Do Deer Eat Sunflowers?

You’ve planted some lovely sunflowers in your yard and have been waiting patiently for the lovely bright flowers to appear. Only to wake one morning and find that the leaves and petals have been chomped overnight. Your suspicions are on a deer, but you’re second-guessing yourself and now thinking ‘do deer eat sunflowers?’

Deer do eat sunflowers especially the leaves. A deer diet consists of mainly plants and foliage. Sunflowers are rich in fats, protein, and minerals which are nutritious for the deer. Young sunflower plants are particularly at risk from browsing deer.

You may think that confirms your suspicions. Yet, there are a few animals that can be responsible for destroying your sunflowers. When you’re looking to prevent them from doing it again, you need to get to the source of the issue. It’s pointless to try to deter a deer if they are not the culprit.

This guide will take you through the first step to identify that it is indeed a deer that’s causing the problem. Then you’ll want to know how to stop them from eating your sunflowers.

Sound good? Then let’s get going.

Is It A Deer Eating Your Sunflowers?

Deer’s are herbivores that mainly eat plants and vegetation. They are nocturnal feeders that eat during the night. They know that plants are full of nutrients that they need and will eat pretty much anything they get the chance to. You can check out my guide to what other food deer eat.

Sunflowers are full of phosphorous, a mineral that deer need for bone and antler growth.

Deer tend to prefer the leaves rather than the flower head, but they will eat both. Deer also tend to like young sunflowers and these are likely to be a good level for grazing. Yet they will eat fully grown sunflowers.

Deer-bitten sunflowers are quite distinctive. They tend to rip and tear, taking in large chunks at a time. You’ll find all or most of the leaves gone, yet they’ll leave the stem in place.

The bitten areas may be quite scattered over the plant rather than having a specific pattern to it. Or they may just demolish the whole plant and leave it pretty much bare.

Deer Bitten Plant | Source: Flickr

Signs you have deer in your yard

There are a few other signs you can look for to determine if a deer is your sunflower destroyer.

  • Large, jagged bite marks in your plant leaves
  • Plants with only the stems remaining
  • Plants are eaten from the top down
  • Marble size deer droppings
  • Deer track marks

If you’ve nodded your head to a few of these signs, then it’s likely you have deer visiting your yard at night. The next step is to try and deter the deer from eating your sunflowers. We’ll discuss that further down in the article.

But, if you’re still unsure or haven’t seen these signs then a deer may not be the problem. To know for sure you can always try using a trail cam (this is a great one) so you can see for your own eyes.

Let’s take a look at what other animals may be responsible for dining on your sunflowers.

What’s Eating My Sunflower Leaves And Flowers?

Deer love eating plants at night, so they are often an easy target to blame when your sunflowers get demolished. But, there are a few other creatures that may be your sunflower diner.

1. Birds

Birds are partial to a bit of sunflower to nibble on. The easy way to tell if it’s a bird that’s eating your plants is the age of the plant and what part has been eaten.

Birds will tend to wait until the plant is mature enough to provide them with energy-rich seeds.

Most birds will happily feast on the head of the sunflower plant as they start to die off. Some birds such as goldfinch may even eat the leaves. Yet these marks in the leaves will be a fraction of the size a deer will eat.

2. Insects

You may think you’d be able to recognize insect damage on a plant. After all, they are tiny and can’t cause as much damage as even a small deer.

A few insects will usually cause small holes in the leaves or marks around the edges. Yet, if you have large numbers of insects in your yard then in numbers they can easily destroy a plant in a very short period.

Common insects that will attack both the leaves and flowers on your plants are:

  • Grasshoppers
  • Beetles
  • Cutworms
  • Caterpillar
  • Aphids

The safest way to get rid of these bugs before they destroy them is by handpicking them off your sunflowers. Using insecticides can be very damaging to the other wildlife in your area.

3. Squirrels

Squirrels are very crafty little creatures and will use your sunflower plants as a food source.

The easiest way to tell if you have a squirrel problem is to look at the damage to the plant. Squirrels will often climb up the sunflower and eat the seeds from the flower head.

