Weather, predators, and human intrusion all affect how and when deer will feed, and unlike humans, wild animals are most active when they feed.
They don’t have the energy to waste on anything aside from eating, defending themselves, and in the case of deer, the rut, and the reproductive cycle.
With that being said, let’s start with typical deer activity when they’re left alone, on a calm day without wolves, cougars, coyotes, or eagles present to prey on them.
Morning and Evening
Deer are primarily nocturnal and crepuscular animals and are most active late in the evening, at night and early morning, but even that isn’t a constant.
Deer prefer the purple to red light that accompanies the early morning and the early evening.
You’ll find deer most active as the first streaks of light break across the eastern horizon. They’ll move, feed and the fawns will play until the sun has risen, then it’s off to bed for most individuals and herds of deer.
The same is true of the evening hours. Beginning with the brilliant red and orange of a cloudy sunset, the deer will move out of hiding, and begin to feed.
They’ll be active until it’s almost pitch black then they’ll move back to the safety of their bedding areas and wait for dawn.
This is the cycle on a normal day, with limited moonlight. If there is a full moon, all the bets are off.
Deer moon – night activity
Many Native American cultures have names for the phases of the moon tied to animals, one of the most common is the deer moon, or deer harvest moon.
The deer moon is an indicator of how both whitetail and mule deer act when there is a full moon on a cloudless night.
Instead of returning to bed down during the night, deer will often be active all night, feeding, moving to new territory and if it’s time for the rut, the bucks will battle all night.
Intrepid outdoorsmen cherish the primordial sound of antler clashing in the stillness of the night. It’s something you will never forget once you hear it.
A full moon mimics the light of early dawn and twilight, albeit without color, but since deer don’t have highly defined color eyesight, the gray/white landscape doesn’t bother them, and their night vision is excellent.
So the party is on for deer, they can be more active in full moonlight that at any other time of the day.
People may claim deer are equally active during the day as they are in the early morning and late afternoon, but that is simply an anecdotal observation.
Just because you see a buck, or a doe/fawn pair feeding in a hayfield, or wandering through your local park doesn’t mean they’re in the most active part of their day.
Just as people are awakened in the middle of the night, deer can be disturbed by a variety of things during the day.
In suburban areas dogs, construction noise, and sirens can bring them out of their daytime slumber and into the open. In rural settings, agricultural, and of course, hunting activity will do the same.
Bucks and does… different activity behavior early and late in the day
In the deer world, bucks are much more secretive than does. Whether this is an inherited trait from the dawn of time, or a learned one since bucks are more heavily hunted by humans than does are.
If you observe deer behavior you’ll soon learn there is a lead doe in every herd. She’ll determine the time the herd moves out to feed, when to move to another area and she’ll be the first one to come out of hiding at dawn or twilight.
The dominant buck in the herd will be the last to emerge into view, sometimes if the herd senses pressure, the buck won’t emerge at all.
Experienced hunters that set up on game trails use the early morning and late evening hours to their advantage.
You have to be patient as the does, little spike bucks emerge gradually, one or two at a time.
As the herd moves into the open, there will be a couple of smaller bucks trailing the remainder of the herd. Many hunters take one of these forked horn or 3×3 mule deer, or six to eight point whitetail bucks.
Invariably, the big buck will come out last. That’s where patience comes in for a hunter.
Deer behavior on the Laramie River – an example of early morning and late afternoon activity
One year in early October, a friend and I went bow hunting west of Laramie, Wyoming on the Laramie River. The area was open meadows surrounded by clusters of aspen, willow and cottonwood trees.
We’d scouted it the month before, setting up on one of the many hills that dot the area. We spotted a good sized herd of whitetail deer, with a couple of nice eight point bucks, and one monster 12 point.
We only saw the bucks a few minutes after sunrise before they disappeared back into the surrounding brush and tree cover.
A second trip in the late afternoon found them coming out of one of the neighboring groves of trees as the sun dropped behind the Snowy Range Mountains to the west
Classic whitetail activity behavior, but the terrain, the distance from the truck, and the snowy squalls that frequented the area made us come up with a different hunting plan.
Using the deer activity behavior as our guide we decided to hike in the day before, put our sleeping bags on a hill above the feeding ground, and come down in the pre-dawn darkness to set up for a shot.
We walked down to the meadow, and laid down in the grass to wait for the sun to rise.
As light came on the area, the does came out. The lead doe knew something was up and started to bark and stamp her front feet at us. She was actively trying to drive us off and warn the rest of the herd at the same time.
When it became light enough to see clearly we spotted the smaller bucks near the tree line and waited for the big boy to come out.
He finally emerged halfway from behind a big cottonwood. He was at least 70 yards away, well out of accurate arrow range but I notched a broad head, aimed 18 inches above the buck’s shoulder and let an arrow fly.
It hit about 10 feet up in the cottonwood tree, right above the buck. He spun around, and the herd followed him. Our hunt was over.
Night activity in an agricultural setting
Deer are great to hunt in the forest, foothills and broken terrain, but sometimes the biggest bucks hang out around the farm.
Deer in an agricultural setting don’t have the stress that deer feeding on natural grass and shrubs do. It’s like they’re living in a smorgasbord. Their activity level changes dramatically from their wild existence when they live near alfalfa, grain, corn and truck garden fields.
Deer will remain active in the early morning and late evening, but they’ll augment their diet, and by feeding, their activity level into the night.
They don’t need a full moon to feed by since many farms at lit up like a prison compound with yard lights, feedlot lights and even motion detecting lights.
Deer use the illumination from these lights to feed on nearby fields, on gardens and from haystacks during the night hours.
It’s an easy living for deer to feed on agricultural lands.
On our farm, I often find tracks, and piles of droppings near our garden. They love tomatoes, cabbage and carrots. We’ve altered our planting pattern to have peppers (which they don’t like) around the perimeter, just behind the fence so they can’t reach the tomatoes and other choice vegetables.
In winter, I find those same tracks in the snow, with piles of droppings melting the snow slightly around our haystacks.
Feed loss to deer, especially deer that are active at night, is a problem in heavily populated deer areas.
There is no clear cut answer to when deer are the most active. The weather, human presence, predators and the setting, whether suburban or agricultural can significantly alter the activity level of deer.
A full moon remains the most influential force in changing traditional early morning and late evening deer activity.