What Do Deer Like to Eat?

What do deer like to eat? Deer eat a variety of different foods in the wild. Whether you’re feeding deer or hunting, it’s important to understand what their diet consists of.

When white tailed deer feed in the wild, their diet consists of leafy plant matter, fruits, and other organisms found in the woods. Enthusiasts will put out a salt lick or purchase corn to attract them into their backyard to get a closer look. It’s safe to feed deer corn, but some items may not digest as easily.

When you feed them, it’s important to understand a deer’s diet and what the best deer food is.

This article will provide more insight into what their diet consists of. Many people compare their diet to that of a cow.

White Tailed Deer and Mule Deer vs. Cows

Although white tailed deer and cows are both known as ruminants because of the process in which their food is broken down, their diets are completely different. Cattle are known as roughage eaters, mostly because they eat grass primarily.

Their stomachs also hold a significantly larger amount of food. The rumen of a cow holds about 49 gallons of plant and liquid material to be stored for digestion. Even though grass is the hardest material to digest normally, cows accomplish it fairly easily.

Alternatively, a white tailed deer rumen holds two gallons of various floral and fruit materials. This is only about 4% of the amount of food a cow rumen holds. Because of this, deer must feed every 3 to 4 hours to maintain their nutrition. There isn’t enough space to store large amounts of their diet selection.

They eat quickly, trying to stick to foods that are easily digestible. However, because of their vast variety of meal options, this isn’t always possible. When seasons change, they must find new food items to eat. Their four-chambered stomachs take care of what doesn’t digest easily.

Diet Selection: What Do White Tailed Deer Like to Eat Primarily?

Depending on the time of year, deer prefer the leaves and twigs of plants, weeds, grasses, nuts, mushrooms, and fruit. Most studies have shown that deer actually prefer weeds over anything else, but freezing conditions and droughts prevent deer from finding them.

The types of foods that deer prefer can be broken up into four specific categories. In the following section, we’ll dive into each category more specifically. People assume deer love grass because of the amounts they eat; however, you’ll find this isn’t exactly true.

Browse/Woody Plants

Because of this, the item they end up eating most commonly is browse or the leaves and twigs of plants. Regardless of the weather conditions, these items will always be available in one form or another. Even when these shrubs lose their leaves during the fall or winter, the twigs still hold a substantial amount of nutrition.


Mast or acorns, fruits, and nuts supply high energy during turbulent times of the year for deer. These times include mating season and the period of antler growth. More specifically, grapes and plums are consumed during times when deer produce fresh antlers. Deer love mast more than any other food group in their diet. When deer eat corn, this can be considered an intake of mast.


Acorns and chestnuts are the two most vital types of nuts for deer. The acorns provide a rich source of fat and carbs, while the chestnuts have a high amount of protein.


Deer hardly prefer grass and normally look for oats, wheat, and rye. Recently, deer have been consuming mushrooms in higher volumes. Mushrooms contain phosphorus protein that deer desperately need. Before the winter months, this is primarily what their diet will consist of. Other foods aren’t as readily available, so their eating habits change with the weather.

Related: Can Deer Smell Corn?

Seasonal Diet for White Tail Deer

The foods a deer eats will change based on the seasonal availability. They may not have their first choice during certain times of the year, but they must graze on what is readily available to survive. It’s vital for deer to find an efficient food source as they prepare for winter.

In the United States, we experience an equal share of all four seasons in most parts of the country. Because of this, deer must adjust to a variety of different foods to obtain the nutrients they need when the weather changes.

In the spring, deer begin to regain the weight that was lost during the winter. This is when they look for different fruits and mushrooms as their main source of nutrition.

When spring starts to close and summer comes in, deer switch to browse because of the dryer conditions. In the late summer, they shift over to grapes and berries.

As fall approaches, deer must shift their focus toward foods rich in protein and fat like acorns and other nuts. During this time, they will also eat large amounts of apples and pears. These foods help them prepare for the coming winter.

