What Do White-Tailed Deer Eat?

By Janhvi Johorey, Psychologist specialized in animal therapy. Updated: April 4, 2017
What Do White-Tailed Deer Eat?

As you can probably guess, white-tailed deer are not carnivores. These gentle herbivorous animals consume leaves, fruits, twigs, grass and acorns; they also have a diet of corn, lichens and alfalfa. In fact, the white-tailed deer's diet changes based on what kinds of foods are present in its environment and what season it is.

The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) can be found all over the United States and Canada, as well as Mexico and in northern South American nations. Residing mostly in meadows, fields and coniferous forests, white-tailed deer are get their name because of the white colored underpinnings of the tail; the rest of their coat is red-brown in color. While male deer of this species have large antlers that they shed each winter and are known as bucks, female does are smaller in size and do not have antlers.

Do you want to learn more about what do white-tailed deer eat? Stay with us at AnimalWised and learn all about this beautiful animal's behaviors, skills, and adaptations to its environment.

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Do white-tailed deer graze?

White-tailed deer do not eat mature grass. This is because they do not have the teeth or stomach for grinding and digesting the tough fibers in the grass. However, these deer do graze when they choose to eat tender shoots and new sprouting grass.

White-tailed deer have incisor teeth on the lower jaw and a cartilage pad on the upper jaw. Molars on both lower and upper jaws make for an easy grazing experience when it comes to the tender base of the grass, which is low in fiber, nutritious and digestible as against mature grass shoots.

Because some of the foods in their diets have high levels of cellulose and are extremely hard to digest, white-tailed deer have evolved into ruminant animals, just like cows, bison and the other types of deer. Their stomach has four different chambers, which allows their digestion to process in different stages.

Another biological adaptation to changes in the environment is that white-tailed deer have different types of microbes in their stomach chambers depending on the season of the year. Since the food deer eat changes during the course of the year, specific microbes appear to process and digest it.

What Do White-Tailed Deer Eat? - Do white-tailed deer graze?

What do white-tailed deer eat? Dietary classification

White-tailed deer eat the following types of food:

  • Browse: young leaves, tender shoots and twigs, plants and vines
  • Forbs: weeds
  • Legumes: pulses
  • Grasses: hay, Spanish moss
  • Nuts, acorns
  • Fruits
  • Corn, grain
  • Mushrooms

Each food varies in availability depending on the time of the year and climatic conditions. White-tailed deer prefer forbs over other food types, as they are easily digestible and nutritious. Still, these deer get most of their nutritional intake from browsing among shrubs or young trees within their reach, which remain nutritious even during times of drought or cold weather. In desert habitats, white-tailed deer can even browse cacti.

Do white-tailed deer eat poisonous food?

Although it may come as a surprise, among the food white-tailed deer eat we can find poisonous plants that would harm other animals - such as ourselves.

Acorns and oak leaves are very rich in tannin, but these deer eat them anyway. However, they eat them in small amounts or when the oak is young, ensuring the toxin concentration is low and balancing it out with other, harmless vegetables. These tender nuts and shoots mature and become more fibrous, tough and toxic: when food runs out in winter, white-tailed deer may consume mature vegetation and face health problems.

White-tailed deer also consume some mushrooms that are poisonous to us, as well as poison ivy. Their stomach microbes and processes allow them to digest these foods without any harm.

Do white-tailed deer eat mast?

"Mast" refers to the fruit of forest trees and shrubs, including nuts like acorns, beechnuts and hickory nuts ("hard mast") and berries, wild fruits such as rose hip, berries and drupes, and flower buds ("soft mast"). Deer do eat mast of the two kinds.

These types of food supply the deer with energy to limit thermal stress and promote rapid antler and body growth, as healthy deer herds need to cash in on digestible energy.

  • Fruits such as blackberries, grapes, plums, and mulberries are used as a carbs-rich energy source during antler growth.
  • Fruits such as apples and pears also fuel energy levels in autumn, when deer store fat for the winter.
  • Nuts are rich in carbs and proteins: chestnuts are lower in tannin, which facilitates digestion.
  • Acorns are the latter is high in fats and carbs but low in protein.

Now that you know what do white-tailed deer eat and why, don't miss the following articles!

What Do White-Tailed Deer Eat? -

Cereal Grains and Mushrooms

Cereal grains such as rye, oats, and wheat are highly ideal. Mushrooms are the second most important element, rich in protein and phosphorous. Another favorite food of deer is poison ivy. But when it comes to food, nothing beats mushrooms as these supply phosphorous for antler growth and growing fawn. Early fruits like berries and grapes are also a favorite with white-tailed deer. Nuts and mushrooms are essential for mineralization of antlers.

If you want to read similar articles to What Do White-Tailed Deer Eat?, we recommend you visit our Healthy diets category.

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Sharon Pappas
I liked your article very much. We put food out for the animals and DO NOT ALLOW hunters on our acreage. We protect the animals that cannot protect themselves.
Administrador AnimalWised
This is great to hear Sharon, we hope your neighbors take your lead!
Britton M.
Thank you, you helped me with my presentation!
Administrador AnimalWised
Hi Britton,

You're welcome, we're glad we could help.
keara oliver
well how are you doing? I have a queston. what eats a white tailed deer?
Good balance of facts yet not too complex.
Administrador AnimalWised
Thank you Sue, we appreciate your feedback!
It was very informational.
Administrador AnimalWised
Thanks for the comment Julia! Glas it was useful to you
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