Deer are most active during early morning and evening hours. They can have a home range of several square miles, but this varies with season, habitat, sex, and even individual characteristics. Whitetails are creatures of habit--most use the same home range year after year. They also tend to establish one part of their home range for feeding and another part for resting. For instance, if deer establish an orchard as a source of food, they will habitually move into the area a little before sunset to feed, and move back to the woods before dawn to rest.
The natural food habits of deer depend on the time of year and the plant species available. During the winter months, deer consume evergreen and dry leaves, as well as dormant buds. In the spring and summer, they eat new growth on woody and herbaceous plants. From late summer to early winter, fruits and nuts comprise a large part of a deer's diet.
Deer cause damage to fruit plants year-round, but the most serious damage occurs in the winter months when the availability of natural foods is limited. Dwarf, semidwarf, and young standard fruit trees are the most susceptible because most of the tree is within reach of the deer. In winter, browsing on dormant terminal buds may lead to stunted or misshapen growth in standard fruit trees less than 3 years old. Browsing on fruit buds of dwarf and semidwarf trees may lower fruit production. In either case, severe winter browsing can reduce tree vitality and even cause death.
During the spring and summer, natural sources of forage are readily available to whitetails; however, they still might browse new growth on fruit trees and eat ripening fruit. In autumn, deer might continue to browse and eat fruit within the planting. Additionally, bucks can cause severe damage by rubbing their antlers on trees, which can result in broken limbs and girdling of the trunk if the deer removes enough bark.
The extent of deer damage can be monitored through direct and indirect observation. Deer might be "caught in the act" during their active periods in the evening and early morning. Indirect observation involves recognizing signs that deer leave behind.
Lacking upper incisor teeth, deer characteristically tear off vegetation, leaving jagged edges that identify browsed trees. In comparison, browsing by rodents and rabbits leaves a clean-cut surface. The height of the damage, however, might be the only factor necessary to eliminate any mammal other than deer. Another method for determining the source of damage is to search for tracks. Deer leave a distinctive split-hoofed track that can easily be seen in damp soil or snow. Monitoring your fruit plantings for damage is an important, ongoing process and the first step in a successful management plan.
White-tailed deer are classified by the Pennsylvania Game Commission as a game mammal. As such, they are protected. Deer may be harassed throughout the year, but harming deer is prohibited outside of the legal hunting season, unless your livelihood comes from growing crops or fruit.