If your sunflowers have no support, you may find the stem bent down to the ground with the head of the flower emptied of its seeds.

Squirrels don’t tend to eat the leaves of a sunflower, as the seeds are far more nutritious for them. You may find some empty sunflower shells near the plant, however, squirrels tend to mostly cache their seed haul away for winter.

4. Chipmunks

Like squirrels, Chipmunks can be another little critter that takes a shine to your sunflower plants.

Yet, unlike squirrels, chipmunks are scavengers and will eat pretty much anything they can get from your sunflower plant.

Chipmunks can attack your sunflowers in various ways. That includes:

  • Eating the seeds
  • Eating the foliage
  • Digging under the plant

You may be able to tell a chipmunk is the problem if you find a small pile of empty sunflower seed shells around your yard.

5. Mice and Rats

Rodents can be another common cause of your sunflowers’ demise. Their diet is made up of seeds and vegetation, so they’ll happily eat your outdoor plants.

The easiest way to tell if it’s a mouse or a rat eating your plants is to look out for their scat. You’ll normally find lots of tiny black pellets around the bottom of your sunflower plants.

Rats and mice will normally go for the sunflower seeds first. You may also notice several small nibbles on your leaves too.

Because rats and mice are good climbers they’ll easily reach a fully grown sunflower head. They also manage to eat leaves lower down on the plant, so you may find damage all over.

6. Butterflies and Bees

Pollinators such as butterflies and bees love to visit sunflowers. That’s because sunflowers have thousands of tiny areas where they can gather nectar to eat. You can check out my guide on butterflies and sunflowers here.

Although pollinators mostly use sunflower to eat the nectar, this normally causes very little harm to the sunflower. Although most butterflies and bees won’t damage your sunflowers, there are a few that can.

Painted lady butterflies are known to be use sunflowers as host plants. That means they lay their eggs of these flowers so that when they hatch the caterpillar can use them as a food source. Caterpillars will pretty much eat their way through everything to help them grow.

Leafcutter bees are another species that can cause damage to your sunflowers. These will often make semi-circle shapes from the edge of the sunflower leaves. It usually doesn’t cause too much damage but can kill off a few leaves.

7. Slugs and Snails

Another common culprit for eating your sunflower plants at night is slugs and snails.

The most obvious sign that these are your problem is a trail of shiny slime around your sunflower plants.

Slugs and snails have a preference for tender leaves, so young sunflowers are at risk. They usually leave lots of small ragged holes in leaves.

Slugs and snails can do a lot of damage to your sunflower plants but not as significant as a deer can.

How to stop Deer eating your sunflowers

The best way to stop deer from eating your sunflowers is to deter them from coming into your yard in the first place.  Check out my article on how to keep deer out of your garden.

The problem is that deer will see your yard as one big food source. When they are hungry deer will eat pretty much anything they can find. Seeing a nice big inviting sunflower plant is sure to attract them.

There are lots of different deterrents available to keep deer away. The reality is that you might need to use a few to keep clear of them. Although deer are pretty easy to keep away, some may be persistent and before a real nuisance.

Related Questions

Do deer eat sunflower seeds?

Deer do eat sunflower seeds. Sunflower seeds are high in protein, fats, and nutrients that deer need to thrive. Sunflower seeds contain large amounts of phosphorus and some calcium which is vital for deer bone and antler growth.

Although sunflowers seeds are nutritious for deer, it’s essential that you do not offer large quantities for deer to eat. Sunflower hulls should not be consumed in large volumes by deer. This is due to the aflatoxin content, a chemical that can be toxic for deer.

If you want to offer deer some sunflower seeds to eat then it’s best to give them shell-free sunflower kernels or better yet offer a seed blend (like this). Having this type of food on offer means the deer don’t go hungry but also don’t destroy your sunflowers.

Final thoughts

Deer will eat sunflower plants and seeds if they have the opportunity to. There are several signs you can look for around your yard that point to a deer being the culprit. This includes missing leaves, large ragged parts missing, and deer scat in your yard.

Other animals may be responsible for the damage. You’ll need to make sure you know it’s a deer that is damaging your sunflowers before you start to put deterrents in place.

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