On this page you are invited to browse our latest articles about the dietary preferences of deer around the world.
Discover what plants deer will seek out in your garden, and learn how the digestive system of deer works. This will help you understand why deer eat the foods that they do, and why their diet changes from one season to the next.
Scroll down to learn what deer eat (and what they don’t).
The deer digestive system is unique and designed to digest food in stages, allowing ungulates to extract maximum nutrition from the forage they consume. In this article we’ll discuss what deer eat, how they eat,
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Generally, deer eat food from these four distinct categories:
mast (hard mast and soft mast).
Deer also eat lichens and mushrooms.
Let’s take a look at these nutrition sources and find out what deer tend to eat most often during different seasons.
But first, let’s start by exploring the favorite foods of most deer, and why they like to eat some plants more than others.
What Do Deer Love to Eat the Most?
Most of a deer’s diet consists of forbs and browse. The only season where this isn’t true is in the fall months. During that time of year, deer prefer mast (hard mast, such as acorns and soft mast, such as berries). Forbs, a term that signifies weeds and broad-leaved plants, are on the deer’s menu. Browse for deer includes stems and the woody part of leaves.
Like humans, deer have favorite foods. This doesn’t mean that they get to eat their favorited foods at every time of year. If a deer could choose, it would always eat nuts and fruit. Some of this animal’s favorite treats are acorns, beechnuts, hickory nuts, and pecans. Deer adore persimmons, blackberries, apples, and blueberries. Deer also enjoy foods such as sedges, clover leaves, sumac foliage, dogwood fruit, and wild crabapples.
How Does Deer Digestion Work?
The deer’s digestive system means that it can effectively digest the tough cellulose found in many of its foods. For example, deer eat plant parts, grass blades, and leaves. Microorganisms allow symbiotic links between the deer digestive system and the foods it needs to digest and process to use for nutrients for the animal.
There are microorganisms in the deer’s digestive system that are key to cellulose digestion. These microorganisms help the deer’s digestive system take part in the cellulose, breaking them down into a form that the animal’s digestive system can use.
A deer’s stomach has four chambers. The first of these chambers is called the rumen, and this is used to store the food. As the deer has a rumen, it means the animal can eat a large amount of food at one time and then digest it at a later time.
The fact that deer eat extremely quickly makes their digestive system especially important. Deer eat so quickly that these animals may fill their bellies within an hour or two. How quickly this happens, however, depends on how much food they eat and the type of food they ingest.
Deer don’t chew very much. In fact, they tend to only chew enough for the food to be swallowed. When deer do this, it’s referred to as the deer’s “first chewing.”
Seasonal Diet of Deer
The dietary needs and preferences of deer vaary according to the time of year, their stage in the annual reproductive cycle, and the availability of different foods in their local habitat.
You can learn about what deer eat at different times of the year below:
Deer are in food paradise when the spring finally comes to full fruition. As we all know, this time of year offers plenty of food, including fruit, tender shoots, buds, and grass. One of the several important reasons why spring food is so important for deer is the fact that this is the time of year when female deer give birth to fawns. The nursing fawns, of course, require a large amount of food to provide all the milk the young ones need.
In the spring, deer are eager to recover from the difficulties of the winter. Even by as late as this time of year, bucks continue to build their strength back from the breeding season (as well as the winter, of course). They have to build back a lot of muscle, and they need high levels of protein.
Bucks also need an especially large amount of phosphorus and calcium in the spring, to help develop the new antlers they need. Protein is required for this, as well.
In the spring, female deer are getting near to when they’ll give birth to fawns. The does will need good nutrition so they’re strong and healthy enough for adequate nursing. When does nurse, they will lose a lot of their stores of fat. This happens in the late spring and summer.
In general, in the summer deer gravitate towards green matter. Green matter will play a much larger part in their diets than at other times of year. Deer will also eat acorns, corn, and nuts that come across during the summer.
Summer is a paradise when it comes to food for deer. There is a cornucopia of nutritional sources for deer during this time of year. From green matter to fruits and other food types, summer is a fun eating time for deer.
Deer love eating fruit when they can find it. Examples of fruits they may eat include peaches, mulberries, plums, and crabapples, pears, and apples that ripen late. In the summer, mast makes up about 11 percent of the deer’s diet. An example of mast eaten during this time of year is berries.
Mast makes up about 28 percent of the deer’s diet in the fall. The main kind of mast they eat is hard mast, including acorns. Der tend to eat a lot of food with a high fat level in the fall. An example is acorns.
There are two kinds of mast: hard mast and soft mast. As discussed, hard mast refers to nuts. Soft mast, on the other hand, is fruit. An example of a common soft mast deer like to eat in the fall is berries. The deer’s most important goal during the fall is to fatten up for winter. This is important, as food supplies during the cold and snowy months may be scarce.
