What Do Deer Eat? Foods They Love And Feeding Guide

what do deer eat

If you’re wondering “what do deer eat?”, then this article is for you!

Browse, forbs, and mast make up more than 85 percent of the entire diet of white-tailed deer across their range.

Today, we’re sharing a full guide to the deer diet and answering many common questions regarding diet selection, deer-favorite garden plants, deer-resistant vegetables and herbs, the hazards of inappropriate winter feeding of deer, and how to properly start and maintain a feeding process.

Sound interesting? Let’s jump right in!

What do deer eat in winter?

As the weather turns colder, white-tailed deer gain weight. This will assist them throughout the winter months when food is scarce. In the winter, what do deer eat? The rules for feeding deer in the United States and Canada are as follows.

In the winter, deer eat woody browse. Leaves, fruit, saplings, bulbs, and buds are examples. They will forage for food from the ground in the winter. They can also eat some lush forage like kale, radish, turnips, apples, or cabbage if available.

Although deer can usually scavenge for their food, several states allow residents to feed animals in their neighborhoods.

It’s critical to understand the rules, so you don’t stifle the deer’s natural eating patterns. We’ll go over this in greater detail later!

Do deer eat the same food as cows?

To begin, we’d want to dispel a long-held myth. Many people automatically think of cows’ diet when they think about a deer’s diet.

Deer are frequently mentioned using phrases like “there’s plenty of green stuff here, the deer can’t be famished.” They indicate that deer, like cows, will eat anything as long as it is a green plant, which is far from the truth.

In actuality, cows and deer eat different foods that represent opposing extremities of the ruminant diet continuum. Ruminants are herbivorous mammals with a unique digesting system that uses fermentation in a four-chambered stomach to absorb nutrients from plant-based foods.

Let’s look at the differences in diet and eating habits between cows and deer.

If you look at a cow from above, you’ll notice that it has a big nose and a broad tongue, which it utilizes to eat a wide variety of plant species, with a preference for grasses.

The rumen (first stomach chamber) is big enough to hold at least 49 liters of food. It’s one of the world’s densest microbial environments, with a diverse population of bacteria, protozoa, yeasts, and other species cooperating to break down ingested feed through a fermentation process (a specialty function for digesting specific groups of plants).

This is why cows can digest grasses, despite grasses being the most fibrous and indigestible of plants. As a result, cattle are categorized as “roughage eaters,” a type of ruminant.

On the other hand, Whitetail deer are classified as “concentration selectors” since they are the most frequent big land mammal in North America. From above, it’s clear that this deer species’ snouts are narrow and sharply pointed to aid them in reaching inside plants and consuming specific sections.

The tongue of a whitetail deer is long and slender, allowing it to collect fluids from succulent leaves and stems. Their rumen holds roughly 2 gallons of liquid, which is about 4% of a cow’s rumen capacity.

Deer not only have smaller rumens, but their microbial ecosystem is also far less diversified. As a result, deer must replenish their rumen with food every few hours to keep the more specialized flora and fauna alive.

How do deer choose food?

The challenge now is: how do deer determine what to eat with a smaller rumen and a lot less diversified microbial presence? To better understand how whitetail deer diet selection works, let’s first look at what these animals are supposed to eat.

Deer’s structure, physiology, and behavior lead them to select specific forms of food that are not subject to competition from other forage eaters, such as cattle, moose, and elk. As previously noted, deer have short snouts and long, slender tongues that allow them to access specific plant portions.

Deer also have very active salivary glands that release enzymes to break down secondary plant chemicals that can be difficult for other animals to digest. Take tannins, for example.

Deer can consume acorns in quantities that would kill a cow without these enzymes. Furthermore, their smaller and less sophisticated digestive tracts require a diet of higher quality forages that are easier to break down than forages consumed by cattle, moose, and elk.

The variation in diet is due to the speed with which both animal groups digest their food. So, whereas cattle and elk can get enough nutrition from lower-quality forages like mature grasses, whitetails’ faster digestive processes necessitate food components that are more easily digestible to meet their energy and nutritional needs.

Whitetail deer have starved to death in severely overpopulated and impoverished areas, with stomachs full of low-quality forages.

