What Do Deer Eat In The Wild?

what do deer eat

You may have seen deer in the wild munching away peacefully on the grass. Yet deer do most of their eating at night and it can be hard to see what food attracts them. It’s probably left you wondering what deer eat in the wild.

Deer are considered herbivores and their diet mainly consists of plants, grasses, and leaves. A deer’s diet is seasonal and can include fruit, vegetables, nuts, fungi, and berries when available. When food sources are scarce deer will eat tree bark, small animals, eggs, birds, and carrion.

Although it may seem like deer only eat grass, you’ll see that they actually have quite a varied diet. What a deer eats will depend on the species, the area they live in, and seasonal availability.

This guide will help you to discover all you need to know about a deer’s eating habits. This advice can help you to attract them, or even keep them out of your yard.

Let’s jump right in.

What Do Deer Eat In The Wild?

1. Vegetation

The main food staple of a deer is what is called browse. This is the collective name for the leaves, twigs, buds, and shoots of woody plants, shrubs, and young trees.

Deer have adapted to this as their main source of food intake as it’s a food source that is always available in some form in their habitat.

The vegetation that deer eat is quite specific. They like to eat soft, tender, and smooth parts of the plant. Rather than chewy, fibrous parts. That’s because deer find it quite difficult to digest too much fiber.

Low fiber vegetation includes weeds (also known as forbs) such as clover. Medium fiber foods are tree leaves and shrubs. High fiber foods are grasses, fern, and heathers.

Deer have a preference for low and medium fiber vegetation. That’s because it’s quicker to digest and they can extract more nutrients. Yet they will eat all types of browse depending on food availability.

2. Flowers

The vegetation the deer eats will extend to flowers. You may already know that if the will deer in your area like to chow down on your flowers overnight.

Deer will mainly look for young flowers, shoots, and buds. At this stage, they are very nutritious and easy for a deer to digest. Yet even fully grown flowering plants are not safe from deer.

Deer don’t have a preference for annuals, perennials, or bulb plants. Yet they do seem attracted to some plants more than others including:

  • Roses
  • Daylilies
  • Columbine
  • Pansies
  • Tulips
  • Clematis

If you decide to grow these in your yard then be aware that your hard work may be gone on one night if a deer finds them.

Deer seem to like sweet-smelling or tasting plants, but not overly fragranced or bitter. Soft smooth leaves also are at high risk than prickly or fuzzy leaves. Having said that, no plant is totally deer-proof and they’ll have a nibble at any plant if they are hungry enough.

3. Fruit and vegetables

During the spring and summer month’s deer will take advantage of any access they have to fruits and vegetables they find. Fruits, berries, and vegetables are full of energy, vitamins, and mineral that keep deer healthy and thriving.

Deer can find fruit on wild trees and bushes as well as farmland, gardens, and orchards.

Fruits that deer love are:

  • Apple
  • Blackberries
  • Blueberries
  • Cherry
  • Pear
  • Plum
  • Raspberries

Deer will eat quite a variety of vegetables. Usually, these will be found in backyards or on farmland, which is a nightmare for crop production.

Deer really seem to love eating corn. Yet it’s not very nutritious for them. A heavy-based corn diet can cause abnormalities in their hoof growth.

Vegetables that deer enjoy are:

  • Beets
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Carrot tops
  • Cauliflower
  • Lettuce
  • Peas
  • Pumpkins
  • Soybeans
  • Spinach
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Turnip

If you decide to grow these vegetables in your yard, then you should have a plan in place to keep deer away from your vegetable patch. Once a deer find it, your crops may be gone in a space of days.

4. Fungi

Eating mushrooms is a bit of a delicacy for deer. They are quite an important part of their diet in the summer and winter months.

Mushrooms are full of phosphorus and proteins which is essential for strong bone and antler growth. That makes fungi a really beneficial supplementary food for deer.

In woodland habitats where deer live, mushrooms can be found in abundance. Some deer species can eat mushrooms that are known to be toxic to humans.

It’s thought that eating mushrooms can be highly beneficial to lost deer. That’s because the scent of a mushroom can be found in the urine and help to reunite deer lost from the herd.

5. Nuts

As deer live in the forest they have access to a huge variety of tree nuts. Their favorites are chestnuts and acorns. These provide an excellent source of energy and protein.

Yet deer will eat most nuts which are available to them including:

  • Almonds
  • Hazelnuts
  • Beechnuts

In fact, deer will probably try most nuts they have available to them, depending on what trees are nearby. Nuts such as pecans or hickory nuts are a bit tricky for them to get into due to their hard shell.

