Welcome to Whitetail Food
Welcome to Whitetail Food! This site is dedicated to explaining the diet and food habits of white-tailed deer in detail. Whitetail are found in a variety of habitats and eat a diversity of native plants to both survive and thrive. This site is dedicated to helping you understand more about whitetail foods. Whether you are interested in deer management or just wanting to learn about whitetail, you have come to the right place!
General Information on White-tailed Deer
Deer are generally classified as browsers, meaning they eat primarily young twigs, buds, and leaves of trees and shrubs. However, deer eat a wide variety of items including grasses, sedges, fruits, nuts, mushrooms, and forbs (broadleaf herbaceous plants). Their consumption of these foods varies seasonally and depends upon plant availability and nutrient requirements of deer at a given time. White-tailed deer are ruminants like livestock, meaning they have a four-chambered stomach specialized in digesting plant material, but their diet selection is much different. Cattle are grass eaters, have a relatively large rumen, and depend heavily on grasses for their diet. In actuality, grasses are low in crude protein and digestibility when compared with legumes or forbs, which are prime whitetail food.
As such, white-tailed deer are actually referred to as browsing animals, not grazers! Whitetail deer eat a wide variety of foods and the food selected will depend on its availability, abundance, and the season. No one food is eaten in great amounts throughout the year, primarily because the availability of a food source varies from season to season. As such, whitetail foods are diverse, but also limited to preferred forbs, browse, and select grasses.
These dietary factors must be considered when attempting to improve or manage deer habitat. Whitetail food habit studies indicate a significant change in deer feeding habits from summer to winter. Management efforts that seek to improve deer body condition should be directed toward insuring adequate food supplies during all seasons of the year by maintaining the proper carrying capacity, enhancing natural habitat, or through supplemental whitetail foods.
White-tailed deer are what people in the diet business call “concentrate selectors.” Their rumen is small relative to their body size. Thus, a whitetail’s diet must be higher in nutritive value and capable of being rapidly degraded in the rumen. Therefore, white-tailed deer rely primarily on forbs and browse (leaves and twigs of wood plants), which are usually higher in crude protein and digestibility than grasses. Keep this in mind: grasses comprise only a very small part of the overall diet of the white-tailed deer, usually less than 8%.
Warm season perennial grasses that supply cattle with msot of their nutrients will not meet the nutrient and consumption requirements of white-tailed deer. Thus, good habitat combined with supplemental feeding should always be considered for proper deer herd health.
Only grasses that are rapidly degraded in the rumen, such as the small grains and ryegrass, are used to any extent by deer. This is why winter food plots containing these grasses work. Other useful introduced forages include both warm and cool season legumes. Native plants used by white-tailed deer include browse, forbs, soft and hard mast (fruits, acorns), and mushrooms.
Forbs and mast, while providing good nutrition, may not be available each year or at times of the year. Browse is usually the most important source of deer nutrition because of year-round availability.
Deer are primarily herbivores, although they occasionally have been observed sampling such incongruous foods as dead fish. Their feeding habits and preferences can vary widely from one location to another, but each local population seems to have preferred foods that are eaten first; “marginal” foods that are eaten only after the preferred foods become rare; and “starvation” foods that probably have no nutritional value, but are eaten because no other choices are available.
Deer eat an enormous variety of plants, and eat different parts of plants in all seasons. The succulent leaves of growing plants are consumed in the spring and summer, while fruits and seeds are eaten as they become available. The buds of woody plants are a mainstay of the diet in winter. Hard mast foods, such as hickory nuts and acorns, are an extremely important component of fall and early winter diets when deer, like many wild animals, need to establish fat reserves. Deer can be quite selective about certain foods, and are known to favor heavily fertilized ornamental and garden plants above others that have not been so well fertilized.