Deer eat a variety of foods, including browse (leafy parts of woody plants), forbs (herbaceous wide-leaved plants or weeds, such as crops), hard and soft mast (seeds and fruits), grass, and mushrooms/lichens in general. Nonetheless, seasonal changes in fodder supply, quality, and the metabolic requirements of the animal at the time of feeding influence diet selection.

How many species of plants do deer eat?

We’d be here for a very long time if we compiled a list of all the plant species that deer eat. Whitetail deer, for example, have been observed eating over 400 different plant species in only the Southeast.

Deer needs to sample a wide variety of plant species frequently to continue discovering new sources of nutrients. Nonetheless, just a tiny number of forages were found in the bulk of deer diets.

According to a new study, deer ingest approximately 140 plant species, yet only about a third of those species account for 93% of their whole diet.

What do deer prefer to eat?

Let’s get a little more specific about the types of food that deer love. Deer enjoy browse, forbs, grasses, mast, and mushrooms, as previously stated.

The availability of each of these food categories varies depending on the time of year and environmental conditions in a given place.

  • Browse. Browse is the term for the leafy sections of plants, such as shrubs or young trees, within deer’s reach. Browse is also the most commonly ingested food item by deer. The explanation for this is simple: browse plants are always readily available, regardless of the season or weather. Deer will always be able to find them in some manner. While dryness and cold weather can cause browsing plants to lose their leaves, their stems and twigs retain significant nutritional content, unlike forbs that disappear.
  • Forbs. According to research, even though forbs are whitetail deer’s preferred meal, they don’t eat them nearly as much as browse. Unreliability is the explanation behind this. Although forbs are more digestible and nutrient-dense than browse, they aren’t always available when deer require them. Forbs do not grow and tough browse due to low weather and lengthy droughts; therefore, they are not a stable food source.
  • Mast. Acorns, nuts, seeds, and fruits are all examples of mast. During times of thermal stress or aggressive growth of the body and antlers, they’re a fantastic energy supply. Grapes, plums, blackberries, and mulberries are among the fruits that deer prefer. These are high-carbohydrate, high-energy diets that are especially beneficial for antler growth. Energy-dense apples and pears are other soft fruits that deer enjoy in the fall. When it comes to nuts, acorns and chestnuts are the two most important food items in a deer’s diet, each serving a particular nutritional need. The fat and carbohydrate content of acorns is high, but the protein content is minimal. On the other hand, Chestnuts are high in protein and have fewer tannins, making them easier to digest.
  • Mushrooms. Although they supply the second most important element, Phosphorus (as well as protein), mushrooms are the most overlooked food category in a deer’s diet.
  • Cereal grains. Oats, wheat, and rye are among the highly preferred grains in an average deer’s diet.
  • Grass. Adult grass isn’t a preferred food item of whitetail deer, but it makes their favorites list during the early growth stages because that’s when the grass shoots are easily digestible.

What do deer eat in my area?

Most state game agencies, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and agricultural institutions provide literature on the favored deer feeding plants in your state or region. The Quality Deer Management Association also produces posters showcasing desirable plant species.

Here’s a quick guide of what deer love to eat in different areas.

Northeastern United States

  • Main choice: Greenbrier, dogwood and blackberry
  • Second choice: Maples, sassafras and staghorn sumac

Central United States

  • Main choice: Common snowberry, quaking aspen and dogwood
  • Second choice: Skunkbush sumac, bearberry and Saskatoon serviceberry

Southeastern United States

  • Main choice: Japanese honeysuckle, greenbrier and Alabama supplejack
  • Second choice: Dogwood, maples and American beautyberry

Southern United States/Mexico

  • Main choice: Catclaw acacia, kidneywood and granjeno
  • Second choice: Lotewood condalia, bluewood condalia and lime prickly ash

Eastern Canada

  • Main choice: Beaked hazel, ground hemlock and white cedar
  • Second choice: Serviceberry, maples and yellow beech

Is it legal to feed deer?

When it comes to feeding deer, each state has its own set of rules and restrictions. This is mainly for hunters who want to keep deer herds year-round or lure many of them to a single location with a consistent supply of food.

