QUESTION: I live on Long Island and hunt public grounds. There are no food plots on the properties. What do I look for besides acorns? Could you tell me what vegetation I might would have here on Long Island, NY? -- Keith K.
ANSWER: Food plots and acorns do attract deer, but they survived long before food plots were invented, and manage alright during years with poor or no acorn crops. They do so by eating a wide variety of plant foods in the fall.
Primarily, they are seeking foods high in fat, carbohydrates and fiber, all of which they need to maintain bodily functions, fatten up for winter and keep their complex digestive system in proper working order.
Apples are a big attractant. Many of the now wooded areas in the northeast were once homesteads that quite likely had apple trees. Overgrown and abandoned, these feral apple trees still produce fruit, often under the canopy of larger trees, where deer will feel safer during daylight hours.
When the first hard frosts hit, leaves fall en-masse, and deer gobble up the fresh, sugar-laden leaves, especially those of red and sugar maple. Like the deer, you have to hit this resource while it’s fresh. Once the leaves wither and pale the deer will move on to other food.
Deer love mushrooms. They may be hard to find during dry spells, but a day or two after a soaking rain they’ll pop up out of the ground and the deer will be quick to take advantage of this ephemeral bounty.
Once the leaves are down, the apples gone and the woods are dull brown and gray, the majority of a deer’s diet consists of coarse woody browse - twigs and stump sprouts - and they show strong preferences for certain species. Maple is one of their favorites, followed by things like dogwood and viburnum.
You don’t need to be a botanist to identify them. As a general rule - and there are always exceptions - deer seem to prefer species with opposite leaves - leaf stems and branches directly opposite one another - as opposed to alternate - staggered stems and branches.
Or you can simply look to see which ones they are browsing. Look closely at smaller twigs to see if they’ve been nipped off. Those browsed by rabbits - which have both upper and lower incisors - will show a sharp cut, while those browsed by deer - which have only lower incisors - may appear more like they’ve been nipped and stripped off.
Any place that’s been cut (logged) recently should have stumps, and those stumps will have stump sprouts. These narrow, upright shoots are like candy to deer in the late fall and winter.