What do deer eat? Deer love to eat plants; fruits such as apples, blueberries, blackberries, and persimmons; nuts such as acorns, pecans, hickory nuts and beechnuts when they are available. They choose the most highly palatable, nutrient-rich food that they can find.
Animals such as deer are called ruminants because they have a special organ (a rumen) which enables them to digest tough plants.
Despite this, it seems they would indeed eat meat if nothing else is available. Rare incidences have been reported of deer eating squirrels and rabbits. Keep in mind though, that it might be quite a challenge for them to bite through thick skin with their teeth.
Deer Eating Times
Deer seem to prefer specific times of day to eat. They are prey animals and for this reason, they can feed at any time of the day. They do seem to have preferences though, one of which would be to graze in the cover of darkness instead of broad daylight.
They move less during the day simply because this is a survival tactic and because of this they are more active during the night. Consequently, they are called crepuscular, which means being more active at dawn and dusk. In addition to this, they could be found browsing and grazing throughout the night with periodic returns to their bedding spots around midnight.
Deer love to scout for tasty treats in open fields where after they would disappear into the protection of the woods to chew their cud and watch for danger.
Deer eyes are heavy on rods and light on cones and as a result, they can move easily in the dark. They have low-light vision which is enhanced by the fact that they can open their pupil three times wider than humans.
Their wide eyes make it easy for them to take in more light and consequently observe their favorite food quite effortlessly at night.
Seasonal Eating Habits
Deer feeding patterns are most certainly influenced by the time of year, the reason being the availability of specific food during specific seasons.
As mentioned, deer’s first meal choices are nuts and fruits. However, in the fall fruits and nuts become less available and therefore they will now switch to eating grass and evergreen plants.
During the fall deer will begin preparing for the scarcity of food in the Food is scarce in winter, so deer prepare for this by being more active than normal during the fall. In the fall, deer eat more often, to help build up fat supplies to get them through the harsher winter months.
In the winter deer eat whatever food is available. Their winter diet will consequently consist of fallen leaves, twigs, bushes, and other woody plants.
Spring and summer
Spring I the time when deer can become much more active than during the winter months. The reason being that new plant growth and so deer can now get back on their crepuscular schedules.
This schedule will be maintained throughout the summer.
The next significant question to ask is what deer eat during the breeding season?
Firstly it is important to mention that the males have to fatten up before the breeding season because they do not eat much during mating times. As a result, they become thin and may even lose up to 1/3 of their body weight.
Mating season occurs in the fall and is when deer are more likely to feed during the day compared to any other time of year.
To learn more about mating season, check out this article about hunting deer during the rut.
So as expected they will now continue seeking plants in open fields, however, they are also likely to browse for nutrient-rich nuts and acorns to help gain fat to get through the winter.
What Fawns Eat
During the first two weeks of their life fawn have little scent and are therefore mostly inactive during this period of nursing.
Healthy fawns weigh in an average of 4 to 8 pounds at birth and they will double that weight in approximately 2 weeks.
During this period their diet consists entirely of their mothers’ milk and each fawn will consume up to 8 ounces of high-fat milk during the nursing process. After the age of 2 weeks rumination begins in their stomach, and they begin to supplement their milk diet with solid food like flowers, clover and alfalfa.
Keep in mind that weaning is not an instant switch and fawn will now gradually consume less milk over time while slowly introducing more and greener forage.
Mother’s milk will still be part of their food intake until they are about 10 -16 weeks old, meaning that they could be completely weaned by 10 weeks of age but some could take up to 16 weeks (3 to 4 months) to be completely weaned – this being the age when they start eating on their own.
Interestingly enough, hunters sometimes see a May or June born fawn still nursing or at attempting to nurse by October – at approximately 20 weeks old. Of course they no longer need the small amount of milk they still request, it merely seems to be a bonding exercise between mother and fawn.
Relating to this, we could ask how long fawns stay with their mother.
As we know, a doe will give birth to one to three fawns approximately seven months after mating. The buck does not stay to help raise the fawns – the doe raises them on her own, so no close-knit family there.
Secondly, deer do not abandon their babies. What they would frequently do is to hide their fawn from predators and leave them alone for hours in tall grass or bushes to forage for food and they would usually nap while waiting for their mothers to return. She would, of course not move far away but stay close by.
Thirdly, the fawns are able to walk at birth but will stay by their mother for one to two years.
Noteworthy though, is that there is a difference in how long doe and buck fawn stay with their mothers with females often staying with their mother longer than males.
The male offspring will be driven out of his natal home range by his mother during the fawning season or the rutting season. Consequently, he is now forced to survive in unfamiliar ground and is put in greater risk, particularly in the fall. Noteworthy is that orphaned bucks who did not move far away from the area where they were born, show greater survival skills.
Can a baby deer survive on its own?
The dilemma every hunter faces is whether killing the mother and leaving the fawn orphaned will negatively impact the fawn’s chances of survival.
It is not difficult to understand that a fawn has the best chance of survival when cared for by its mother.
It is said that if a hunter has a choice, rather shoot a doe with a buck fawn instead of a young female at its side, but it still is a difficult and emotional decision for every hunter to make in a split-second.
From a biological point of view most fawns are functional ruminants well before the 70th day of weaning and as a result, can forage on their own even before the age of 10 weeks.
In short, a 45 to 60 day old fawn is most likely old enough to survive but would benefit greatly from additional learning opportunities taught by his mom.