Even if you don’t hunt, these guidelines are essential to know for the benefit of the lovely deer who live nearby or if you’re considering building a deer zoo or refuge.

The majority of states concentrate on three things: feed, baiting, and feed location. I won’t go through each state because they are all different, but I can provide some general facts.

  • First, verify if you may feed the deer in your region and, if so, what the rules are. Some areas will allow you to feed and maintain deer on your property or in the neighborhood, while others will not.
  • Second, you should check to determine if the feed may be used to attract deer closer or for shooting.
    States may allow you to approach deer closer, but they may prohibit you from doing so at specific seasons.

When it comes to baiting, the last thing you should examine is when you can feed the deer in particular regions and when you can’t.

Depending on the state you live in, there are various additional minor features and requirements to consider. Make sure you’re up to date on everything.

Feeding deer in Canada

Here’s where feeding deer is legal and forbidden in Canada. This list includes all ten provinces as well as three territories.

  • Alberta. Discouraged strongly. “Never Feed Deer,” they say. Baiting deer for hunting is also prohibited.
  • British Columbia. Discouraged. The reasons why people should not feed deer (and other ungulates) are outlined in this document.
  • Manitoba. Discouraged. They detail reasons not to feed the deer in their publication, “Don’t Feed the Deer.”
  • New Brunswick. Discouraged. Unsurprisingly, they encourage people not to feed deer in their paper “Do Not Feed Wildlife.” It is now unlawful to feed deer in the city of Saint John, according to a bylaw passed in 2019.
  • Nova Scotia. Allowed. The Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forestry has issued a statement.
  • Newfoundland and Labrador. On the island of Newfoundland and the mainland of Labrador, there are no deer. Given the presence of Deer Lake, this may come as a surprise (lake, community, and airport). The Woodland Caribou was reportedly referred to as “deer” by European immigrants.
  • Ontario. Allowed. The Ministry of Natural Resources of Ontario has provided the following guidelines.
  • North West Territories. Illegal. In the NWT, purposefully feeding animals is prohibited.
  • Nunavut. Illegal. The wildlife laws of the territory make it unlawful to feed wild animals.
  • Prince Edward Island. On PEI, there are no deer (or moose).
  • Quebec. Discouraged. Their news release may be seen here.
  • Saskatchewan. Discouraged. “Best intentions may inflict more harm than good,” they say.
  • Yukon. Illegal. In Yukon Territory, feeding animals is prohibited.

It’s crucial to remember that these guidelines are subject to change. While a specific area may permit it, smaller municipalities within that province or territory may not. Consider contacting with your local authorities to confirm this information.

What garden plants do deer like eat?

When it comes to deer-friendly garden plants, consider the following options:

  • Apples
  • Beans
  • Beets
  • Berries
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Carrot (tops)
  • Kohlrabi
  • Lettuce and leafy greens (red lettuces are less palatable)
  • Peas
  • Pears
  • Plums
  • Spinach
  • Strawberries
  • Sweet corn
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Swiss Chard
  • Turnips

What garden plants do deer don’t like to eat?

Growing plants that deer don’t like is a fantastic place to start if your garden targets deer grazing and you want to limit damage surrounding your property.

When wild food supplies become scarce due to prolonged drought or cold weather, deer will sample practically any available food source. However, certain garden plants are less appealing to these creatures than others.

Some plants, such as rhubarb, are poisonous to deer. Prickly vegetables (for example, cucumbers and squashes with hairy leaves) and root vegetables, which require digging, are also avoided by deer.

Furthermore, these ravenous herbivores typically avoid plants with strong scents, such as onions, garlic, and fennel.

Here’s a list of deer-resistant garden plants to provide you with additional information:

  • Asparagus
  • Carrots (root)
  • Chives
  • Cucumbers
  • Dill
  • Eggplant
  • Fennel
  • Garlic
  • Globe Artichokes
  • Lavender
  • Leeks
  • Lemon Balm
  • Mint
  • Onions
  • Parsley
  • Peppers
  • Rhubarb
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Tarragon
  • Thyme
  • Tomatoes

Although the following veggies and herbs are somewhat safe, they may be targeted if deer-favorite plants aren’t available.

