The winter season can be a challenging time for whitetail deer. The nutrient-rich foliage and live plant food that they eat during the warm growing seasons is no longer available. Because of that deer lose a relatively large amount of their body weight over the winter.
During the winter, to replace the nutrient-rich and growing food of the warmer months, deer turn to eating twigs from woody plants and trees including ash, hemlock, aspen, maple, hazelwood and red osier dogwood. They will also eat tree bark, fallen leafs, and needles from evergreen trees. If their territory is near human agricultural land, deer may find refuse corn, soybean or other plants to eat. Interestingly, it is reported that deer prefer to eat refuse food stock from the ground and do not like to pluck from the stalks that are standing.
“Old Man’s Beard,” a gray arboreal lichen is also a food source for deer in winter when it is accessible. The lichen grows on dead and unhealthy spruce and balsam trees and contains micronutrients that help sustain the deer when nutritionally dense food is scarce.
Though not necessarily for their betterment, deer may also find that hunters provide food plots for them. Among the food plants hunters utilize to encourage specific deer foraging behavior are corn, soybeans, and brassicas. Because deer, in an effort to reduce their energy output in winter through minimizing their walking, prefer to bed near their food sources, successful food plots encourage deer behavior that is beneficial to a hunter’s intentions.
Deer greatly reduce their physical activity over the winter and utilize their energy to remain warm. The energy requirement of maintaining body heat and the lower nutritional value of winter food sources means that the amount of food that the deer eats during winter is higher than during the warm months. Homeostasis requires the deer to forage and ingest 3-6 pounds of food daily.
During the warm seasons, deer thrive on growing plants, fruits, nuts, and acorns as well as cultivated vegetables like beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, soybeans, wheat, and rye. As the harvest season passes and winter cold sets in, deer turn to less nutritious food in larger amounts and lowered activity to sustain them.