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White-tailed Deer Winter Diet

1-4-16-fungus-eaten-by-deerimg_0948The diet of White-tailed Deer varies with the seasons, but in general deer require a high-quality diet and tend to choose the most nutritious options available. In addition to mast (fruit, acorns, beechnuts) and browse, herbaceous plants and fungi make up the greatest portion of their food. However, their foraging choices are extensive. White-tailed Deer have been known to consume the washed-up carcasses of alewives after they (the alewives) have spawned as well as insects, mice and the nestlings of ground-nesting songbirds.

Microorganisms inside a deer’s four-chambered stomach enable cellulose in the plant material consumed to be digested. In winter, the microorganisms within the deer stomach are different from the microorganisms in spring, summer, and fall. This change allows deer to digest a diet of woody browse during winter months and turn the high-fiber diet into proteins through intricate physiological processes. Offering food items during this period other than woody browse (such as hay) is detrimental to deer, as it requires different microorganisms in the stomach in order to be digested. Thus, even though a deer’s stomach might be full (of hay, for instance), it may starve due to the inability to digest it.   (Photo: shelf fungus eaten by White-tailed Deer, showing lower jaw incisor grooves)

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12 responses


    So interesting!Sent from XFINITY Connect Mobile App

    January 4, 2017 at 7:09 am

  2. Florence Goodman

    I did not realize this. Very informative. Thanks.

    January 4, 2017 at 7:30 am

  3. Pat

    I’ve watched deer paw through the snow to get at the acorns underneath. Can they digest these in mid-winter ?

    January 4, 2017 at 7:57 am

    • I believe that there’s cellulose in acorns, which is what the microorganisms are designed to break down.

      January 4, 2017 at 5:17 pm

  4. Cheryl

    We have seen the deer in our yard emptying the sunflower seed in our bird feeder. Because of that, we are forced to bring our feeder in at night. One night when I turned the backyard light on, a deer was at the spot where we put our bird feeder possibly eating any seed that might still be on the ground. I was surprised that the deer would be interested in birdseed. Does this mean that they are extremely hungry? I wouldn’t have thought that birdseed would be their first choice of food.

    January 4, 2017 at 7:58 am

    • This early in the season deer aren’t starving, as they can get around through the relatively small amount of snow we have. My feeder is visited nightly be sunflower seed-eating deer, as well. I think they are just a really good source of protein.

      January 4, 2017 at 5:19 pm

  5. Michael

    I put out cracked corn for wild turkeys and squirrels, and sometimes I see deer eating it. Should I scare the deer away?

    January 4, 2017 at 8:08 am

  6. Kathie Fiveash

    So interesting that the microorganisms in the stomach(s) are different at different times of year. There must be dormant populations of gut microorganisms in every season that bloom to accommodate the diet of the deer in each season. Do you think that is how it works?

    January 4, 2017 at 10:54 am

    • Yes, that would be my guess, Kathie. As the diet changes, the microorganisms change…

      January 4, 2017 at 5:12 pm

  7. mariagianferrari

    So fascinating!! I had no idea about that!!

    January 4, 2017 at 2:14 pm

  8. Deer cannot digest corn.

    A deer biologist and a vet wrote: “When offered a sudden supply of corn, a deer’s digestive system doesn’t have time to adjust to a high carbohydrate diet. The result can be acute acidosis followed by death within 72 hours.

    At the time of death these individuals can appear normal and well fed. It’s just that they cannot digest the corn. Within six hours, corn alters the environment in the rumen. It turns the rumen acidic and destroys the microbes needed for normal digestion.

    Not all deer die immediately from acidosis. Its effects vary with the age and health of the individual. Some may simply slow down, get clumsy, and become easy prey to speeding traffic and hungry coyotes.

    It takes deer two to four weeks of feeding on a new food source to establish populations of microbes necessary to digest the new food. It can’t happen in just a few days during a snowstorm. And healthy individuals that might survive in the short term often succumb to complications weeks later.”

    January 4, 2017 at 5:14 pm

    • Michael

      Thank you. I will figure out a better way to feed the wild turkeys. My mom used to feed the deer corn and they did well. Perhaps because it was a regular food source, she fed them year-round, the deer had time to adjust. No one could talk her out of it, and because she saw many of the same individuals from one year to the next, she refused to believe it was a harmful practice. She sure did love her deer.

      January 5, 2017 at 9:03 am

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