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Fall Deer Movement

A Elk Hunting Article

Written by T.R. Michels


There are several factors that determine when and where deer move during the fall. An understanding of these factors can explain the reduced sightings of bucks during the hunting season. These factors fall into seven different categories; Comfort, Security, Predatory Behavior (natural predators and hunting), Food Availability, Travel Distance, Breeding Behavior and Lunar Forces.

Fall signals an increase in white-tailed deer activity, which is brought on by changing food supplies and the rut. In study by Kammermeyer and Marchinton deer traveled greater average distances per day during the fall than they did in the summer. Deer also traveled greater distances per hour during both dawn and dusk in the fall than they did during the summer. There was also a shift in daytime deer activity: during the day in the summer the deer were most active at dusk, from 6 PM to 10 PM; during the day in the fall they were most active at dawn, from 4 AM to 10 AM, with movement continuing until noon. Overall, the deer moved more during darkness in the fall than they did in the summer. This increase in deer movement during darkness in the fall can be attributed to decreasing hours of daylight (in some areas from 14 to 8 hours), decreasing foliage as leaves fell (leaving deer more exposed during daylight hours) and changing food sources.

During the summer deer can feed securely in wooded areas where there is abundant forage. In the fall deer often feed more heavily on agricultural crops, and browse in more open areas, which causes them to feed more at nigh for security reasons. The change in feeding patterns from summer wooded areas to open fall food sources forces the deer to travel farther in search of food. I refer to deer movement from bedding sites to food sources as the "Distance Factor."

In most areas inhabited by whitetails fall brings significant changes in weather patterns. Barometric pressure and temperatures fluctuate more, there is more cloud cover, more precipitation and stronger winds. These changes often combine to create low temperatures, changes in dew points, lower wind-chill factors and storms. These meteorological changes create a reduction in plant chlorophyll production, causing some plant food sources to die or become dormant, leaves to fall, and other food sources to ripen.

As fall approaches and deer begin growing their heavy winter coats the temperature, precipitation, humidity, wind, dew point, wind-chill, and amount of vegetation and cloud cover all have the ability to affect the comfort of the deer. I refer to these meteorological changes as "Comfort Factors." In extreme conditions meteorological changes may also affect the health of the deer, and as such they can also be considered as "Security Factors."

Fall Deer Movement Factors

Comfort and Security
During my seven years of research, deer activity was greatest during the fall in open areas at dawn and dusk, when the temperature, dew point or wind-chill was between 15 and 55 degrees. If the temperature, dew point or wind-chill fell below twenty degrees the deer (including dominant bucks) moved later in the morning and earlier in the evening than they did in warmer weather; providing there was cloud cover, fog, or precipitation which reduced the amount of light during daytime hours. In a Minnesota study Nelson found that Fall deer migration consistently began after temperatures dropped below 19 degrees Fahrenheit for the first time. Migrations started in each of 14 years when temperatures below 19 degrees Fahrenheit lasted at least five days. This migration could also account for fewer buck sightings.

Normal daytime deer movement is also restricted when there are strong winds. During my research the deer often remained near their bedding areas when there were strong winds. When they did move they stayed in wooded or low-lying areas and on the downwind side of hills. Rain or snow in cold weather may be uncomfortable and cause deer to lose heat; which may cause deer to restrict their movements. Heavy rain makes it hard for deer to hear and they restrict their movements. Precipitation of any kind may make it difficult for deer to see, which may restrict their movements.

Clouds, fog and precipitation all have the ability to reduce the amount of available light causing daytime conditions to resemble those at dawn and dusk, when deer feel more secure. During my studies, precipitation in the form of light rain, drizzle or snow, and gentle sleet, caused the deer to move earlier in the evening and stay later in the morning than normal, because of a lower relative light factor. During heavy rain or snow, and driving sleet or hail, the deer sought shelter in wooded areas; in coniferous trees if they were available.

Vegetation, because it also limits visibility, makes deer feel secure. Abundant vegetation can eliminate enough light in shaded areas to create the illusion of twilight conditions, when deer feel secure. But, once the leaves fall, less vegetation allows deer to see farther, which causes them to feel less secure. I noticed that after the leaves fell the deer began entering open feeding areas about a half hour later and leaving them a half hour earlier, than they had when the leaves where still on. After the leaves were gone there was more available light in the wooded bedding areas, which caused the deer to remain in the bedding areas longer. It also caused the deer to abandon many trails that were now more open to begin using other, more protected trails along hillsides and gullies, or they moved to trails that were deeper into cover and offered more security.

