The Diet of a Whitetail Deer
A deer's massive frame is dependent upon many influences such as genetics, age and feeding. However, out of all these, deer have the most control over their feeding. Because of this, nature has equipped the deer with instincts and physical attributes that help them make the right decision when choosing what they will eat.
It is almost impossible to characterize the deer's entire diet. In most areas, deer will eat just about any type of foliage they can find. However this does not mean that deer are indiscriminate towards their diet. They are in fact, very picky eaters. Selectivity in their diet may also be due to other reasons, since it has been shown that the foods deer eat abundantly in one region may be totally disregarded in another. This behavior could be due to differences in soil type, since soil affects the taste of food. When young, fawns learn what to eat through their mothers. This could be another reason for food selectivity. If a doe ignores one type of plant, this causes the fawn to ignore it, which causes the fawn's children to ignore it and so on, until deer in the area disregard the food.
There are three types of deer: the grazers, who eat grass and roughage; the intermediate feeders, who eat a variety of foods; and concentrate selectors, who eat mostly browse. Browse consists of leaves, twigs and a various assortment of vines. The type of “eater” a deer is depends on its geographic location, changes in climate, and genetics. Most deer are intermediate feeders; content on eating anything they can find. However, they prefer to eat browse and forbs.
Forbs are the greener types of foliage, consisting of flowering plants and weeds. In order of preference, deer will usually eat sprouts, seedlings, weeds, flowering plants, and vines. Deer love fruit, especially apples, which are found in abundance across the US. In times of abundance, deer don't prefer toxic or medicinal plants, plants with sticky or hairy leaves and stems, and fragrant plants, especially those with a lemon or mint scent. However, a deer may resort to them if they are the only plants left in an area to eat.
Regardless of diet, proteins are essential to the deer's diet. They provide the correct nutrition for growth and longevity. The foods deer eat must also be highly digestible. Since deer eat different types of foods, the possibility of them eating indigestible food is high. These foods basically take up much needed space in the deer's stomach. Plants high in fiber are an example of indigestible food. One should remember that the foods deer eat should not be thought of as purely indigestible. If they were purely indigestible, they would remain in the deer's stomach, eventually filling it up and killing the deer. In fact, these foods are just very slow to digest.
Deer are not often seen by watering holes. This is because the foods deer eat usually contain all the water they need. This is especially true in the spring, where heavy rains saturate the food supply with much needed H2O. Of course, if they are thirsty, they will drink from any water source available. In the desert, where water is in unbearably short supply, a deer's body will metabolize its own body fat to fulfill its water needs.
Most researchers believe that deer can taste sugars, amino acids, and oils. But most of the time it is their sense of smell, not their sense of taste, that helps the deer choose its diet. Deer also seem to like the taste of salt, although they may be drawn to it because it is an important nutrient. In winter, deer are often found licking the salt used to de-ice the roads. This often leads to them being struck by automobiles.
Deer's stomachs are relatively small compared to the stomachs of other rumens. Therefore, they must be very selective to insure that they digest only the highest quality food available. However the deer's four-chambered stomach suits the deer's lifestyle well. The four-chambered stomach of a deer allows it to store food and then break it down later. Thus, deer can quickly eat food and then later find a safe place where they can chew it. By devoting less attention to finding and chewing foods on the spot, deer are less prone to being surprised by a predator. The deer's stomach is very intolerant to change. Microorganisms in the deer's rumen aid in digestion of many foods. If a deer suddenly eats something new, or something it hasn’t eaten in a while, the microorganisms that digest these foods are no longer present in the stomach. Often times, deer will die even though their stomachs are full because they could not properly digest the food. This usually occurs during the changing of seasons, when the types of food deer eat are dramatically different.
Deer are crespular animals, which mean that they only feed during dawn and dusk. This makes them safest from predators during these times. Also, deer move about while feeding. This moving about while feeding prevents overgrazing in one particular area. Deer also face into the wind, so that if there are any predators ahead, deer can smell them.