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Whitetail Food Plot: Leaves, Lichens And Needles
A key to pinpointing deer movements is knowing the whitetail’s food preferences and understanding how they change throughout fall and vary by year.
Unfortunately, with the exception of agricultural crops and obvious natural foods, such as acorns and apples, most deer hunters can’t identify many natural-growing foods that whitetails can’t resist. That’s a serious oversight, because 60 percent of a deer’s diet in autumn can consist of leaves that drop from hardwoods and cedars. And in Northern forests, lichens become a preferred food in mid- to late autumn as frost and early snows arrive.
Identifying natural deer foods requires devotion, intuition and attention to detail. Why? The first complication is that deer consume much of the evidence. Unless we see them eating fallen maple leaves or pruned cottonwood leaves, we don’t realize they’ve touched them.
You can help your cause by looking for the tell-tale rough tears where deer nip twigs, buds and vines. But beware: If you find scissors-like cuts on low-growing branches or ground cover, that’s the work or rabbits or hares. And if you’re deer hunting the North Woods and find browsed branch tips the thickness of your upper pinky, you’ve found a site used the previous winter by malnourished deer. Whitetails prefer buds and thin twig-tips, typically new growth generated the previous spring and summer. These won’t be much thicker than a finishing nail.
The second complication is that some browse preferences change with the plant itself. For instance, deer love Eastern hemlock when it first sprouts from the ground, but once it’s established, they’ll walk right by it. They’ll also leave white cedar alone in early autumn, but by the time you’re tracking them in late November and bowhunting them through late December, it might be tops on their list.
The same goes for the leaves of some deciduous trees. Deer occasionally eat the green leaves of aspen and maple trees in summer, but they actively seek them out a few weeks later as the leaves’ sugar-breakdown process changes. And then when aspen and maple leaves hit the ground, deer vacuum them up for a few days until the leaves break down and lose their appeal.
The third complication is one food’s abundance in relation to other available foods. For instance, we all know the whitetail prefers white-oak acorns over red-oak acorns. But what if no white oaks grow where you hunt? Red oaks no longer take the back seat. That’s just one obvious example. Keep your eyes open for others. Deer require a complex variety of “soft” and “hard” foods to keep their digestive systems working efficiently.
Speaking of digestion, whenever you shoot a deer and field dress it, check out its rumen before beginning the drag. Reach over, lightly slice an opening into the rumen’s outer lining, and inspect the contents. The rumen is the first of the whitetail’s four stomachs, and food stored here is not fully digested. An educated eye can often identify the leaf, nut and twig fragments found there.
And every time you see a whitetail browsing, check out the site before leaving. Identify what it ate, and add it to your own list. If you learn how to identify natural food sources, and know how and when deer use them, you can enter the deer woods more confidently this fall while your friends wallow in frustration. Realize, though, that ranking natural foods by their importance to whitetails is tricky because deer do not live in a static world. Their food preferences often change overnight.
Even so, let’s look at 12 of the whitetail’s natural favorites, but keep trying to expand this list whenever you’re scouting, deer hunting or reading about whitetails.
Old Man’s Beard
An unexpected late-October snowfall in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula will reveal whitetail’s love for “Old Man’s Beard,” an arboreal lichen that grows on dead or dying spruce and balsam trees.
A deer hunter was scouting for the gun-season opener, which was two weeks away, when he cut the tracks of several deer following a wooded ridgeline. Soon they converged on a long-dead balsam fir that toppled during a recent storm. Judging by their tracks and no beds, they had fed here awhile, but on what?
The answer had to be the beard-like “moss” clinging to many branches. His homework revealed this wasn’t moss, but an arboreal lichen. More specifically, biologists say it’s a fruticose lichen, but most people call it “Old Man’s Beard,” a combination of algae and fungus. These beards are rich in nutrition, especially “micro-nutirents” that apparently help Northern deer survive harsh winters.
Deer of the North Woods seldom pass up a chance to eat Old Man’s Beard, which explains why it’s seldom found close to the ground. It’s most easily spotted on branches at least 6 feet above ground, just out of reach of whitetails. As soon as lichen-covered branches break or a tree falls, deer consume every “beard” within reach.
Late Low Blueberry
The leaves and stems of Late Low Blueberry, also known as whortleberry, are also menu items that a deer hunter “discovered” by following deer tracks, this time in snow in northeastern Minnesota near Ely. Clustered tracks revealed several deer feeding in a large colony of these plants. The whitetail’s love for the browned leaves of the low-growing blueberries was evidenced by nose prints in the snow where they pushed into the plants to browse.
Blueberry fruit, of course, is a well-known favorite of the black bear, but deer feed extensively on the plants’ foliage. It’s commonly found in clearcuts, and along roadsides and abandoned pastures. Also expect to find it on exposed rocky outcrops, especially around upland bogs and along sandy riverbanks.
White Cedar is perhaps the favorite late fall and winter food for whitetails. In areas with overabundant deer, it’s rare to find young cedars and the foliage – called fronds – of mature cedar within 7 feet of the ground. If necessary, deer stand up on their rear legs to eat fresh fronds. Anyone who tries to grow white cedars in Northern regions with abundant deer realize they need to fence their trees or spray them constantly, or give up on them and replace them with spruce or balsam.
Never assume, however, that whitetails eat only fresh cedar fronds. About 15 years ago, researchers at the University of Maine found that deer wintering in cedar bottoms vacuum up the brown fronds that fall to the base of cedar trees. Typically, deer eat fresh fronds until they exhaust the supply and then switch to fallen fronds.