High or low temperatures, dew points or wind-chills that make it too hot or too cold; and heavy precipitation are "Comfort Factors." Wind speed that affects the ability of the deer to smell and hear, and to lose heat; heavy precipitation because it can cause deer to lose heat; and clouds and leaves, because they affect the ability of the deer to see, are all "Security Factors."

Food And Distance
Deer movement is governed to a great extent by the availability of food. As food sources become depleted in the fall deer are forced to travel greater distances to locate new food sources. They often shift their feeding patterns to take advantage of preferred foods that ripen or become available during the fall. Depending on how scattered these available or preferred food sources are, and how close they are to individual deer core areas, the deer may move more, or less, than normal. This "Distance Factor" is directly linked to the "Food Factor" and these two together, because of their importance to deer survival, can affect how much time is devoted to other fall deer activities.

The availability of preferred food sources may have a significant affect on dominant buck activity during the rut. Miller reported less rubbing activity by bucks during a year when there was low oak mast (acorn) production. The reduction in rubbing activity may have occurred because the bucks spent more time in search of food and therefore had less time available for rubbing behavior. This could lead to fewer buck sightings near traditional rub routes and scrapes during years of low mast production.

Breeding Behavior
Fewer bucks sightings can also be attributed to the fact that bucks increase the size of their home ranges during the fall. This occurs when bucks begin traveling farther from their Fall core areas as they search for new food sources and does to breed. During the study by Kammermeyer and Marchinton the average range of bucks increased from 71 hectares in the summer to 124 hectares in the fall. In my study in Minnesota the range of bucks increased from 300 acres to 1500 acres. The average daily distance traveled by bucks may also increase during the rut. Bucks in the boreal forest of eastern Canada commonly travel 20-25 miles every five to seven days in search of does. The combination of this "Breeding Factor," and the need to find food causes increased buck movements, and, depending on the amount of distance traveled and the time deer spend in specific locations, can lead to fewer buck sightings.

Fall Deer Pattern Shifts

Pre-Rut/Rubbing Phase

  1. Deer shift from summer foods to available mast, fruit and agricultural crops and browse more. Locate food sources as areas to hunt.

Dispersal Phase/Home Range Shift

  1. Buck bachelor groups begin to break up and bucks become more aggressive. Bucks may move to new core areas where they can bed by themselves. Find fresh rubs in secure areas to locate buck core areas. All deer may move from summer home ranges to fall home ranges. Find the areas where the does have moved to in the fall.

Pre-Primary Breeding/Scraping Phase

  1. Bucks begin to travel rub routes, making scrapes two to three weeks before the primary breeding phase. Locate buck rub routes and groups of scrapes.
  2. As the rut approaches bucks shift from their own travel routes to those used by the does. Locate both buck rub routes and doe trails for areas to hunt.

Shorter Daylight Hours, Colder Temperatures and Falling Leaves (Defoliation)

  1. Deer move deeper into cover as leaves fall. Move hunting sites deeper into woods or to current travel routes.
  2. With less daylight and fewer leaves deer shift their from movement times from daylight hours, to dusk, dawn and nighttime hours, and from covered daytime trails to more open night trails. Scout to find areas deer use during daylight.

Primary Breeding Phase

  1. As does come into estrus bucks abandon rub routes to chase does. Spend all day on rub routes near buck and doe core areas or doe use areas with scrapes.
  2. Bucks begin to use open trails at night. Locate daytime use areas or bedding sites to hunt.
  3. Doe groups begin traveling together. Be aware that there may be many deer in the area.

Rest Phase

  1. Bucks may return to their core areas and feed heavily. Hunt buck core areas and travel routes leading to and from food sources.

Post Primary Breeding Phase

  1. Bucks begin to travel together. More than one buck may appear, wait for the big one.
  2. Bucks begin to travel with the does. Locate doe feeding areas to locate bucks.

Pre-Late Breeding and Late Breeding Phases

  1. Bucks begin chasing does before and during the late breeding phase. Hunt near buck bedrooms, rub routes, and doe use areas.

Post Rut

  1. Bucks may again return to their core areas. They may also migrate to winter ranges. Locate buck core areas/winter ranges to hunt.

Fall Deer Movement Factors

  1. Security needs cause deer to; use available cover or travel in low areas where visibility is limited; move during low light; and avoid predatory behavior when possible. Security to a deer is not being able to see, smell or hear possible predators. The ability of deer to see, smell and hear effectively depends on the amount of light, whether it is from sun, moon, or man made; amount of cloud cover; type of precipitation; shade from vegetation or terrain; and air movement from wind or thermals. These are all major Security Factors

    During the fall deer begin to travel more at night as leaves fall from the trees and there are less daylight hours available, which makes them feel insecure, because they can see predators farther away. They may abandon summer trails and seek out heavier cover or low lying and less visible travel routes where they feel more secure.

