Fallen Leaves: The Invisible Deer Delicacy

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Deer hunters who manage their properties should become students of the whitetail’s diet. The more you can learn about the deer’s natural food preferences, the better you can determine which timber-management practices produce the best deer habitat. Hunter shown wearing Mathews Lost Camo.

The researchers followed the deer around, and recorded what they ate and how long they fed on different plant and tree species. In early fall, these deer spent 40 percent of their time eating acorns and 50 percent eating green leaves. Their most preferred autumn leaves were sassafras and flowering dogwood, but also oak. As fall turned to early winter, and green leaves and acorns became more difficult to locate, the deer’s preferences switched to dry leaves, which they ate far more readily than the twigs of deciduous trees. If deer found dry leaves atop the snow or on low-hanging branches or shrubs, they ate them.

Eat Leaves, Not Twigs

The story is similar in the northern sections of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. In a report, “Foods of the White-Tailed Deer in the Upper Great Lakes Region — A Review,” Minnesota researchers Lynn Rogers, Jack Mooty and Deanna Dawson wrote that by autumn, deer generally prefer the leaves of mature nonevergreen leaves. In descending preference, they’ll eat evergreen forbs, cedar fronds, deciduous woody browse and conifer needles. Other preferred deer foods include arboreal lichens, acorns, fruit and mushrooms.

The Minnesota researchers reported that as nonevergreen leaves become scarce in autumn, deer seek large-leaf aster, a flowering plant that lives until late fall in areas sheltered from frost. At this time, whitetails will also turn to grasses, sedges and evergreen forbs until they’re covered by snow. Wisconsin researcher Keith McCaffery also notes that whitetails often eat the brown leaves of goldenrod and aster as long as they remain present on stalks or lying atop snow.

One reason nonevergreen leaves become so attractive to deer might have something to do with the leaves themselves. Professor Fred Servello at the University of Maine points out that most leaves on trees and shrubs contain chemicals that defend them, to some extent, from browsing animals. This likely encourages deer to seek other foods in summer, when leaves are most healthy. But chemical changes in dying leaves in autumn might make them more palatable to deer. When the leaves fall and start decomposing, the deterrent chemicals might weaken even further.

Professor Stephen Ditchkoff at Auburn University worked with Servello while a student at U-Maine. He said their research deer actively consumed the fallen leaves of aspen and maple.

Varied Deer Food Sources

When scouting deer 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 obviously increase your odds for success. Some believe this “eat and run” tendency is because deer always feel their life is in jeopardy. They must keep moving to ensure they don’t become easy prey. That might be, but it’s also likely that they instinctively know their health is best served by a diverse diet.

Diversity in diet has long been recognized as a critical factor in whitetails surviving long, cold winters. One study found deer maintained better weight on a variety of second-choice woody browse species than they did on a strict diet of white cedar, even though cedar is a top-shelf winter food.

This need for food diversity holds true throughout the year, perhaps because too much of one food hurts digestion. Deer have long been known to instinctively select the most nutritious food available, and it appears they also somehow know which foods have compounds that inhibit the work of their rumen’s micro-organisms.

Further, the Minnesota researchers said food diversity might ensure deer eat plants that help them digest other foods. Some plants might be too low in nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium or sulfur to aid digestion, but those same plants might combine with other foods in the deer’s stomach to provide the needed supplements.

Learn the Natural Foods

Deer hunters who manage their own properties should become students of the whitetail’s diet. The more you can learn about the deer’s natural foods, the better you can determine which timber-management practices produce the best deer habitat. In turn, this could reduce your reliance on food plots and other food sources that must be maintained through annual cultivation and replantings.

As the Minnesota researchers note: “Information on year-round diet is also needed to determine the effects of such natural factors as fire, drought, plant diseases, and defoliating insects on deer habitat. These factors can change both the kinds and the nutritional values of the plants available to deer. (This information) will enable land managers to maximize the benefits from deer-habitat management funds.”

Even if you don’t own or have access to private hunting land, the more you learn about natural deer foods in your region, the more quickly you can focus your deer hunting efforts when exploring new ground. There’s no doubt topographical maps and aerial photos can teach us much about a parcel, but one thing you need to learn is where you’ll find shrubs, sedges, acorn-bearing oaks, and deciduous and evergreen trees.

Whenever possible, try to match up food preferences with terrain features that deer tend to favor. For instance, when hunting Northern forests, always scout the fringe of lowlands. Look for slightly higher, drier ground where deer skirt the wet edges while passing through patches of beaked hazelnut brush, and young stands of maples, aspen and jack pine.

It’s tempting at times to cut the lower limbs of maples as their leaves turn crimson and yellow, in hopes of coaxing deer to pause and eat. Rather than take these limbs out of service permanently, carry a 100-yard spool of cheap monofilament, tie a piece to a lower branch and pull it into the deer’s reach. Before leaving the area, cut the line, stuff it into a pocket for later use, and let the branch keep producing deer food for years to come. The same trick can work when making a temporary licking branch over a deer scrape.

Common Plants Eaten by Deer in Fall

The more we learn about this often puzzling world of the whitetail deer, the more satisfying our time in the woods. Not only will we enjoy more success, but we’ll better appreciate the diverse world in which we hunt the whitetail.

Tree/Leaves

  • Apple
  • Aspen (poplar)
  • Balsam Fir
  • Birch
  • Eastern Hemlock
  • Jack Pine
  • Paper Birch
  • Pine
  • Quaking Aspen
  • Red Maple
  • Silver Maple
  • White Cedar

Shrub/Vine Leaves

  • Alder
  • American Hazel
  • Beaked Hazel
  • Bush-Honeysuckle
  • Hazel
  • Labrador Tea
  • Red-Osier Dogwood
  • Willow
  • Wintergreen

Herbaceous Plants

  • Bunchberry
  • Clover
  • Goldenrod
  • Grasses
  • Large-Leaf Aster
  • Sedges

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