What’s going on here? The ghostly green image from your trail camera clearly shows deer taking a stroll at 11:18 PM… but shouldn’t they have bedded down hours ago? After all, the conventional wisdom is that deer are “crepuscular,” meaning they’re primarily active at dusk or dawn, then spend the rest of their time hunkered down. Not tonight, though.
This explains why you haven’t spotted a whitetail during daylight hours in weeks. Could these wily deer have changed their pattern in response to predators? Or the weather? What other factors might be at work here?
The answer isn’t as simple as you might think: Yes, deer generally are most active during the dawn and dusk hours, but environmental factors can force them to change their sleep/wake patterns. Sometimes that’s a seasonal change, but it can also change week-to-week. Somedays, they’ll be most active in the middle of the day (diurnal) while at other times they’re active at night (nocturnal).
Let’s explore why deer would change their patterns in this way. As alpha predators with a tag to fill, we need to know.
When Deer Are Most Active
Left to their own devices, deer lead crepuscular lives, meaning they’re most active during dawn and dusk. That explains why most drivers collide with deer during twilight — either driving to work early or heading home at dusk.
If you have a cat, you’re living with a crepuscular creature. Your cat wakes up before you, demands food in the early morning hours, then finds their favorite spot to crash out during the day until dinner time, when they reactivate. (Big cats follow the same pattern.)
Cat schedules can be annoying for diurnal (daytime) animals like us. The vast majority of us work the day shift and sleep in the dark. But deer are different…
Deer have several good reasons for being crepuscular, and here’s a big one — to avoid predators. Wolves and coyotes, for example, are nocturnal hunters, so laying low at night helps deer live to see another day.
Bears, on the other hand, prefer to hunt during the day. Because deer are primarily active during the transitional twilight hours, they can mostly avoid all those nocturnal predators.
Deer have a more challenging time avoiding crepuscular predators like mountain lions; both are most active in the twilight hours. And then there are seasonal human hunters, who (with enough coffee) can be out there pre-dawn to stalk deer on the move.
Deer sometimes respond to all these predator ‘shift changes’ by altering their activity patterns. During deer hunting season, the added threat of alpha human predators can temporarily force deer into being more nocturnal, which explains their midnight portraits on your trail camera!
How External Factors Affect Deer Sleep/Wake Patterns
As hunters, our primary objective is tracking deer, getting off a good shot, and harvesting the animal before processing it and feeding it to our families. This is an example of what’s known as ‘hunting pressure.’
But filling your tag means you need to be where the deer are, and your presence can affect how deer behave while you’re on their turf.
There are other external factors that can change deer behavior. In addition to human involvement, we need to examine how such biological factors as the rut, weather conditions, and food availability can also change the behavior patterns of deer.
Effects of Hunting Pressure
Deer are highly adaptable, so they’ll adjust their sleeping patterns to stay awake when humans aren’t, which means they’ll feed at night.
That explains why a fellow hunter might refer to deer as nocturnal. Deer simply want to survive, so that means avoiding you and your buddies.
Hunting pressure can also affect where a deer might feel comfortable sleeping. For example, instead of bedding in thick growth, might choose to sleep in open areas where they’re more likely to see potential threats approaching.
In short, hunting pressure alone might be why deer go dark on you. But know this, deer aren’t always so vigilant, and during the mating season, they can be distracted and easier to spot during the day.
It’s no secret: During the rut, you can expect bucks to forgo sleep, food, and safety in favor of the seductive allure of the ladies.
That’s because mature bucks have only one thing on their mind: procreation. So rather than sleep, bucks focus on establishing their dominance over other males so they can create a harem of receptive does and breed as many fawns as possible.
But bucks aren’t the only deer affected here. Under pressure from the males, does must guard against unwanted attention of all sorts. The females are constantly on high alert, which forces them to change their regular sleeping habits.
At such times, you’ll see does taking their rest at opportune times that don’t always align with nocturnal, diurnal, or even crepuscular behaviors.
The rutting season is one of the best times to hunt whitetail bucks because their high testosterone levels lure them out of their safe and comfy routines with the promise of sex.
If you’ve hunted deer long enough, you know they have a keen sense of changes in barometric pressure. If a cold front threatens to dump snow or rain, deer typically know it’s time to feed quickly before the water arrives.
Wait for a storm, and you may catch a deer moving quickly to a feeding ground during daylight hours.
When the storm hits and things turn nasty, the deer will stay bedded until it’s over. But afterwards, you may find famished deer looking to fill their bellies during daylight.
Deer in hot climates will likely be less active during the day. They’ll want to avoid the searing heat of the midday sun by moving their feeding patterns to more comfortable times — like dawn and dusk.
Your best bet to get an animal during the hot season is in the early morning hours around the first shooting light, when deer head back to their beds to wait out the heat.
When the weather changes, deer patterns may shift in response to the availability of food.
During the spring and summer, vegetation tends to be abundant and deer won’t have to spend much time filling their bellies. They can rest during the day and not worry about going hungry.
Nothing grows when it’s frigid, however. The reduced food levels force deer to become more active during the day in order to find their next meal. Use food availability to your advantage — either with a feeding plot or knowledge of the land.
Plan ahead with food levels in mind and you may encounter more deer. If not, you’ll need to adjust your tactics.
Here’s a checklist to help you bag a late-night trophy buck:
The Nocturnal Buck Checklist
Once a buck senses that hunters are in his area, he’ll simply bed down the entire day (especially if he’s older ) and only come out when it’s safe. You could reasonably refer to him as nocturnal at this point.
But that doesn’t mean you still can’t harvest a trophy. You just have to go about it differently. Let me explain how.
If you hunt the same areas day after day, and year after year, deer will pattern you just like you’re patterning them. That said, honey holes can dry up, so make sure you have a wide range of hunt areas so the deer are less likely to sense any patterns.
Deer love the thick stuff because it makes them feel safe. If you have a tough time finding deer during daylight, you’ll have to venture deeper into the woods.
You should look for thick vegetation, scrapes, and swampy land where humans rarely go. I’m talking treacherous land. Once you find it, look for a single oval bowl mark in the vegetation — you’ve likely stumbled upon a buck’s bed.
If you find multiple depressions, you’re now in a doe sorority house.
Check Your Trail Cameras
Mount trail cameras and review the SD memory cards occasionally. Don’t venture into this area often as you’re likely to tip off your presence.
Also, be aware that deer go to different areas at different times of the year. If you’re not seeing any deer on your camera until late at night, maybe that buck moved his home range for the fall. But that doesn’t mean he won’t return.
Plan for the Rut
Your best chance to get a mature buck in the daytime is when he’s trying to impregnate a doe. His raging testosterone levels may make him oblivious to his surroundings, including you.
Plan your hunt to coincide with the mating season and you’ll maximize your chance of success. Take up bowhunting if you haven’t already, as that season aligns best with the rut.
Wait it Out
If you’ve made it through the rut and bow season without taking down an animal, consider late-season rifle hunting. It may be your best chance to find a deer because they’ll be hungry and might venture out into open areas to feed.
So… Are Deer Nocturnal?
Again, it all depends.
The best way to answer the “are deer nocturnal” question is to consider the full range of external factors facing the deer. Start with the assumption that deer prefer the relative safety of twilight hours in order to avoid predators. And remember that when new & deadly predators (you) show up, deer may be forced into such ploys as moving to higher elevations or changing their sleep patterns.
Simply put, deer will adapt to new threats in the pattern of predator ‘shift changes.’ But also factor in any impacts on their eating and drinking patterns and you’ll have a much better chance of filling your freezer.
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Last Updated on September 5, 2023