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What do deer eat?

Photo by Edson B. Waite Jr.By Russell Thornberry

Deer browse, and knowing what whitetails like to eat will help you understand where to find them.

White-tailed deer are not grazers. They don't eat grass and hay like elk or cattle. Even though you may see a whitetail feeding in a grassy field, if you could look closer you would find that it is not eating the grass.

During the summer, deer eat tender broadleaf plants such as clover or alfalfa which grow near the ground, often among taller grasses. That's why whitetails may appear to be eating grass, even though they are not.

Whitetails also like to eat various types of wildflower plants. I watched a nice buck nibble a wild goldenrod once during the month of August. He seemed to be eating the actual flowers.

In the fall when nuts and acorns fall from the trees, whitetails will be right there feeding on them. Deer love nuts and acorns. Whitetails like acorns from all the different types of oak trees, but their favorite is the white oak acorns.

In the southeast where many types of oaks grow, experienced deer hunters will tell you if you can find a white oak dropping acorns, you'll find the whitetails. Red oaks, water oaks, pin oaks and live oaks also produce acorns which whitetails love to eat. Acorns drop from the trees in October in most areas, so if you're in acorn country in October, you'll know where to find the deer.

In winter, when the lush growth of spring and summer vegetation is over, whitetails feed on the tips of branches of small trees and bushes. Willow bushes that grow near water produce tender branches which whitetails love to eat in the winter.

In addition to the whitetail's natural browse there are many agricultural crops they love to eat. Whitetails are true opportunists when it comes to garden crops. They love carrots, sugar beets, tomatoes, cabbage, squash and other garden vegetables.

People who live out in deer country sometimes have a real problem keeping the deer from eating up their vegetable gardens. Farmers who plant large fields of com often find the deer living right in the middle of their crops. The tall corn offers thick cover where deer can hide, as well as a favorite food source!

Deer love to live in the cornfields, and they get fat eating com all day long. That's why some of the biggest-bodied whitetails come from corn-growing country.

Other grains like wheat, oats and barley also attract white-tailed deer. When the grain ripens in the fall, you can bet whitetails will be close by.

Another crop deer love is soybeans. The soybean fields of the southeastern U.S. produce exceptionally large whitetails. In fact, the deer love soybeans so much that they come into the bean fields in great numbers and sometimes eat the farmer's crop. This causes the farmer to lose money, so some farmers think of whitetails as pests.

White-tailed deer also love to eat the same kinds of fruit humans enjoy. Pears, apples, persimmons and plums are deer favorites.

Once while hunting whitetails in the wild mountains of Idaho, I found an old apple tree growing out in the woods. Many years ago there had been a homestead there and someone had planted that apple tree right in the middle of the forest. I could see deer had been eating the apples as soon as they fell to the ground, so I put a tree stand in a neighboring pine tree and had a chance at a big 10-point buck that same evening.

Too bad I missed him with my bow, but at least I had him pegged.

Back ToYBO Home PageIt's a well-known fact that apple orchards attract whitetails, and the same is true of all kinds of fruit orchards. It's easy to tell if whitetails are eating the fruit because they will eat the fallen fruit each day or night, and will leave their telltale droppings on the ground below the trees.

Knowing what whitetails like to eat will help you understand where to find them. Whether you're hunting, photographing or just observing deer, look for the right food sources for the season at hand and you will have greater success.

--Photo by Edson B. Waite Jr.

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