Deer Dynamics: Early Summer Forage

You might be surprised to discover what deer are eating on your property.

Tend the food plots, manage the timber, check the pH and get rid of the weeds. We’ve all heard and know it. Working the land year-round helps to assure the best nutrition to sustain healthy whitetails, but before engaging in active land management, it is essential to know the native and exotic foods consumed by deer.

Then, whether it’s your own land, a lease or access to public lands, you’ll be able to make recommendations or tackle nutritional management head-on.

Foremost, the whitetail’s physical needs are basically the same — be it in the frigid northern states or the hot sultry regions of the South. Although northern deer require more fats, proteins and carbohydrates due to extreme weather and periodic food shortages, all whitetails need the basics of good nutrition — obtaining roughly 16- to 20-percent crude protein plus carbohydrates, vitamins and good minerals to successfully survive and breed.

Throughout whitetail country, deer ravage the native leaves of various brambles — particularly the common blackberry. In the spring, if a late freeze doesn’t damage foliage, deer manage to avoid the prickly thorns to nibble the tender leaves, which are a source of vitamins C and B. Once the fruit of brambles begins to ripen in the summer months, deer will target the berries — plucking them off with their tongues and teeth.

Brambles such as blackberries don’t need a lot of hands-on labor, just adequate rain and sun. They thrive along fencerows, in fields and the edges where trees adjoin open areas. Once every 5 to 7 years, bramble patches can be bush-hogged or burned on a sectional basis — assuring that while new growth is occurring, there will always be mature clusters of these nutritious foods for whitetails to consume.

As we all know, managed food plots are an excellent way not only to draw deer to a particular area, but also to provide whitetails with quality nutrition. Various types of legumes such as red and white clover are rich in nitrogen, which not only stimulates the legume itself but the soil and surrounding plants as well.

But even if clover isn’t seeded and planted into the ground, most types have an amazing resistance to extreme conditions, even with inferior soil pH. Clovers flourish anywhere sunlight can reach. If weeds and grasses are periodically suppressed through burning or mowing, clover grows, giving deer a prime food source, especially when other native forage is lacking.

Whitetails, due to their wary nature, instinctively prefer to feed along edges where woodlands meet fields or watershed tributaries with thick foliage adjacent to open areas. Here, natural succession of nutritious flowering plants known as forbs can thrive. The most common are lespedeza species, snailseed, ragweed, coralberry, partridge pea and honeysuckle. Although honeysuckle can be highly invasive to other plant species, whitetails go nuts over it. The question is can honeysuckle be controlled on a property and to what extent.

Having plots and sunlit areas with good timber edge is vital and basic in providing whitetails with food and refuge, which leads to another highly important aspect for deer — the need to have sufficient woodland acreage. Within secluded timber, undisturbed forested sites allow deer not only to establish prime bedding sites to digest nutrients, but also allows them to forage for decaying matter like fungus growth.

If timber is receiving adequate rainfall, fungi can thrive and supplement the whitetail’s diet. Even if acorns and pliable forbs are available, deer still consume their share of fungi such as morels, boletes, waxycaps and ringstalk mushrooms.

Non-flowering fungi are predominantly water. During times of drought, whitetails will utilize these woodland sanctuaries, seeking moisture from fungi. Depending on the environmental conditions, most mushrooms contain minimal fat, but are relatively moderate in protein. Fungi are rich with vitamins B and C, and are loaded with potassium, an important mineral for deer.

Whether mushroom toxicity adversely affects whitetails remains a mystery. The animals appear to avoid highly poisonous fungi, and yet will consume other toxins such as fescue grasses, rhododendron and laurel leaves — primarily in the Appalachian Mountains of the Carolinas. Surprisingly, deer still occasionally consume minimal amounts of these toxins even when more preferred food sources are available, leaving their forage patterns unpredictable and baffling at times.

Though still debatable among deer experts, it is believed that whitetails can distinguish certain colors and shapes far better than one might conceive. This inherent vision capability in combination with an acute sense of smell enables them to pinpoint fungi rather easily. The animals can locate hidden clusters of mushrooms thriving amongst deadfall tree decay and debris from distances of up to 20 feet.

Once fungi clusters are discovered, deer usually consume every morsel, stem and all parts — that is if the pickings are pliable. Squirrels, on the other hand, nibble mushrooms, leaving evidence of remains upon the forest floor. This is one way to decipher if deer are consistently feeding in one particular area.

Lichen growth such as shell and boulder growing on decaying blowdowns and tree trunks are foraged by deer but only to a small degree in comparison to plush mushrooms. Whitetails will also root up rich topsoil dirt, searching for truffle fungi and the like. The parasitic plants grow underground on the root systems of various trees, providing the animals with a host of nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen.

By all means, mushrooms and lichen alone are not sufficient food sources to substantiate proper growth, but the plant species do provide important supplemental nutrients and are a preferred delicacy for these diverse foragers. Remember, dense woodland pockets of pine, hemlock and oaks that provide seclusion for the whitetail also possess the right conditions for fungus growth. If yearly rainfall is adequate, then deer may limit their exposure in fields and plots, spending time devouring fungi and other woodland browse while bedding amid the timber. These realities need to be considered when evaluating hunting land.

So, when you’re scouting for the upcoming season, take note of other areas where whitetails might be feeding. Remember that if certain native foods are more readily available and more abundant than others, this is where the deer will be. And if the oak crop is sparse, whitetails can still fall back on the cool-season forbs and grasses for survival.

All of this feeding activity varies from year to year. Overall, whitetails have diverse foraging preferences and, depending on weather conditions, deer will adapt to food availability. Nutrition is critical for whitetails, not only for females and their offspring but for bucks to develop mature antlers. That will be next month’s topic.

About Tommy Kirkland 24 Articles
Tommy Kirkland aggressively pursues whitetails with camera and extensive observational work on free-ranging deer. He is a novice turkey hunter; and his articles and photos have been featured in many outdoor publications.