The Diet of a Whitetail Deer

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How Seasons Affect the Whitetail’s Diet

Whitetail Buck
A whitetail's nutritional intake not only has a say in his body and muscular structure, but also his antlers. If a buck is malnurished, his antlers will show it. 

Deer spend the spring, summer, and fall feasting upon an abundant supply of nutritious food. The types of foods deer eat changes with the seasons to adapt to changing needs for antler growth, pregnancy, and nursing. As food supplies run low, deer will resort to the less appealing plants in the woods.

The end of summer brings the first shortage in food supply. Summer shortages can occur from over population. The summer does not have a lot of plant growth, thus if many deer have been feeding in one area, food supplies will run short. Although in most places this won't cause a major die-off amongst deer. Instead, it usually results in the undernourishment of the deer. This may still end in the death of the deer due to winter conditions. Drought is also a big problem during the summer, especially in the South. The lack of water impedes plant growth, as well as removes one of life's most important components. If the drought is severe enough, the deer deaths and malnourishment may rival those of winter.

If there is a food shortage, it does not last long, for the advent of fall ushers in a new food supply. The leaves and acorns from overhanging trees fall to the ground where deer can easily reach them. Foods rich in carbohydrates, such as acorns, beechnuts, and starchy crops are popular in the fall because they are in abundance and promote the storage of body fat.

Deer reach their peak condition right before the deer rut. During this time, the deer's mind is focused more on mating than on eating, leading to a poor diet. Unfortunately, after the rut, bucks are left depleted, and must spend the small amount of time left between the post-rut and winter trying to rebuild their fat reserves. The bigger, older bucks are usually the ones who are the most malnourished, and often do not survive to winter.

The fattening process is necessary for the survival of the deer and is controlled by hormones. A deer must store fat during the fall in order to survive the winter because there are periods in the winter when deer will go weeks without eating. During these times, deer must rely on their fat reserves for survival. Even a malnourished deer will store fat during the fall, although this may deplete the rest of its body of much needed nourishment.

Winter poses a much bigger threat to deer, especially to those living in the north. A few weeks after winter's arrival, food supplies run drastically low, and remain that way for the rest of the season. During this time, deer turn their attention to foods high in energy, which will keep them going throughout the day. Using their long snout and sense of smell, deer will dig through snow to find the tinniest morsel of food. Twigs are a very popular food when the snow is on the ground. Deer need about 6 pounds of food a day to survive the winter. If a pregnant doe becomes severely undernourished, she will reabsorb the embryo within her. At winter's end, a deer loses about 30% of its body weight.

Fawns are distressed the most during the winter. Not only must their body have nourishment to keep warm during the winter, it must also use that nourishment to help the fawn grow to a reasonable size. Finding food is tough, since older deer, including the fawn’s mother, will bully the fawn for any available food.

The deer who survive the harsh winter can look forward to a promising spring. The new growth of foliage provides vast quantities of foods. Spring may be the most important feeding time of year. If a deer is malnourished during the spring, it may grow small antlers in the fall, or even be too small to survive the winter. Some foods are only edible during the spring, which make them an important part of the deer's diet. For example, as buds, some foods are ideal for consumption; as the year continues, the buds grow into hard stalks, which are not pleasing to the deer and thus not eaten. Aquatic plants, where available, are very popular because they are easy to digest and are high in protein and other important nutrients. However, the impact of spring is very different in areas where soil condition is very poor. Here, food does not grow very well, so although deer may find enough food for sustenance it may not provide the right nutrients for proper growth.

Deer Minerals

Although deer can feast on a variety of forest foliage, it is imperative that they ingest certain minerals in order to remain strong and healthy. As in all animals, mineral intake is small, but this small amount is vital to the body. Mineral intake is most important to the bucks which need extra nutrition to grow and maintain their antlers.

Proper antler growth requires an abundance of vitamins A and D, phosphorus, and calcium. The nutrition requirements vary depending on the stage of antler growth. Many studies suggest that the most vital time for a high level of nutrients is one month before the antler growth begins. An important mineral that bucks crave during this period is salt. This mineral is consumed for immediate benefits and stored for use in the future.

Body growth takes precedence over antler growth though. Therefore, if an area is nutritionally depleted, the buck's antler development is seriously impeded. In contrast, if an area is abounding with minerals and vitamins, most bucks will grow respectable antlers when they reach maturity. During gestation, a doe's mineral intake must increase in order to support herself and the fawn within her. The most important minerals for fawn growth are calcium and phosphorous. During pregnancy, a doe's mineral intake is greater than a buck's. The milk of a doe is also mineral rich. Therefore, if she is mineral depleted, she will produce less milk for her offspring.

Gun hunters and Bowhunters will often leave large salt blocks in the wilderness, with the hopes that bucks will eat them and grow larger antlers come autumn. However, this does not always work, since genetics and other factors plays a role in how big a buck's antlers become.



Russell, MB
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