Fallen Leaves: The Invisible Deer Delicacy

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scouting deer
When scouting or still-hunting, keep in mind that deer seldom stay long at any single food source. Any time you can locate a variety of natural deer foods within sight of potential stand sites, you increase your odds for success. Hunter shown wearing Mathews Lost Camo.

Freshly fallen leaves can be a popular, nutritious food for autumn whitetails, but deer hunters seldom notice because deer eat the evidence. One deer hunter stifled a sigh of disgust and watched two does walk straight to the base of the silver maple that held him and my newly hung tree stand.

“Any second now they’ll sniff those branches I just dropped and jump about five feet into the air,” I thought. “Then they’ll crash back through the woods, snorting their heads off to let everything know I’m here.”

Two nights earlier, while deer hunting a different tree about 100 yards away, he had heard deer move through this patch of maple trees and willow brush bordering a small creek. He couldn’t see them, but the sounds of their hoofs plopping in and sucking out of the muddy marsh grasses left no doubt deer were using this little grove to cross the creek. When he returned to the marsh for his next hunt, he only had time to pick out the largest of the small maple trees in the patch, climb as high as the tree allowed, hang his portable tree stand, and trim away just enough branches to allow a shot should a deer come by.

In most cases, he prepares a tree stand in advance, which allows time to haul away signs of intrusion, such as trimmed branches. But he figured the only way a passing deer would notice the cut branches in the tall grass at the maple’s base would be if they headed straight for the deer hunter. With the trails passing about 10 to 15 yards on both sides, he thought it was a safe risk.

The only problem was, the two does weren’t following a trail as they approached. In fact, it almost looked like they somehow noticed the fallen branches and walked over to investigate. The lead doe stiffened when she stuck her nose near the base of one branch, about where I had grabbed it. He could hear her drawing air through her nostrils, verifying the presence of a human intruder.

But then she picked up her head, looked around a few seconds, lowered her head into the maple limb’s red and yellow leaves, and ate as if they were fresh salad. The second doe approached another fallen branch and went through the same routine. They walked around the base of his tree for nearly 10 minutes, chewing leaves and studying the marshy woods around them.

The deer hunter could have shot either doe any number of times, but the season was still young and he had only one deer tag. This was back in the mid-1980s, before his home state of Wisconsin offered archers multiple antlerless tags. He ended up shooting a doe about a month later, but the two he remember just as vividly from that autumn were the pair that snacked on those maple leaves.

deer's rumen
Even when scientists analyze a deer’s rumen, it’s often difficult to determine which type of leaves deer were eating because the deer’s digestive system breaks them down so quickly.

Paying Closer Attention

In the autumns that followed, this deer hunter paid more attention to maple trees. He can’t say he saught them out and watched deer flock to them. But if deer sign tells him he's in a good spot, and one possible tree stand site is surrounded by red or silver maples with still-clinging or freshly fallen leaves, that influences his decision on where to hang his tree stand.

Just how important are leaves in the whitetail’s autumn diet? That’s difficult to answer, because of all the possible deer foods in the woods, leaves are one of the most challenging to evaluate. Why? When deer eat autumn leaves, they leave few clues behind. If you don’t happen to see them eating the leaves, you’ll likely never know they paused for a few mouthfuls.

It isn’t just deer hunters who struggle to unravel leafy clues. Research biologists concede that the importance of leaves in the whitetail’s diet is difficult to study. Research into deer food preferences overlook green leaves, fallen leaves and other “invisible” deer foods.

As three Minnesota researchers wrote in examinations of feeding sites often don’t reveal what’s being eaten. “Feeding on items deer eat whole (mushrooms, berries, acorns, nuts, dried leaves and lichens) is difficult to detect. Moreover, unless radio-collared deer are used, feeding sites are difficult to find in the forest, so those examined tend to be in open or muddy areas where deer or their tracks are more visible. … (Further,) the inability to distribute the feeding-site sample in proper relation to the distribution of deer feeding leads to underestimating the use of shrubs and forbs and overestimating the use of grasses. Aquatic feeding is missed entirely.”

Such difficulties create a gap in our understanding of the whitetail’s diet. However, as Virginia researchers Richard F. Harlow and Robert G. Hooper wrote: “These items are so important that their consideration in future range surveys is essential. We recommend that future range surveys include foods which are most important to the deer, not just the easiest to measure.”

Studying Deer Stomach Samples

To address this concern, Harlow and Hooper took stomach samples from the rumens of 956 Southeastern whitetails in the Piedmont, Southern Appalachians and Coastal Plains regions. Although this method can reveal exactly what and how much deer eat, it’s still not perfect. For example, the most easily digested materials are sometimes difficult to identify because the deer’s digestive system breaks them down so quickly.

Still, examining rumens is more reliable than range surveys. After all, when deer grab leaves about to drop in autumn, they pull off easily, often at the stem’s base, leaving behind no tell-tale rips and tears. And who can tell when deer vacuum leaves off the forest floor, or chew a delectable plant to its nub?

Harlow and Hooper found the green leaves of woody plants ranked No. 1 in frequency and volume in the deer’s rumens, and ranked No. 2 on the deer’s menu in early fall. The only food item whitetails preferred over green leaves were mast crops, particularly acorns. Third on the deer’s preference list were mushrooms, and fourth were dry leaves.

Deer in these regions seemed to favor the green leaves of oak, rhododendron, honeysuckle and blackberry. Unfortunately, they might like other green leaves even more. The largest percentage of greens in their rumens could not be identified.

A few years before Harlow and Hooper reported their results, researchers in Pennsylvania tried a different way to assess what deer eat. C. Robert Watts, a graduate student with the Pennsylvania Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, took three captive fawns— a male, female and a castrated male — and trained them to accept a collar and a long harness. The handlers then followed them around as they fed in a 50-acre parcel on state game land that featured a mixed oak forest of small saw-timber size.

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