  • Basil
  • Bok Choy
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Chard
  • Cilantro
  • Corn
  • Kale
  • Melons
  • Okra
  • Potatoes (may eat toxic leaves)
  • Radish
  • Rutabagas
  • Summer Squash
  • Winter Squash

Should you feed deer in winter?

Despite their compassion for wild deer during the difficult winter months, many individuals will do more damage than good by providing them with extra food. The harm may be so severe that you’re killing deer without realizing it.

The following are some of the negative implications of improper winter feeding:

  • Feeding deer in the late fall might cause deer migration to natural wintering areas to be disrupted.
  • Feeding deer lowers the extent and efficacy of route networks by concentrating animals in the fewer territory.
  • Concentrating deer in small areas can make them easy prey for predators, raise their chances of contracting illnesses like Chronic Wasting Disease, and eliminate any flora that the deer can access (anywhere between one to several hundred acres). The latter will impact forest regeneration and limit the forest’s potential to supply future deer habitat.
  • Inadequate winter food can also have long-term consequences for deer behavior, as they become less frightened of humans.
  • Deer will be more likely to be attacked and killed by free-roaming dogs if feeding stations are placed near residences.
  • Feeding facilities that are improperly placed can significantly increase the incidence of deer-vehicle collisions.
  • As previously stated, deer can starve to death if their tummies are full of indigestible substances when provided supplemental nutrients throughout the winter. Take, for instance, hay.
  • Malnutrition can occur in generally healthy deer populations if supplementary nutrients are not provided in sufficient quantities.
  • Deer can die from eating rotten or moldy food. Similarly, if a deer habituated to a fiber-rich diet is switched to a sugary one, it may die quickly.
  • Deer may perish if they consume too much feed all at once.
  • Deer reliant on a feeding operation may suffer nutritional problems if it is stopped too soon. Starting a feeding operation too late has the same effect.
  • A thorough, proper winter feeding operation is costly, and the typical homeowner is unlikely to carry it out.

How to feed deer properly during winter

During the winter, the greatest thing you can do for wild deer in your region is not to feed them at all. However, if you do decide to do so, you must follow the following guidelines:

  1. To reduce road-kill losses, deer feeding locations should be positioned in or near deer wintering grounds, at least half a mile from plowed roadways.
  2. Distribute feed in numerous spots throughout the day to reduce deer rivalry.
  3. Feeding should begin in late December or after 12 inches of snow has accumulated. Whichever appears first will almost certainly indicate that the deer have made their way to their wintering grounds.
  4. Natural browse plants such as maple, dogwood, birch, ash, or witch hobble can be used to offer sufficient nutrition. You can also provide oats, chestnuts, or acorns as dietary supplements.

Consider the following before introducing artificial feed:

  • It might take up to three weeks for deer to acclimate to new meals.
  • Beginning in early December, sugary foods must be introduced. If it’s later, the introduction must be done gently; else, death might occur suddenly.
  • Animal proteins and animal components should not be present in deer feed.
  1. Feeding deer maize, hay, potatoes, kitchen scraps, or cabbage/lettuce trimmings.
  2. Protect feed from dampness and store it off the ground to avoid deadly mold.
  3. Once a feeding program has begun, do not interrupt or stop it. Feeding should be stopped when spring greens appear.

Final thoughts

That concludes our comprehensive guide on the deer diet. What do deer consume, exactly?

Deer eat a variety of foods in the wild, including browse (leafy parts of plants like shrubs or young trees), forbs (herbaceous wide-leaved plants or weeds, such as crops), mast (acorns, nuts, seeds, and fruits), mushrooms/lichens, cereal grains (oats, wheat, and rye), and grass during the early stages of growth.

Apples, beans, beets, berries, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, carrot (tops), kohlrabi, lettuce and leafy greens, peas, pears, plums, spinach, strawberries, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, swiss chard, and turnips are among the deer’s favorite garden plants.

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Emma Olsen
I’m a gardener and blogger with over 20 years of expertise writing about and cultivating fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. I have extensive experience in organic and sustainable gardening, perennials, annuals, and sustainable and urban farming. I’m a nature freak and I enjoy bird watching and swimming with sea creatures.