Deer Dynamics: Hard Mast

Hard mast nutrition is crucial for whitetails, and it strongly influences the rut and the reproduction.

A white-tailed buck leaves his bedding site in a stand of small pines. Instead of heading to the clover plot, he scales up a small ridge to seek out what is beneath the trees.

Bustling squirrels are dropping white oak acorns, and the lone deer capitalizes on the food source. As the whitetail continues foraging, he finds tree-limb snags that a black bear dropped from feeding atop a chestnut oak.

Likewise, a 12-pointer combs the woodland floor. Strong winds had come through the night before, and the deer is benefiting from red oaks and leaf debris blown to the ground.

No matter how the hard fruit makes it to the ground, the whitetail has started its fall forage.

Beginning in late summer and early autumn, some hard mast falls prematurely — signaling to whitetails that nutrition is available. Other wildlife such as squirrels, black bears and crows take to feeding in nut-bearing trees, and contribute to food reaching the ground for the whitetail. Trees like hickories, buckeyes, walnuts and beechnut are more consistent in providing nutrition. Yet despite the availability of these mast foods, whitetails would rather ravage nutritious acorns from the oak family.

Low tree limbs weighed down by acorns can be tugged as whitetails may stand on their hind legs to reach the green nuts. Along with windy weather knocking some acorns to the ground, deer can benefit early from the year’s crop.

Yet it usually takes the first frost of the season to cause acorns to drop in greater numbers. The acorns plummet, and fallen leaves blanket them as fall sets in. Here, whitetails shove with their noses, and will even paw away leafy debris to reach the acorns.

Prior to the rut, bucks and does will eat their share of acorns, and during the rut, females will hang out under oak trees — even if harassed by crazed bucks. In the post-rut, bucks gravitate back to oak stands to replenish weight loss.

The importance of oaks and their mast production cannot be underestimated, especially in regions with less agricultural and hunter land conservation management. Acorn availability grants females substantial nutrition, and could very well set the stage for estrus. It also yields rutting bucks energy reserves for times of strenuous physical exertion, and with harsher weather conditions on the way, whitetails instinctively seek out the fall food.

There are roughly 70 species of oaks, and they either fall into the white-oak or red-oak family. The most common in the white-oak class include the white oak, post oak, burr oak and chestnut oak. Northern and southern red oak, black oak, pin oak and scarlet oak are some in the red-oak group.

Acorns contain fats, carbohydrates and minimal crude protein, and are fairly easy for deer to digest. According to avid hunters, deer favor white oaks instead of red oaks. Red oaks possess more tannin, which is bitter-tasting. This sour taste is a natural mechanism that nut-bearing trees produce to deter animals and possibly even certain insects from consuming the delicate seedlings.

Tannins also make the digestive process difficult; yet the saliva from whitetails works to assimilate tannins. Despite the red oaks bitterness, deer can still consume these nutritious acorns. In comparison, red oaks are more nutritious and yield acorns more often than white oaks.

Masting cycles and weather are natural influences that dictate acorn availability each year. Sometimes white oaks are scarce. They typically produce a good crop every one to three to sometimes five years. Yet the red oak’s two-year masting cycle is usually timed perfectly to fill in the food gap. Also, while some oaks do not produce in one particular area, some do within close proximity.

This sporadic acorn reproduction can also cause whitetails to be highly unpredictable in movements when production is sparse. A hunter may have to scout extra hard to locate the prime acorn-producing trees.

Even when pre-rut behaviors unfold, there are times when bucks will size one another up in forested areas. However, bucks will move from oak stand to oak stand, eventually providing a brief window of exposure.

Deer can become conditioned so that when they hear acorns and other nuts hit the ground, they move in the direction of the fallen mast. Depending on weather, the terrain and suppressing of natural noises, whitetails can detect nuts popping the ground from distances of over 100 yards. Of course, from fawn infancy to adult years, deer know where the prime trees tower. So as part of their typical foraging routine, and as fall approaches, they usually roam beneath hardwood stands.

If just a minimal amount of water is nearby with some pliable foliage, deer can literally stop their normal traveling — camping out beneath nut-bearing trees. Once this occurs, whitetails will temporarily vanish from plots and open areas.

An additional important acorn provider in the southern and coastal regions is the live oak. Know for Spanish moss hanging from the tree’s sturdy branches, this oak is usually consistent in producing acorn nutrition for southern whitetails.

Live oaks grow fast, and can be extremely large, providing good shade for wildlife as well. For whitetail enthusiasts farming for wildlife, the southern live oak requires minimal maintenance. It just needs to be pruned on occasion, but arborists recommend not pruning in early summer.

Another aspect of browse in late summer and early fall for whitetails is the availability of soft mast. Mulberries, black cherries, persimmons and the like are foods that deer will utilize periodically if a late spring freeze didn’t unfold. However, these foods do not provide deer with fats and carbohydrates in comparison to oaks. Also, if the oak crop is tight and scarce, then older dominant deer, both bucks and does, can force young deer to resort to soft-mast foods.

As every whitetail fanatic knows, deer will seek out acorns when they are available. These high-energy foods can really enhance the rut, causing a large number of females to be receptive to rut-crazed bucks traversing the land. With reserves of stamina, bucks will eventually cover enough territory, actually providing opportunities to sight and harvest.

Though it isn’t always the case, sometimes a bountiful acorn crop can hinder pre-rut activity — simply because the deer are so engrossed in fattening up. Yet when the bucks finally gear up, they begin to vigorously rub trees, peeling their velvet tissue and displaying polished racks — 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.