Protecting deer with high-pitched noises | Science News for Students

Protecting deer with high-pitched noises

Student scientist finds a way to keep deer away from oncoming traffic
May 24, 2018 — 12:44 pm EST
deer in headlights

Deer and vehicles don’t mix. But how do you keep these animals off the roads? A teen tried sound.  


Pittsburgh, Pa. — Maegan Yeary’s uncle used to swear by his deer whistle. This is a device that attaches to a car or truck. Wind going through it makes a high-pitched (and annoying) sound. That noise was supposed to keep deer from leaping into the road — and in front of her uncle’s truck.

Except it didn’t. And when he ultimately hit a deer, he “totaled his truck,” she recalls. Her uncle wasn’t hurt. But the accident prompted the 18-year-old senior at J.W. Nixon High School in Laredo, Texas, to look for a new acoustic deer-deterrent.

As she and her uncle discussed the issue, Maegan realized she had the makings of a science-fair project. Her data now show that if people want to keep deer away from highways, they’re going to need a much higher pitched noise than anything a human can hear.

The teen presented her results here, last week, at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). This yearly competition brings together nearly 1,800 high school finalists from 81 countries. They exhibited their winning science fair projects to the public and competed for almost $5 million in prizes. The Society for Science & the Public created ISEF in 1950 and still runs it. (The Society also publishes Science News for Students and this blog.) This year Intel sponsored the event.

The sound of safety

Deer and humans hear the world differently. Both detect sound waves, measured in hertz — the number of waves, or cycles, per second. A deep sound doesn’t have many cycles per second. High-pitched sounds have a whole lot of them.

People detect sounds in the range of 20 to 20,000 hertz. Deer live life a little higher. They can hear between about 250 and 30,000 hertz. That means deer can hear pitches well above what people can detect.

Her uncle’s deer whistle, though? It sent out a 14,000-hertz sound. That means “people can hear it,” she notes. “It’s an obnoxious sound,” audible even to people riding in a vehicle. And as Maegan’s uncle found, it didn’t send the deer fleeing.

Maegan Yeary
Maegan Yeary discusses her project at Intel ISEF.  
C. Ayers Photography/SSP

For her experiments, Maegan found a clearing not far from her town that was popular with deer. She set up a speaker and a motion sensor. Then, every other day for three months, she spent late evenings and early mornings hiding near the clearing, waiting for deer.

Each time one arrived, it activated her motion sensor. That triggered a speaker to play a sound. Maegan tested different frequencies — around 4,000, 7,000, 11,000 and 25,000 hertz — to see how the deer responded. She could hear the lower frequencies as “a ringing sound,” the teen explains. “Once they got higher, it’s like a buzz.” By 25,000 hertz, she says, she merely felt what seemed like some “vibration.”

As each tone played, Maegan observed the deer. She wanted to see which, if any, frequencies were annoying enough to make them flee.

None of the lower frequencies did. But when the speakers broadcast 25,000 hertz, Maegan reports, the deer “just walked away.” She also noticed that even then, it only worked for deer no more than about 30 meters (100 feet) away. “Higher frequencies don’t travel as well,” she explains. Deer need to be fairly close to respond.

The teen envisions her warning “whistle” being broadcast from speakers along the sides of a highway. These would warn the deer to stay away — even when there was no car visible. “It’s like a stoplight for animals,” she says. That way it might keep deer at bay — unlike her uncle’s whistle.

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

acoustic     Having to do with sound or hearing.

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

frequency     The number of times a specified periodic phenomenon occurs within a specified time interval. (In physics) The number of wavelengths that occurs over a particular interval of time.

hertz     The frequency with which something (such as a wavelength) occurs, measured in the number of times the cycle repeats during each second of time.

high school     A designation for grades nine through 12 in the U.S. system of compulsory public education. High-school graduates may apply to colleges for further, advanced education.

Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF)     Initially launched in 1950, this competition is one of three created (and still run) by the Society for Science & the Public. Each year now, approximately 1,800 high school students from more than 80 countries, regions, and territories are awarded the opportunity to showcase their independent research at Intel ISEF and compete for an average of almost $5 million in prizes. 

pitch     (in acoustics) The word musicians use for sound frequency. It describes how high or low a sound is, which will be determined by the vibrations that created that sound.

sensor     A device that picks up information on physical or chemical conditions — such as temperature, barometric pressure, salinity, humidity, pH, light intensity or radiation — and stores or broadcasts that information. Scientists and engineers often rely on sensors to inform them of conditions that may change over time or that exist far from where a researcher can measure them directly.

sound wave     A wave that transmits sound. Sound waves have alternating swaths of high and low pressure.

Society for Science & the Public     This nonprofit organization was created in 1921 and is based in Washington, D.C. Since its founding, the Society has been not only promoting public engagement in scientific research but also the public understanding of science. It created and continues to run three renowned science competitions: The Regeneron Science Talent Search (begun in 1942), the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (initially launched in 1950) and Broadcom MASTERS (created in 2010). The Society also publishes award-winning journalism: in Science News (launched in 1922) and Science News for Students (created in 2003). Those magazines also host a series of blogs (including Eureka! Lab).

wave     A disturbance or variation that travels through space and matter in a regular, oscillating fashion.