Understanding Daily Deer Movement by TR Michels
One of the most important things to know about deer hunting is when to hunt. When you’re hunting you need to know where the deer are likely to be during legal shooting hours. In order to know you’ll need good knowledge of when and where deer normally move during the day. Studies by Dr. Kent Kammermeyer and studies by Dr. Larry Marchinton, show that throughout the year deer move more during the day than they do at night. However, this changes as summer turns to fall, and as the rut progresses.
As vegetation begins to die off, food sources in wooded areas are depleted, and the leaves begin to fall. This causes the deer to seek food in more open areas, where they feel insecure during the day. Consequently, they begin to move more during the night. The studies show that fall deer movement peaks from 4:00-10:00 PM and again from 4:00-8:00 AM, with some movement between 8:00 and 10:00 AM. The farthest distances traveled per hour usually occur in the morning, probably because the deer are trying to get back to the security of their core areas before it gets too light.
Daytime Deer Activity
I have had the opportunity to watch hundreds of deer during the day, especially the ones that bed in the grove behind our house. Because the deer bed within 50-100 yards of the kitchen window I have been able to document everything they do during the day. They usually move out of the grove to feed about from a half-hour to an hour before sunset, earlier when there is cloud cover. They usually move back into the grove from a half-hour before to a half-hour after sunrise, later when there is cloud cover.
Once the deer are in the woods, they usually wander around and eat grass, forbes and twigs for about a half an hour, and then lay down. Most of the deer have two or three beds they use on a semi-regular basis. One doe used the same bed three times in one week. Most of the beds are on the side of a hill where they are out of the wind, and are at the base of large trees, or near fallen logs, or piles of brush where the deer can’t be seen from one or more directions. One bed is in the open, but it is in a low-lying area that you can’t see until you are within thirty yards of it.
While the deer are in their beds they usually face down hill, or with the wind at their backs. I assume this allows them to see or hear approaching danger to either side or in front of them, and to smell and hear any danger behind them, or from upwind. While in their beds the deer intermittently lie awake or doze with their heads up and their eyes closed. They usually open their eyes at the slightest sound of danger, but don’t usually get up unless they think the danger is getting too close. Every once in a while the will put their heads down on the ground and appear to be sleeping. But again, the slightest sound will cause them to open their eyes and raise their heads and try to determine what caused the sound. But, they don’t spook easily, I have seen crows land within five feet of the deer, while they remained lying down, and only occasionally looked at the crows.
When I go out the back door to go the garage the deer usually look in my direction when the door slams shut, but they rarely get up. They do watch to see what I am doing, and as long as I don’t appear to be moving in their direction, they lay there and watch me. However, if I begin to move toward them they usually get up, make sure I am still coming, and then run out the other side of the grove, across the field, and head for the river bottom a half-mile away.
During the day the deer usually remain in the same bed for 3-4 hours, and then get up between 10:00 and 11:00 AM. When they get up they stretch, walk a few yards from the bed and urinate, wander around a bit while eating, not usually traveling more than a hundred yards, and then lay down again. About 3 to 4 hours later they repeat this, and may lie down again. If it is getting close to sundown they may wander around in the woods until they feel it is safe to go out into the open and feed.
Most of the rest of their activities occur after dark, that includes scraping. What all this means is that deer, especially older bucks, spend up to 80 percent of the day in or near their bedding areas. If you want to see bucks during legal hunting hours you should get as close to their bedding areas as you can without alarming them.
Nighttime Deer Movement
Deer hunters don’t often think about nighttime deer movement, because they can’t hunt at night. But, an understanding of where and how deer move at night is essential if you want to be a successful hunter. During the fall of 1999 I decided not to hunt the opening of the gun season. Instead, I parked my truck on a high hill, where I could watch the hunters as they drove to their hunting spots, so I could learn how the deer reacted to all those vehicles driving down the county roads and into the woods and fields; and all those hunters walking through the woods during the early morning hours.
I couldn’t believe the number of vehicles I saw driving into and through the fields and woods where I knew the deer would be feeding at night. As I drove down the county roads to the hill, I saw five vehicles parked on access ramps to logging roads that led into wooded areas. Didn’t the hunters know that the deer regularly used the logging roads, and often crossed the county road right where they had parked their vehicles? Didn’t they know that any deer that saw the vehicles would probably not use the trail, and probably would not return to their normal bedding area because the vehicles were there?