What Do Deer Eat Regionally

Another dynamic that changes the way deer eat is the region they live in. Certain plants and fruits are indigenous to certain areas, so deer must eat what is available in the wild in those areas.

The diet of a deer can vary greatly depending on the area of the country it resides in. The climate and precipitation patterns have the largest influence on what deer eat regionally.

Browse plants are broken down into three separate categories. These categories are known as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd choices. Browse plants represent geographical areas and are labeled based on these numbered choices. Knowing what the 1st choices areas are will give you prime territory for spotting deer.

We’ve listed a basic outline of what deer eat in the United States and Canada just to give you an idea of how the choice ranking system works. By using this system, you can gain a better understanding of the areas deer tend to feed in.

United States

1st choice plants in the United States include greenbrier, blackberry, and honeysuckle. The primary 2nd choice food in certain areas is dogwood, red oaks, and poison ivy. Despite the effect it has on humans, ivy and oak plants don’t have negative consequences for the digestive system of a deer. The 3rd choice category is mostly young trees and weeds.


In Canada, dogwood is actually a 1st choice plant. 2nd choice plants include Japanese honeysuckle and blackberries.

Normally, deer prefer plants that have an indeterminate growth pattern. This is why their diet has such a large variety of foods. These plants are evergreen when climate and weather conditions permit. Because most of the United States receives all four seasons, deer must constantly change their diet to receive optimal nutrition.

How Do I Tell What Deer Like to Eat In My Area?

Most game agencies have literature available regarding the types of food deer like to eat in your area. The Quality Deer Management Association releases posters highlighting the types of food deer eat based on geographic location.

Normally, you can find these posters hanging in your local wildlife management office, or in places where you’re able to obtain a hunting license. They may also be placed in certain parks and wildlife refuge areas.

The best way to learn deer diet is to obtain a full-color book outlining different browse plants. This way, you can wander around and look for signs of deer consuming different types of browse species.

Deer lack upper front teeth, so you can tell the difference in bite marks between theirs and a rabbit. Typically, deer tend to pinch off pieces of leaves and shoots. Rabbits, on the other hand, leave an angled cut on twigs because of their large front teeth.

After careful inspection, it shouldn’t take long to understand which foods deer prefer to eat in your area. Browse plants are the easiest way to tell because usually, there’s a portion of them still left uneaten to examine the bite marks.

However, if you’re completely new, here’s a cheat sheet to update you on the types of food deer prefer in various geographic areas.

Deer Preferences Based on Geography

Use this cheat sheet to get a head start identifying different types of plant species deer prefer in your area!

Eastern Canada

· Hazel
· White cedar
· Ground hemlock
· Maple
· Serviceberry
· Yellow beech

Northeastern United States

· Greenbrier
· Dogwood
· Blackberry
· Sassafras
· Maples
· Staghorn sumac

Southeastern United States

· Greenbrier
· Honeysuckle
· Alabama supplejack
· Maples
· Beautyberry
· Dogwood

Central United States

· Quaking aspen
· Snowberry
· Dogwood
· Skunkbush sumac
· Saskatoon serviceberry
· Bearberry

Southwestern United States/Mexico

· Catclaw acacia
· Granjeno
· Kidneywood
· Lime prickly ash
· Bluewood condalia
· Lotewood candalia

Understanding what deer like to eat can be very important whether you’re deer watching or hunting. If you’re deer watching, you’ll have a leg up on the competition by having a decent amount of knowledge on the types of foods that attract deer to your property. You may be able to do a better job of attracting them by placing items in your yard that are normally out of season in the wild. This will provide a treat that the door normally can’t obtain during certain times of the year.

If you’re deer hunting, understanding what deer eat can give you a head start during hunting season. When you know where the foods are located that they eat seasonally, you can place yourself in the thick of where the highest deer population is likely to be.

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