What do deer eat in the winter? – Feeding style of deer

Deer are ruminant animals that live between forests and thickets and sometimes savanna but are usually associated with the forest. They require an ample supply of bush cover for their safety and ability to grow and thrive. Deer are grazers whose primary food consists of grasses, trees, shrubs, or herbs. Because most trees are covered in snow during winter, one of the significant winter concerns amongst hunters and wildlife enthusiasts is what do deer eat in the winter?

Deer are not helpless, though; naturally, they are ruminants that chew the cuds, and as expected with all ruminants, they have four stomachs which means they can regurgitate. During winter, most deer feed on fungi or lichens, but otherwise, their feed consists mainly of a nutrient-rich diet, found in most digestible shoots, leaves, twigs, fresh grasses, or fruits where they get the nutrients for growth and development.

Also, there are about fifty species of deer, but the more common ones include the reindeer, elk, red deer, white-tailed deer, and many more. The presence of antlers differentiates deer from other wild ruminants.

Also, deer are most active in the twilight hours of the day, so they have excellent night vision- an essential tool to feed in the dark and escape from their predators.

When food becomes scarce, deer feed on tree barks and fruits, but these are not necessarily a part of their primary diet. However, on infrequent occasions, some species of deer have been observed to exhibit a predatory mode of feeding when available.

In these cases, they might feed on eggs, small birds, and other smaller animals whenever they get all the nutrients they need from the general diet.

Wintertime is usually a stressful period for deer because they don’t get enough food, and when they do, the foods available may not contain sufficient nutrients to keep them nourished. Most forage plants available in the forest in winter have a shallow level of protein which is poor quality compared to other times of the year.

what do deer eat in the winter

What does a deer eat?

Most times, deer don’t necessarily get what they love to eat. Deer are herbivores which means they generally feed on plants. Deer have active salivary glands, which produces enzymes needed in the breakdown of the food they consume.

This is why certain foods that could kill other ruminants due to plant compounds in them may not affect deer. The enzymes produced by the salivary gland deactivate these anti-nutritional compounds such as saponin, tannin, and the likes, which otherwise could affect digestion.

Because deer have a less complex and smaller stomach than other ruminants, they consume forages or plants of higher quality. They are easily digestible than those consumed by cattle, goats, or other herbivores. This is important for them to be able to meet up with their energy and protein requirements.

A deer’s diet can change as a response to changes in a season which affects forage supply and quality; but generally, deer food varies from browse, which is the leafy part of woody plants, seeds, twigs, corn, grass, mushrooms, lichens, fungi, forbs, young shoots, and roots.

In some cases, deer have been seen to feed on fruits and berries when other food types are unavailable and on barks of woody plants. Although a more significant percentage of deer’s menu consists mainly of browse, mast, and forbs, they are essential in the supply of the nutritional requirements of deer in all seasons.

Leaf buds and evergreen leaves are necessary for winter. At the same time, a wider variety of crops are used alternatively to make up for seasons when the primary foods are unavailable as long as they are easily digestible.

Do deer eat meat?

Sometimes, it’s hard to imagine deer as an herbivore eating meat like a carnivore, but it is no longer strange in some parts of the world to see deer exhibiting this carnivorous trait. On certain deprived occasions, a deer may likely take advantage of an opportunity to boost up its nutrition by feeding on smaller and weak animals.

 Because deer are not natural hunters, they only target easier prey such as bird eggs, young chicks, or fish. This is one reason why deer can be considered a threat to ground-nesting birds as they take advantage of prey that can’t move, fight back or run away. There have been certain instances where deer are caught eating rabbits, but it was unknown if they were killed.

Deer have also been seen around carcasses where they dig through to find juicy treats such as rotten apples or dead meat. This behavior is often seen in deer during the harsh winter period. Plant food tends to be scarce and the available ones lack major minerals like salt, calcium, and phosphorus needed to grow and survive.

This trait is not regularly seen in deer but comes up in extreme situations, hence referring to deer as opportunistic eaters in the carnivorous sense. If deer could eat meat, it is either it has a trait of being a predator or can survive a period of starvation when plants (its major food) get scarce. 

However, it is a source of concern in the research world as biologists have raised an eye on the risk of deer being exposed to contagious diseases after contact with these carcasses.

Read: 15 Inexpensive way to feed deer

what do deer eat in the winter

Do deer eat carrots?

As part of a deer’s menu, carrots are a random snack or chocolate bar on a human’s menu. They are not an important part of a deer’s daily feed recommendation as carrots may not provide any significant nutritional value in the diet, but deer have been found to munch on carrots as a treat every once in a while.

Feeding deer is not a random chore of tossing a little bit of everything into their menu, but ensuring that the feeding is done correctly to benefit the deer throughout the season, especially in winter.

Therefore, whenever it crosses your mind to ask if deer eat carrot, the answer is that they do because they, like other herbivores may love the taste of carrot, but they do not eat carrot as a main part of their dietary requirement.

Do deer eat bread?

In some parts of the world, it is considered illegal to feed bread to deer. But this does not necessarily mean that deer cannot survive with a little bit of bread. One of the major reasons you’d out rightly refuse to give deer bread is that their guts are not made for such food types.