I watched one truck go across a half-mile cornfield, and then stop within fifty yards of the woods. Didn’t the hunters realize that the deer were feeding in the field when they drove across it? Didn’t they realize that every deer in the field headed for the woods the minute they saw the headlights or heard the truck? Didn’t they realize every deer in the woods also heard the truck, and that none of them would come out to feed after sunrise when they saw the truck in the field?
I watched as another truck was parked on a county road within twenty yards of a hay field where I saw deer feeding from September through January. Didn’t the hunters know that the deer regularly stopped there for a last minute bite of alfalfa before they went back to their bedding areas in the morning? No wonder those hunters saw so few deer, and rarely saw a buck, nonetheless a big buck; they let every deer in their hunting area know it was the opening of gun season, and that the woods was being invaded by humans carrying guns.
The only reason I can come up with as to why hunters cross open fields to get to their deer stands is that they don’t understand that the deer eat in those fields at night. The only reason I can think of why hunters park their vehicles where they do is because they don’t know that deer use access ramps as crossing areas, and logging roads as travel lanes as they move to and from their wooded bedding areas at dawn and dusk. Either that or they are just downright lazy.
If you want to be successful on opening day, or any other day, don’t cross an open field as you go to a stand in the morning; know where the deer feeding areas, crossings, and travel routes are; and don’t park where the deer can see or hear your vehicle when they use those areas.
Nighttime Deer Activity
Many hunters realize that they see deer most often at dawn and dusk, but some of them fail to understand that the deer rest in wooded areas during most of the day, get up around sunset, and move out of the woods and into fields after dark. They also don’t understand that, when the weather is nice, the deer often spend the night eating and resting in or near the fields, and that around sunrise, they leave the fields to go back to their wooded bedding areas.
During the night I regularly check the feeding areas where I do research and hunt. While I often see deer feeding after sunset and before sunrise, I also see them bedded in or near the fields from 10:00 – 12:00 PM and from 2:00 – 4:00 AM. Several different studies on daily deer movement show that during the fall deer are most active at night around dawn and dusk, and from 12:00 – 2:00 AM. This means they are not moving much between 10:00 and 12:00 PM, and between 2:00 and 4:00 AM.
So what do deer do at night? When deer leave their bedding areas at sunset they often head for the nearest field, stopping to feed on grass, sedges, forbes, fruits and twigs along the way. Once they get to the field they stock up on corn, soybeans, alfalfa or whatever else is available. In areas where there are several types of forage the deer may travel to each of them during the first few hours of darkness.
Deer don’t actually digest what they eat while feeding because they are ruminants; they store the food until later. Once they are full the deer usually lay down to regurgitate their cud and chew it to make it digestible. From the daily movement studies I mentioned earlier it appears that deer feed for 4-6 hours in the evening, lay down to rest and chew their cud for a couple of hours, then get up and feed for another couple of hours after midnight. Then they rest again for a couple of hours, and get up to feed again for 2-4 hours before going back to their bedding areas.
It is thought that deer rarely sleep longer than two hours before standing up to at least stretch. During the winter deer may sleep longer than that. During the rut bucks may bed very little.
While I was watching the hunters during the first day of the gun season one year I noticed three does, each with a fawn, feeding in the cornfields within a half-mile of my truck. Because these deer were not harassed by hunters, they continued to feed until about 8:30. Even with several gun-shots around them they continued to feed, and appeared not to be alarmed by the gun shots in the nearby woods, or the fact the hunting season was in progress. Shortly after 8:30 the does and fawns moved north and crossed a county road in open country. Then they went north until they got close to a group of trees planted along the neighbor’s driveway as a windbreak/snow fence. They followed the trees east and crossed a highway, and eventually moved back into the wooded area where they bedded. I suspect the deer were unaware of the hunters stationed in those woods, unless they came across their scent, and therefore they may have continued to move and feed as they normally would. They probably didn’t stop moving and feeding until they got back to their bedding areas, which may have taken an hour or more.
Movements by deer such as these, which were unaware of the hunters, explains why hunters often see deer moving in wooded areas late in the morning even during the hunting season. Hunters who know that this movement may occur can take advantage of it by staying in the woods most of the day. They may even see a buck following a doe late in the morning during the rut, especially if the does have been feeding in fields away from their bedding areas.
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