What do white-tailed deer eat during the winter? — Part 1

I have always been curious about what deer eat, when and why. Of course, understanding this should be helpful knowledge to any deer hunter or property owner attempting to attract deer to his or her land. I know that I am still learning, and the more I learn, it seems, the less that I know.

My first look into the science of what deer prefer was from a book about deer that I owned as 10-year-old — I believe that I got it through the Outdoor Life Book Club. This is not a quote, but the author wrote something to the effect that white-tailed deer don’t eat spicebush — a wetland shrub. Of course, it was in a book and therefore “gospel.”

As a 16-year-old, I was really into archery hunting. I usually hunted on the ground from a blind made out of logs and branches. The finishing touch each day was a few green branches that I cut on my way into the woods. I poked the cut ends into the ground and the green leaves give me added cover. [Note: it is my understanding that this practice is now illegal. There were no such things as portable ground blinds in 1966 and even if there were I could not have afforded one. Were blinds made out of natural materials illegal in 1966 — I haven’t a clue, but they are now.]

Back to my story — The branches that I usually cut were spicebush. And — when I returned to my make-shift blind the following day — without fail — all of the spicebush leaves had been eaten. One evening I sat spellbound as a doe and her twin fawns actually came in and ate the leaves from my blind while I was sitting in it!

So, I learned that deer in that part of southcentral Pennsylvania do eat spicebush — maybe they even love it. Do they eat it everywhere? You got me.

Another observation — everywhere that I hunted in Blair or Bedford counties, deer never touched striped maple. Bucks often rubbed their antlers on it, but I never observed where striped maple had been browsed — not even a little. Where I hunted on State Game Land 73 in Bedford County, the forest was polluted with striped maple. I didn’t need a book to come to my own conclusion — deer don’t eat striped maple.

I shared this long-standing observation with a fellow teacher at the high school where I taught and he suggested that I hunt with him.

“The deer where I hunt seem to love striped maple. I’ll show you,” he offered.

So we hunted deer on State Game Lands 33 above the village of Bald Eagle. in Centre County. Sure enough, he showed me lots of places where the deer had eaten striped maple. Live, observe and learn — a good motto to live by.

So what do deer like to eat during the winter? The more that I learn, the less certain I am about any conclusive answer. I’ll share more next time.

 

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