). Hang it over mock scrapes or rubs to increase the effectiveness of those tactics.

Gland Fact: Bucks will often rub their preorbitals on branches and twigs above scrapes or rubs – solid evidence that this gland serves identification and calling-card purposes.

Forehead Gland

Location: On a deer’s forehead, above the eyes and between the bases of its antlers.

Description: You can’t see the forehead gland, but you can see what it produces on rutting bucks, some of which sport black forehead patches, others brown or even reddish ones. If you take a whiff of a dead buck at the rut’s height, the resulting scent can be slightly to extremely musky, depending on the buck’s dominance level and breeding status.

Function: When a buck rubs its antlers and forehead glands on shrubs, trees, fenceposts or anything else, it is embedding its signature.

Hunting Notes: Any rub you see has automatically had forehead gland scent deposited. Rubs’ white starkness serves as territory markers, but rubs also leave the buck’s scent for other deer to evaluate.

Gland Fact: The more breeding-ready a mature buck is, the more forehead “juice” it will secrete, staining its “cap” into the darker colors mentioned.

Don't Miss: Rubbing Behavior in White-Tailed Deer

Nasal Gland

Location: In the nose.

Description: You can’t see the nasal glands themselves, but you can see the result — a deer’s moist, shiny, well-lubricated nose.

Function: Nasal glands keep a whitetail’s nose in a moistened state with a coat of mucus film that captures scent molecules.

Hunting Notes: You cannot – repeat cannot – go overboard in preparing to beat a whitetail’s nose. Showering with scent-free soap, using special detergents on your hunting clothes and using scent-killer sprays are all good. But none of that really matters if you don’t play the wind religiously. A deer’s nasal glands help cause all that.

Gland Fact: Nasal glands are one reason whitetails have such an acute sense of smell – a sense they will trust independent of all others.

Don't Miss: 8 Ways to Beat a Deer’s Nose

Salivary Gland

Location: In the mouth.

Description: Saliva-secreting glands in the cheeks, gums and roof of the mouth.

Function: Salivaries lubricate the deer’s mouth, providing additional moisture for licking the surface of the nose. Bucks also lick branches they chew after scraping, and saliva likely leaves personal-information scent on the mark.

Hunting Notes: Little here affects hunting, other than the salivary glands’ work assisting whitetails in scenting danger.

Gland Fact: Saliva also kicks off the whitetail’s digestive process, helping begin the breakdown of food as it is chewed and passed through to the deer’s first stomach. As do cows, deer will chew their cud.

Don’t Miss: 5 Things You Don’t Know About Deer Senses

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