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White-tailed Deer Browsing

1-10-18 white-tailed deer eating hemlock 049A1922Microorganisms 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. Among their preferred browse are White Cedar, Yew, American Basswood, Alternate-leaved and Flowering Dogwood, Maples, Staghorn Sumac and Witch Hobble.

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: White-tailed Deer browsing on Eastern Hemlock)

18 responses

  1. Ray

    Do deer really eat yew? I thought it was poisonous.

    January 10, 2018 at 9:08 am

    • Although all parts of Canada yew (Taxus canadensis) are toxic to humans, white-tailed deer do browse on it.

      “Following Euro-American settlement, Canada yew has been extirpated or reduced in abundance throughout much of its former range, particularly in the USA; winter browsing by white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) has been implicated as responsible for much of its decline.” International Journal of Forestry Research

      January 10, 2018 at 9:46 am

  2. Evergreen Erb

    I know of people (I am not one) who put down corn for deer. A place I go in the ADK have been doing it for years. What category does corn fit in?

    January 10, 2018 at 9:28 am

    • Hi Evergreen,
      Everything I have ever heard or read warns against feeding corn to deer. Here’s one opinion which reflects many others:

      “The problem is that deer digestion is a finely tuned physiological process. Just the right combination of microorganisms, enzymes, and pH enable deer to digest a normal winter diet of woody vegetation. 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.”

      I can’t swear to the accuracy of this, but it appears to be the consensus of most wildlife biologists I know.

      January 10, 2018 at 9:37 am

  3. Another informative post. I’m learning a lot from you. Thank you.

    January 10, 2018 at 9:52 am

  4. Are the deer able to eat and digest apples which still hang on the tree?

    January 10, 2018 at 9:54 am

    • As far as I know, yes, but not as a staple food at this time of year.

      January 10, 2018 at 10:55 am

  5. Lynn Latimer

    Our winter pets…

    January 10, 2018 at 9:55 am

  6. Thanks so much. This is helpful to know.

    January 10, 2018 at 10:09 am

  7. Thea Lahti

    What a beautiful photo.

    January 10, 2018 at 11:13 am

  8. alycia goody

    Yikes! We have a beautiful bachelor herd of 4 (including 1 6-pointer)
    that have been eating from our bird feeders at night. Thinking that we were being helpful (we have gone through a dreadful arctic cold snap) we put out a deer block. I just went out and brought it in. I hope we have not been responsible for any illness or death. Thank you for this informative post!!

    January 10, 2018 at 1:12 pm

  9. Kathie Fiveash

    On Isle au Haut, where the trees are predominantly spruce, which is not favored by deer, we have a lake. Along the lake, leaning over it, are many white cedar trees. The deer browse these extensively in the winter standing on the ice. In the summer, when I swim down the pond, the cedar trees look like topiary – all browsed to the same height in a straight line up and down the lake.

    January 10, 2018 at 2:28 pm

  10. Thanks – didn’t know they browse hemlock! Wow. We fell red maples as part of silvicultural management and they absolutely love it.

    Ben Falk, M.A.L.D. 802-343-9490


    January 10, 2018 at 6:11 pm

  11. Mary thanks for this very timely and informative post. Our apple crop in the old orchard was very low this year but the deer have been making the rounds to all the trees throughout the cold spell. Encountered two tonight gleaning a neighbors tree. My husband acquired some livestock-grade apples during the cold spell and has been putting a few around favored trees. Based on what you’ve shared here, it seems best not to continue making those offerings, at least not in quantity and regularly.

    January 10, 2018 at 8:05 pm

    • Hi Cherrie,
      I honestly don’t know about apples, seeing as they are available year round, in one form or another, perhaps deer can digest them perfectly well. Best to check with a deer biologist! Sorry not to be of more help.

      January 10, 2018 at 8:30 pm

  12. This is so interesting. So… do you think that a deer’s stomach contains all the different microorganisms year-round, and that the change in available browse, as the seasons change, causes different ones to thrive and multiply, while others go into decline, as the seasons progress?

    January 11, 2018 at 9:50 am

  13. Barry Avery

    Witch Hobble?

    January 11, 2018 at 10:12 am

    • Yes, Viburnum lantanoides – has several common names.

      January 11, 2018 at 12:58 pm

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