Deer start the process of fattening up in the summer and continue all through the fall. Foods such as acorns and fruit are perfect for putting weight on deer.
In the winter, deer, like many other animals, need more calories to help keep them comfortable and warm. To make things more complicated, deer have a harder time finding enough nutritious food in the winter. Remember, not only does the weather cause extra wear and tear on deer, but these animals must also expend extra energy to make their way through the snow and ice. Before the winter begins, deer will go to great lengths to get ready for this challenging season.
In the winter months, deer will eat whatever food they can find. As food is scarce during those months, deer are mindful to get as well-fed as possible before the cold months of the year arrive. During the winter, deer most often focus on mast, such as berries, pears, apples, and acorns. Deer are resourceful, and if they need to, they will stand up on their back legs to reach whatever they need to. For example, deer enjoy winter apples. Deer are able to stand up on their rears legs to retrieve these.
Winter is a challenging season for deer. Of course, snow and cold are major reasons for this. Another is the fact that a deer’s metabolism changes significantly during the year. Specifically, it changes between the spring and summer, as well as the fall and winter. During cold weather, deer are generally much less active than they are at other times of year. The cold temperatures and limited food access leads to deer metabolism slowing down.
As deer have low metabolism in the winter and food is difficult to find during that season, deer may eat more woody browse and bark. Examples may include woody types of plants such as four-wing saltbush and cedar elm. Another type of food deer may eat during the winter is Spanish Moss. This is a type of gray lichen and is often found developing on dead or dying balsam or spruce trees. Spanish Moss is a unique type of plant, as it’s half fungi and half lichen. It is full of useful nutrients.
Deer Aren't Picky Eaters
The exact foods a deer eat will depends on its region and environment.
This animal is highly adaptable, and there are a wide range of grasses, browse, forbs, fruits, and nuts that whitetail deer will devour when they get the chance.
Why A Natural Deer Diet is Important
Without exception, deer must stick to a natural diet and should never be fed by humans. These animals know by instinct which foods they should and shouldn’t eat, and they will find the foods they need on their own.
Never try to give deer foods that they wouldn’t normally eat during the season in question.
The Risks of Feeding Deer
Never try to feed deer. While you may love these animals and just want to help when they seem to be short of food, you may cause them harm by offering them food.
One reason for this is that you might give them inappropriate foods. The main reason, however, is that feeding deer will cause the animals to congregate in large numbers.
This can become a major problem for the following reasons:
Deer might get aggressive and fight over food, leading to injury
Disease may spread more quickly among deer in the area
Predators such as coyotes will be attracted to the area
May make deer-vehicle collisions more frequent
Smaller deer may be bullied and harassed
Deer may be encouraged to eat vegetation on private properties, including decorative plants
Deer may get used to turning to people for food
Deer may stop eating its natural diet, and their health will suffer
What Plants Do Deer Not Eat?
Deer stay away from plants with scents or textures they dislike, as well as plants they know by instinct are harmful or poisonous to them.
Many gardeners help prevent deer coming onto their property and decimating their garden by planting deer-resistant plants, often ones with strong scents, or rough or fuzzy leaves.
With proper planning, you can even use deer-resistant plants as a buffer to keep deer away from flowering plants they enjoy eating.
Deer Resistant Plants
Maybe you’ve heard gardeners talk about deer-resistant plants. Deer-resistant plants, put simply, are plants that deer dislike. In other words, deer won’t be attracted to them if you plant them in your garden.
Deer generally dislike plants that have strong perfumes. Examples include lavender, ornamental salvias, sages, bearded irises, peonies, and lavender.
Below is a list of deer resistant plants:
Another way you can use plants to ward off deer is to plant a fence of roses or barberry with thorns around your property.
Plants That Are Poisonous to Deer
There are several plans that are poisonous to deer. If a deer eats one of these plants, the animal will end up sick at the very least. In some cases, severe illness or death may even occur. Examples of annuals that are poisonous to deer include comfrey, blue cardinal flower, bee plant, and certain kinds of prairie flax, some types of poppies, nicotiana, dusty miller, and datura. Other plants poisonous to deer include daffodils, narcissus, lupine, foxglove, larkspur, and century plants.
There are some perennials that are poisonous for deer, including night-blooming jasmine, Lindheimer’s senna, joe-pye weed, and datura. Other are wooly paperflower, windflower, two-leaved senna, and red-hot poker.
Final Thoughts About Deer Diet
Clearly, deer eat a wide range of foods. The exact foods they tend to eat vary by season and their needs at a given time of year. For example, in the late summer and fall, deer must eat large amounts of high-calorie food to fatten up and get ready for the winter.
Never try to feed deer. This will be detrimental to deer health and create potential hazards for the animals. Like other wild animals, deer should never feel too comfortable around people. When a deer sees humans as a food source, that is always a bad thing.