They are first ruminants before being any other type of animal. However, in certain desperate situations such as winter, deer somehow survive on every edible they can randomly pick up, including bread. While deer can eat bread, it is important to know that bread could kill a deer as a result of indigestion at a certain quantity.

So, deer can eat bread, but bread has little or no nutritional value to deer as it is not a part of their natural diet; hence the need to feed them in moderation. When a deer consumes a large quantity of bread, it may cause certain diseases (such as Lactic acidosis) in them.

Best deer food

Despite the many food choices available to deer year in year out, deer do not joke with browse, which supplies the nutrient needed and is also very abundant in the wild. Deer’s browse consists of woody parts of leaves and stems of trees. Deer do not eat just for its fun but eat enough to provide the nutrients necessary for body growth and development. This is why the best deer food must be high in fiber, minerals and protein.

Although deer love to eat browse and forbs, the quantity they consume differs through the year and sometimes deer tend to get picky on food, especially when in abundance.

Moreover, deer’s food preference may also differ with region and the type of vegetation abundant in that area. For instance, a Midwest deer may enjoy diet comprising of more crops when compared to a deer from the Northeast.

However, this option is limited in the winter period when they have to rummage the wild for something to eat unless winter is favorable on tree plants.

Do deer eat insects?

It is not unusual to find deer eating insects, but as earlier stated, this predator behavior is usually seen in periods when food is scarce. A deer’s ability to explore different food types increases its chances of survival in winter. During these times, deer will feed on just about anything that will provide the nutrients and make up for lack of browse to feed on.

Do deer eat oranges?

Deer naturally eats oranges and oranges are easily digested by deer. However, oranges are not a regular part of deer’s diet and because of how tall the trees grow; they are usually out of a deer’s reach unless they fall to the ground. Oranges are healthy fruits for deer as they are high in water and vitamin content, increasing a deer’s chance of survival.

Unlike other fruits (e.g. apples), oranges are easier to digest and provide an adequate amount of nutrients to the deer without threatening their guts or well-being. It is usually recommended to give an adequate supply of oranges to deer in winter to keep them fed when other food sources are limited.

Do deer eat corn?

While deer seem completely fine with certain plant-based crops, you should know when to draw the line, especially in the type of feed you provide. Corn for instance is a very bad choice of feed for deer and you should never consider feeding it to them.

Corn is high in carbohydrates which cannot be digested or broken down in the deer’s gut. If deer eat corn, they could die from acidosis because of the indigestion of the corn. As much as you want to provide food for deer, never add corn to their supplementary feed or you may end up with dead deer in your backyard.

Do deer eat hickory nuts?

While hickory nuts are not the main attraction to deer, deer love the hickory tree from which they enjoy its stem, new buds and leaves. It has been observed in some cases that deer most likely eat hickory nuts, but they prefer the pignut and bitternut species to the mockernut and shagbark species.

However, in extreme situations, deer will eat these types when they are hungry despite the hard shells of the shagbark and mockernut (which deters them from eating these types in the first place).

Because deer are quite picky, given a chance, they might likely pick acorns over hickory nuts, but when all that is available in the hickory tree is full of nuts, be sure the deer won’t leave the nuts to waste.

Do deer eat birds?

Deer are not vegetarian as many different deer eating dead birds, bird eggs, and helpless young chicks have been recorded. It is not unusual to find a bird freak out at the sight of a deer because of the many encounters with deer. Even if not generally accepted, Deer are scavengers that may feed on birds just to make up for unavailable foods.

Do deer eat fish?

Yes, deer eat fish. Like many other meats, deer has been found gobbling up dead fishes from river banks and even picking a few smaller fishes from the river. We are getting used to the fact that deer may not be herbivorous, but in their defense, we believe that this scavenging or predatory habit is a survival instinct for them.

It’s either you go hard or die trying. Only those who can adjust to this change will survive the winter.

Do deer eat rabbit?

Winter is coming, the leaves are dropping off, the plants are shedding and the trees are no more fruiting. The deer is left wondering what to eat to survive the winters so it doesn’t become prey to the big guys in the wild or end up starving through the winter.

While strolling around, the hungry deer finds a dead rabbit on the path with juicy meat and nutritious offal. I bet you think the deer will walk past the food? Well, that’s what I thought until I discovered that an hungry deer would eat anything to survive, including a rabbit.


Winter is a time deer enthusiasts wonder what deer eats in winter. I bet you are as amazed as I was at these discoveries about the scavenging ability of deer. I could have bet that deer are herbivores through and through, but it seems desperate times calls for desperate changes inhabit and so is it with deer.

As much as it is not recommended to feed deer, you might be the only hope for a dying deer in winter which is why planting shrubs, leaving out fruits or nuts scattered across your backyard and sometimes leftovers would be highly appreciated by deer even if they are unable to show their gratitude.

Winter is often a challenging period for deer, but little feeds here and there makes the difference. So, you no longer need to be surprised to find deer eating fruits, vegetables, carrots, nuts, twigs and sometimes meats. A deer’s got to survive.

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