Do deer and elk spook when they hear a donkey bray?
I've been asked on more than one occasion if my "Rocky Mountain Canaries" spook game when they bray. I can now answer that question based on first hand observations.
I have an abundance of deer on my property and I have seen them on a daily basis totally ignoring my donkeys when they bray. But these deer were accustomed to living around domestic animals. They really weren’t reliable to determine how deer naturally react. I wanted to see how a mule deer in the back country reacted.
In 2015, while on an elk hunt in a wilderness area here in Colorado, I had saddled up one of my geldings to ride out on a morning hunt. I rode up a ridge a half mile from camp. It was steep, so I stopped to give my saddle donkey a rest before we went over the top. I looked back and saw four mule deer in a meadow not far from camp. Just then, one of the three donkeys still in camp let out a loud bray that echoed through the valley. One of the mule deer looked up in the direction of camp, but then went right back to feeding, unperturbed. The other three deer didn't seem to be bothered at all. I had my answer; mule deer aren’t spooked by the bray of a donkey.
What about elk?
During my 2017 elk hunt I got my answer. I had two hunting buddies coming in to camp around lunch, so I wasn't planning on hunting in the morning. I woke up around 6:30 and decided to put two of the four donkeys out of the electric corral to graze. When I came out of my tent I noticed they were all on point, looking over the adjacent meadow I was camped next to. Looking around, I saw that there were three elk near a muddy water hole about 120 yards away. When one of my geldings saw me come out of the tent, he let out a noisy bray. The elk looked in our direction, but didn't spook. Two of the cows looked in our direction, and the other simply resumed smelling the water hole, seemingly unaware. I put a halter and lead rope on one of the pack burros and led him out of the corral. As I was walking back to get the other donkey I saw that the elk had come about halfway across the meadow and seemed very interested in the donkeys. I caught the other donkey and led him out. The elk must have noticed me leading the donkey because they turned and headed back up the valley at a brisk walk. However, they didn't seem spooked.
I walked back over to my tent to start heating water for coffee. Before I ducked into the tent I looked back over my shoulder and saw another cow elk at the water hole. I thought, "I need to get a picture of this!" Then I remembered, “I'm hunting! I need to get my bow!” It took a bit for me to find my range finder and put on my release. When I came out of the tent the cow had already crossed the meadow and was standing next to the corral. She was only 25 yards away! Before I could begin to set up for a shot my big gelding intervened. Apparently, he thought the cow was way too close. He made a beeline for her! If he hadn’t had a lead rope dragging behind him, he might have caught her. The cow elk trotted up the hill about 100 yards then stopped to look back. I don't think she saw me; she was so focused on the donkeys.
I can now say with confidence that neither a donkey's physical presence nor their brays spook mule deer or elk. In fact, donkeys might even make a good elk decoy! Even so, I’ll continue to do more field research. Happy hunting!