What Do White-tailed Deer Eat During the Winter?

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Winter is a rough season with its blustery winds and icy temperatures, especially for wildlife. People can choose to stay inside during snowstorms, sipping hot cocoa by the fireplace, but wildlife aren’t so lucky. Mother Nature gave wild animals the amazing ability to adapt and survive harsh conditions, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.

Weathering winter weather takes its toll on wildlife. Many animals grow a thicker coat for winter, but they still require extra calories to stay warm. During the winter months, finding a food source is a struggle. Walking through deep snow or digging through ice and snow to find food uses precious energy. Because the act of surviving burns so much energy, wildlife attempt to conserve as much as possible. For example, white-tailed deer bed close to food sources to avoid unnecessary movement. For this reason, if you’re planning a late-season bowhunt for white-tailed deer, find the food and you’ll find your quarry.

So, what do white-tailed deer eat anyway? The Mississippi State University Deer Lab reports white-tailed deer have been documented to eat more than 400 species of plants in the Southeastern part of the U.S. alone. That’s a lot of options, however not all food sources are created equal. During the winter months, deer try to find the biggest bang for their buck. Deer graze for their food, but in winter a lot of their usual food sources disappear.

Here are some of the most common winter food sources for white-tailed deer:

Woody Browse

Deer will graze on twigs or dead leaves on the ground. Photo Credit: John Hafner

The MSU Deer Lab reports woody browse makes up the largest percentage of a deer’s diet – up to 80 percent at times – especially in the winter months when other food sources are hard to find. What comprises woody browse varies by geographical location, but this food source category includes buds, twigs and leaves.

Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources reports younger forests provide better vegetation for white-tailed deer. Look for signs of deer browsing from ground to about 5 feet. White-tailed deer in Michigan and similar geographical areas seek sumac, yellow birch, white pine, white cedar and the buds of maple trees. Other common woody browse include elm, oak, hackberry, greenbrier, honeysuckle and grape vines. When these food sources are tough to come by, deer will eat leaves, even old dead ones on the forest floor.

Mast

Mast is a much more seasonal food source for whitetails. Mast is the fruit of plants, such as acorns, apples, pears and berries. Deer will stand on their hind legs to access winter apples. Acorns fall off oak trees during the fall, but if they are still on the ground during the winter, deer will find them. Acorns are high in carbohydrates and fats.

Corn

Deer frequent cornfields, even if they’ve already been harvested. Photo Credit: Outdoor Life

Corn is a fan favorite, because it’s a high-calorie food loaded with carbohydrates and fat. If there’s any corn in the area, it’s a safe bet you’ll find white-tailed deer there too. Corn shows up in a deer’s diet in a couple of different ways. Farmers typically harvest cornfields before winter, and deer will frequent the fields to graze the leftovers.

Corn is a popular choice to plant in food plots, which are cultivated sites filled with crops used to attract wildlife. It’s illegal to create food plots on public land, but in some states hunters can establish food plots on private land. Bowhunters will often hang treestands near the food plots. Be sure to check local hunting regulations to determine if food plots are legal in the area you plan to hunt.

Brassica Blend

A brassica blend is another popular food plot mix used to target white-tailed deer during the late season. Brassica blend is fast-growing lush forage from the mustard family. There are several different varieties, and they’ve grown in popularity because of the blends’ low cost, ease of growing and high protein count. Rape is a member of the brassica family. It does well in cold weather and provides quality food when other food sources are slim. Other common brassicas include kale, radish, turnip, canola, cabbage and cauliflower.

White-tailed deer are the most wide-ranging ungulate in North America. Because of their widespread habitat, their diet varies based on what’s available in their area. If you’re planning a late-season bowhunt for white-tailed deer, scouting for their food source is the best way to find your quarry. Take a trip to your local archery shop for insight from the pros.


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