Mule Deer Grazing

Deer Feeding Habits

I know I just wrote about deer last night, but I really didn’t tell you anything about them, I just talked about the fact that you should learn as much about them as you can.  Normally I would write about a different topic tonight, I try not to do the same topic two days in a row, but in this case I felt some actual information about deer behavior was justified.

One thing to remember about deer behavior, and all wild animals, is that their behavior comes from thousands of years of learned behavior.  Young deer learn from the older deer, and the deer do what instinctively feels right to them.  It is important to note that what we may observe as an activity, the deer is in fact performing a function to ensure its survival, which means we must understand why a deer is doing what we see them doing.  Or better yet, understanding the deer well enough to know what they are probably doing, even when we don’t see them.  While that is a deep topic, we can look at it in parts.

I’ll start with an obvious one, and that is the fact that a deer needs to eat.  Deer don’t store food like squirrels, and they can’t convert food to excess fat like bears do before winter hibernation, so they need to be eating constantly.  While the deer can put on some excess fat, it is not enough to sustain them through the winter.  And much like children do, deer will eat the best of what is available at the time.  For a deer, this typically means what holds the most nutritional value and what is easiest to digest.  For example, in the spring time grasses are lush, easy to digest, and high in protein.  In the summer time the grass in that same area will be dried and brown, and less appealing to the deer.


Doe Grazing

Mule deer in particular are selective eaters during the spring and summer; they will choose plants that provide the most benefit to beefing up their bodies for the coming fall and winter when food is scarcer.  Their narrow faces and long jaws allow them to get into tight places to eat the foods that supply the most nutrients, unlike cattle who just mow down fields of grass eating everything in sight.  Deer that are fortunate enough to live near crops will feed heavily on these, especially alfalfa and corn.  Mountain valleys where farmers grow alfalfa for hay are prime areas to find mule deer, even in mid to late fall as the remnants of the harvest are left on the ground.

In the fall and early winter, acorns are a main staple of a deer’s diet, and as snow covers the ground, that dried up grass they passed up in the summer is worth pawing away the snow to get at.  Wild apples and berries that have fallen to the ground in fall are also prime forage for deer.  As the snow deepens the deer will begin to eat the twigs of shrubs, also called browse.  Remember that the deer tries to get as much as they can in the spring and summer, and in the fall and winter they are trying to find what they can, relying on those earlier days of heavy feeding.

I could write several pages on the specifics of a deer’s diet, but I think it is sufficient to say that if you have a general understanding of  what deer eat and when, that will help you find them at various times of the year so that you can observe them, or hunt them.


Deer Eating Browse

An important thing to know is that deer are ruminant animals, meaning that they have a stomach that consists of four chambers.  Deer are most vulnerable while feeding, so they want to do this quickly.  They will hastily eat as much as they can while feeding, then go to a safe place to lay down, then regurgitate that food from the first chamber, chew it more thoroughly, and pass it along to the next chambers where the food is digested in stages.  If you have ever heard the term “A cow chewing her cud,” that is exactly the same thing as cows are ruminants also.

That’s some basic information about deer feeding habits at various times of the year; hopefully you will find this information useful in your observations of these fine animals.  In my next post about deer I will discuss their defense mechanisms.