What do white-tailed deer eat during the winter? — Part 2

I have read about what deer prefer to eat during the winter and what is considered a “starvation food” — that is, a food only eaten when there is nothing else for the deer to eat. Both mountain laurel and rhododendron are on the “starvation food” list. My observations tell me otherwise.

For example — In early December — when deer are clearly not starving — I have observed deer eating rhododendron and mountain laurel leaves, hemlock needles and even dry, brown leaves from the forest floor. Now, if deer can live by eating dead leaves, then they should almost never starve. Just last week I watched deer munching on rhododendron leaves – and the forest floor surrounding my house is still littered with acorns.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission burns, cuts and sprays mountain laurel and rhododendron on state game lands because they say that the deer don’t eat it and it prevents the growth of tree seedlings. It certainly looks like that when I visit some of these gamelands. Yet, almost every winter, the deer strip the leaves nearly bare from the mountain laurel bushes on my Centre County property.

Deer feeding on rhododendron seems to be selective, rather than a necessity. Some of the native rhododendron bushes on my property have never been touched by deer, while others have been hit hard — browsed up 5 feet. I often see the result of deer eating, but not them actually feeding.

I live in the middle of the woods. One January, I was watching out my bedroom window as four deer slowly walked past the house. All of a sudden they veered to their left and started to munch on rhododendron leaves. They ate and they ate, and when the group moved on, the bush was almost naked. Meanwhile they had walked past a dozen other bushes and had not touched a single leaf. I wish I knew what had happened to make one bush so enticing.

While doe hunting in Potter County, I once saw deer digging up and eating fern rhizomes (another supposed starvation food) that were buried under 5 inches of snow. At the time, I assumed that the deer must have been starving, but it was mid-December and they were probably not. Did they just have an irresistible craving for ferns? You got me.

Why not share your observations about what deer eat during the winter.

 

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