Text & Photos by Tommy Kirkland
-- Beyond the clover and chicory plots, deer possess an inherent instinct for a diverse diet of native and exotic foods. Deer may vanish from supplemental feeding locales, leaving us hunting fanatics puzzled when bucks go beyond the cultivated land ...
The morning dew moistens the vegetation for a white-tailed buck browsing the timber's edge. Lowering its nasal passages to the ground, the healthy buck suddenly heads into the woods. In conjunction with its eyes, the buck locates fungi growth just yards into the dense hardwoods and pines. Within moments, the male deer consumes every morsel of mushroom and lichen growth upon decaying deadfall.
Traversing the landscape, the buck descends a ridge and begins to ravage fresh leaves upon the forest floor. A strong thunderstorm with high winds has blown tree limbs and foliage from the canopy. This weather occurrence has provided the whitetail with a smorgasbord of nutrition.
In the late afternoon, the animal edges out of the timber. Cautiously, the buck proceeds toward a thicket of brambles and consumes the ripened blackberry fruit. As night falls upon the open fields and the day comes to an end, the buck continues its quest for nutrition.
Throughout the year, the requirements of natural survival needed for a whitetail to grow and mature consist of fairly undisturbed habitat and nutrition. Whether it's the northern regions or the southern states, deer require fats, carbohydrates, and at least 16 to 20 percent crude protein. They also need sufficient amounts of vitamins and minerals.
Man-labored feeding locales, what we commonly call a "food plot," are great sources to supplement wildlife with good forages. Yet, what happens when whitetails stop making routine visits to the clover that you've worked so hard on? Foremost, if the surrounding area provides diverse timber with moderate farming practices and undisturbed right-of-ways and a few old growth fields, rest assured whitetails will be there as well.
White-tailed deer are known as "preferred browsers." They search selectively for tender vegetation - consuming flowering plants known as "forbs." They also eat "browse" - consisting of berries and hard mast such as acorns and hickories. The last category of deer food is "grasses." Usually being too coarse for proper digestion, grasses are consumed as a supplemental food source - particularly if forbs and browse are scarce.
When woodlands hold moisture due to rainfall, whitetails search for various types of fungi growing beneath the shaded treetops. With their acute sense of smell and ability to distinguish some colors and shapes, they are able to find mushrooms such as waxycaps, ringstalks, and brittlegills. They also consume lichen growth that thrives on fallen branches and trees. As long as moisture keeps fungi tender enough for digestion, whitetails supplement their needs for vitamins B and C as well as potassium from various fungi.
After high winds disperse leaves and stem debris or topple trees, the animals will take to the woods. Here, they seek out clusters of leaves and various buds upon the woodland floor. Whether its spring or early fall, the ruminants manage to eat everything from tulip poplar flowering buds to the premature growth of acorns, and pliable leaf foliage. Also, wherever sunlight can penetrate the forest, deer will nibble vegetative growth here - finding secluded cover to feed.
If cherry trees exist along creek basins and edges where you're planning to hunt, whitetails will gravitate to the trees when they have produced soft mast. The animals will stretch their necks to reach the lower limbs to eat the fruit and leafage. Creek basins also provide succulent forbs as well, which helps them digest foods consumed. Exotics such as honeysuckle are a target. This climbing plant grows along edges and fence rows and is eaten throughout the year.
Once acorns plummet to the ground, whitetails will stop their normal feeding patterns, and if sufficient succulent vegetation is available near the oak stands, the animals, particularly does, move very little if left undisturbed. Deer covet this food, using their noses and front hooves to locate buried acorns under fallen leaves. As the hard mast crop unfolds, deer hunters need to have hunting strategies to adapt with the changes.
So, whenever whitetails shift routine visits away from managed plots, they are usually attracted to other food sources. If habitat diversity is available and rain is nourishing the soil, their feeding habits are unpredictable. The animals are truly adaptable - one of the many reasons that hunting whitetails is so challenging yet rewarding.
Throughout the U.S., several regions are facing drought conditions effecting wildlife, which includes the whitetail - the most hunted game animal in North America. Along with a late and persistent freeze in April of 2007, certain areas of the South are facing extreme drought. These events have and are continuing to cause damage to deer foods.
With these factors in mind, what will the upcoming season provide and how will hunting and the wildlife be affected in the long term? This is the subject that we'll cover next month.