    High winds make it difficult for deer to hear and smell, or to determine the direction of the source of a sound or smell, causing them to stay near bedding sites or move to protected areas.

    Conditions that cause a reduction in the normal amount of light (clouds, fog, precipitation) may cause deer to move earlier in the evening and leave later in the morning than normal because they feel secure in low light conditions.

    The rut makes security less important, and deer, especially bucks, may move earlier in the evening and later in the morning than normal because of the urge to breed.

    Prolonged extreme weather makes security less important, and deer move earlier in the evening and later in the morning than normal because of the need to eat.
  2. Comfort greatly influences fall deer movement. High or low temperatures, dew points and wind-chills cause deer to seek relief. Temperature, dew point and wind-chill; and amount and type of precipitation are all Comfort Factors.

    In warm or humid weather deer move to shade, wet areas, or areas open to the wind. They wait until the sun goes down and temperatures drop before moving.

    During cold or windy weather deer seek shelter in heavy cover, in low-lying areas, or on the downwind side of hills and woods.

    Deer often seek cover in a conifer stand because it provides protection from heat or cold and can reduce wind speed by 50-70 percent.

    Clouds trap heat and produce low light conditions. On cold, cloudy days deer move later in the morning and earlier in the evening than normal because the temperatures are warmer at those times and they feel secure in low light conditions.

    Heavy rain, snow and sleet can cause heat loss, reduce visibility, and the ability to detect scent. Deer seek cover and often wait until the storm is over before feeding.

    During periods of extreme cold deer may feed frequently to maintain body heat. They may get up, but they do not move far from their bedding areas to feed.

    Prolonged extreme weather may force deer to move in spite of lack of comfort to seek food. They may migrate.

    Deep snow may cause deer to abandon traditional areas to seek conditions where travel is not as difficult and food easier to locate. They may migrate or yard up.
  3. Foods with high carbohydrates are sought during the fall to put on fat and get deer through the winter. Nuts, seeds, fruits of domestic and wild plants, agricultural crops of grains and clovers are excellent food sources. Movement is influenced by the location and availability of these foods and the distance to them. The type, quality, quantity and availability of food sources all affect Food Factors.
  4. Predatory behavior, whether from animals or humans, cause deer, especially older bucks, to abandon traditional use areas and travel routes. They travel primarily at night and may move to an area outside their home range if they are pressured. They may move during inclement weather when there are fewer hunters around. Unknown movement, sounds and smells, movment, sounds and smells attributed to a predator are Predatory Behavior Factors.
  5. Breeding Behavior causes bucks to establish and maintain dominance. Their movements are influenced by the need to make rubs and scrapes in doe use areas and in travel corridors. They travel from one dominance area to the next coinciding with individual doe core areas and food sites. The number of deer in the area, the size of their home range, the buck to doe ratio, and the sex and social status of each individual animal determines their Breeding Behavior.

    During the rut bucks travel in any weather condition to find does, even extreme weather when does remain in bedding areas and are easily found.
    Bucks spend time locating doe use areas, where they make rubs and scrapes. Does often restrict their movements to specific portions of their range, often near primary and communal scrapes on trails leading to or near food sources.
  6. Distance from bedding areas to food sources; availability of cover and travel routes; comfort factors of light, wind, temperature, dew point, wind-chill and precipitation; breeding interest; and predatory behavior play a role in determining when deer (especially bucks) begin to leave bedding areas and arrive at food sources.

    Bucks traveling through several doe use areas often arrive at food sources after dark, making them nocturnal.

    Bucks encountering estrous does forego traveling their route to follow the doe while she remains in estrus; up to 48 hours. The bucks may be late returning to their beds the next day and may rest a day before returning to normal activities.

    The farther away, less comfortable, less secure, more pressured and more interested in breeding the bucks are, the longer it takes them to arrive at openings and food sources.
  7. Lunar Factors may cause peak deer movement during daylight hours during the Full Moon. The amount of available moonlight, the moon phase, the overhead position of the moon, the distance of the moon from earth, the speed of the moon, and the declination from the actual hunting site, may all affect deer movement and be considered as Lunar Factors.

    While Lunar Factors involving gravity and biomagnetics may cause an increase in daytime deer movement, abundant moonlight caused by the full moon may cause deer to spend less time in open areas at dawn and dusk. Lunar Factors may also affect the timing of rut related activities. However, Lunar Factors may be completely overridden when either the rut or the hunting season is in progress. Current weather conditions often override any influence Lunar Factors have on deer movement.