6. Seed and Grain

Deer are attracted to eating cereal grains such as:

  • Oats
  • Wheat
  • Millet
  • Sorghum
  • Rye

Deer will normally find these on farmland. They enjoy them as the species that they find as easy to digest as they have been adapted for human consumption over thousands of years.

Deer will also eat seeds as part of their diet. In the wild, this will be mainly found when eating their usual vegetation from plants, grains, or fruits.

The deer will also get a source of seed by raiding the bird feeder in backyards. They will purposely knock these over and empty the content in one go.

7. Insects

Although it’s not their main diet staple, deer will eat insects. Most of the insects will be accidentally consumed as the deer chow down of the plant vegetation.

Yet deer will dig up lawns to get to young grass shoots. When they do this they will often come across June bug grubs that live under the soil and will eat them. These grubs are very nutritious and food loved by raccoons, skunks, and birds.

Remember that deer are primarily herbivores and they won’t go out their way to eat insects, but if the opportunity presents they’ll take it. Insects may also help to provide some protein for deer who are lacking.

8. Small animals & Carrion

Similar to eating insects, deer will not go out of their way to hunt for small animals or birds.

Yet there is evidence that deer have been seen eating small birds, eggs, and small animals such as:

  • Fish
  • Rabbits
  • Squirrels
  • Chicks

It’s likely that these animals are injured before the deer eats them which makes them an easy target.

Deer have also been seen to eat dead animals including the flesh, bones, and innards.

The fact that deer have this behavior does not make them omnivores but can be due to mineral deficiency. Deer need a high level of protein and calcium to keep their bones and antlers developing well.

If they can’t get these nutrients from the food available they will seek out other sources. Food such as eggshells and animals bones are rich in calcium. It’s thought deer may be near carrion to search for undigested foods inside the dead animals.

Deer will eat flesh. Yet it’s more likely they are seeking the proteins and the salts from the blood as a lick rather than the flesh itself.

9. Salt

Salt licks are an essential part of a deer’s diet. It helps them to get the right mineral they need. This includes calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and sodium.

We’ve already discussed how important calcium and phosphorus in for bone and antler growth. Pregnant and nursing deer also need to replenish these vitamins.

Sodium is required to help deer create a chemical called hydrochloric acid. This helps them to digest their food and absorb more nutrients.

Salt licks are particularly vital for deer over the winter and early summer months. These will help deer to stay healthy and get the most out of any available food sources.

Natural salt licks can be found in soil, shorelines, rocks, and stones. Artificial salt or mineral licks (such as these) can be used by farmers, hunters, and deer conservation to provide deer with minerals.

10. Deer milk

Baby deer (Fawns) will drink deer breast milk from the female deer for the first 12 weeks of life. Fawns won’t try solid food until this time.

Once they reach this age the mother deer will take the fawn to forage. Although the fawn will continue to feed on its mother until it can sustain itself by foraging.

Once the fawn gets to around 3-4 months old they are fully weaned and will start to move away from their mother and forage on their own.

Should you feed deer?

Feeding deer in your backyard is a personal choice.

The reality is that deer survive without being fed by humans and it’s discouraged by wildlife service in the USA. Feeding deer can make them reliant on human food sources. It can also make them ill and cause abnormalities in their growth.

These issues are often caused by feeding deer the wrong types of foods. Just because the deer will eat the food does mean that it should. For example, deer will eat lots of sunflower seed, yet in high volumes, the shells and can be toxic for them.

Often you’ll see commercial deer feed (like this). I’d recommend you avoid offering this to deer in your yard. If you want to offer them anything then the salt blocks mentioned above are a good way to ensure deer get the most out of their natural diet.

What do deer eat in winter?

In the winter deer will continue to eat winter browse. This means less of the soft green shoots and more of the hard, twigs, bark, and pinecones.  Food can still be found under a light snowfall.

Deer don’t hibernate. They adapt by overeating in the summer and autumn months so they can pack on fat stores for surviving over the winter months.

Hormonal changes in the deer also mean their metabolism slightly lowers so they don’t need as much food to survive as they do during the other seasons.

Bad weather conditions can cover up vital food sources. Causing deer to use up calories by traveling to look for food.

Final Thoughts

Deer can have a varied diet. Although they are mainly herbivores they will eat a wide variety of vegetation they have available to them. They eat mainly plants, fruits, vegetables, but seeds, grains, and mushrooms.

Deer have been known to eat animals and carrion if they get the opportunity to. Although it’s likely this is to get minerals from their body similar to a salt lick, rather than to eat the flesh. It’s a last-minute survival strategy.

If you like to attract deer to your yard, make sure you offer flora and fauna native to your area. A commercial feed can be bad for their health and may even harm species numbers.

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