Nocturnal Deer: Fall Phenomenon or Year-Round Reality?

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deer movement
It seems the first real nose-burning cold front inspires late-day feeding runs by mature bucks. After that front passes, these older bucks seem to settle in for the winter, no longer feeding with as much urgency during daylight.

One great thing about trail cameras is that they give whitetail hunters a glimpse of the deer’s world when we’re usually home in bed.

Of course, some deer hunters believe the trail cameras are unfair, saying the devices make it easier to pinpoint when and where a buck will show itself. In some deer hunters view, the trail cameras might prove a particular buck is out there, but they can’t make him show up during deer hunting hours.

In most cases, deer hunters get frustrated and say, “He’s gone nocturnal.” But if a buck is age 2½ or older, what else is new? He has probably been nocturnal since surviving his first deer hunting season. What little time he now spends moving in daylight drops to near zero when he detects hunting activity the next fall. This pressure reminds him that an active nightlife is his best hedge against premature death.

Survival mechanisms aren’t necessarily a mark of superior intelligence. In fact, deer hunters could say the smaller a critter’s brain, the less its intellectual curiosity. Witness the wild turkey: Any hint of danger and it flees. Whitetails, however, because they have a decent-sized brain, might be curious when first encountering humans unexpectedly. Deer that survive those early encounters learn from the mistake. Curiosity dies with its victims, and fear replaces it forever in survivors. With whitetails, either they’re scared, or they’re dead.

nocturnal deer
When deer hunting seems especially tough, hunters often claim the bucks have “gone nocturnal.” Bucks decrease daytime activity in the face of hunting pressure, but that doesn’t mean they’re invulnerable.

Going Diurnal?

The survival mode of a paranoid deer is so strong that some researchers report whitetails “going diurnal” when subjected to nighttime herd-control shoots. Dr. Grant Woods of Woods & Associates Inc. in Missouri, recalls a confined deer herd that switched most of its activity to daytime when sharpshooters showed up at night with rifles and spotlights.

“This property hadn’t been hunted for nine years,” Woods said. “It didn’t take long that first year before it was difficult to shoot deer, even at night. By the fourth year, we could not find a set of eyeballs with our spotlights. When we did see a deer, they were always yearling does. We started seeing more activity during the day."

“There’s no doubt they had learned how to avoid predation. They learned how to avoid us. But right across the fence, the deer didn’t change their behavior. We’d shine the spotlight onto the neighboring property, and we’d see deer like crazy.”

Woods’ example shows deer will adapt to almost anything to survive, but most deer hunters will never deal with deer that fear the night. Whitetails are best equipped for nighttime activity. Their eyes are adapted to provide superior nighttime vision, and research suggests they can see into the blue-light spectrum, which increases what they see in the dark.

“Nocturnal activity is a behavior that evolved in whitetails as a survival mechanism long before man was their primary predator,” says Professor Kim Marie Tolson at the University of Louisiana-Monroe. Tolson and her students have used trail cameras to monitor and study the whitetail’s scraping behavior. Seldom do their trail cameras show mature bucks at scrapes in daylight.

“Older bucks are pretty much nocturnal most of the time, excluding the rutting periods,” Tolson said. “I only have anecdotal evidence on this, but I keep saying I’ll go back through our thousands of deer scrape photos some day and quantify my thoughts on mature bucks.”

John Ozoga, a veteran deer researcher from Michigan, chuckles when asked about the challenges of hunting “nocturnal bucks.”

“This nocturnal thing — I don’t know. Hunted deer are mostly nocturnal, but how many whitetail herds in North America don’t see hunting pressure?” Ozoga said. “Most deer scrape research I’ve seen shows 85 to 90 percent of it happens at night. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. We’ll never see many deer moving far in broad daylight unless it’s the rut, or something has scared them out of their bed.”

Even though daytime activity will never match nighttime deer movements, the situation is far from hopeless for deer hunters. As Ozoga notes, rutting passions keep many bucks on their hoofs during daylight, but you’ll miss some great moments in the deer woods if you restrict your hunting efforts to those select-few urgent days. And make no mistake: When it comes to hunting outside the rut, deer hunters are usually talking memorable moments, not memorable days.

The Five-Peak Rhythm

Ozoga believes there’s still some value in deer hunting near sunrise and sunset, those traditionally best times for unforced deer movements.

“For a long time I’ve had the theory that whitetails basically have a five-peak rhythm to their daily activity,” Ozoga said. “My observations are pretty much what Leonard Lee Rue III discusses in his book, The Deer of North America. Deer move — roughly speaking — at sunrise, midday, sunset and twice at night. I’ve seen that rhythm with deer in the wild and in pens. I believe it’s real. The first nighttime peak, those few hours after sunset, is usually the most dramatic, but both nighttime periods see a lot of activity. Morning and dusk are somewhat less dramatic, and the midday peak is pretty mild. Most of that midday movement takes place right around their bedding area. They aren’t up and exploring.”

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