We’re here to help! Wild Yards is a completely free website that is 100% dedicated to helping you create a wildlife-friendly, sustainable yard. Read more
As autumn wanes and winter approaches, the deer are forced to emerge from their woodland homes in search of food. Even though these animals don’t hibernate, their metabolisms downregulate during the cold months. This means they have to load up on food in the fall before the temperatures drop. But what foods do deer eat during this time? Do deer eat acorns?
Deer love to eat acorns. These little seeds are nutrient-dense and jam-packed with energy. But deer can’t survive on acorns alone. These animals are grazers who rely on a number of plants to survive.
Why do deer eat acorns in the fall?
In the spring and summer months, most deer have a sweet tooth. They need to replenish their carbohydrate stores after a long, cold winter. So they like to eat the sugar-rich tender new growth off of the plants in your garden. They’ll rifle through your flowering berry plants and graze on your hydrangeas. They’ll even eat bananas and watermelon if you set these fruits out for them. Spring and early summer are when the does raise their young, so their appetites are insatiable during this time.
As the summer turns into autumn, the deer’s nutritional needs shift. This is when they start looking for protein and fat-dense foods that provide more calories. Nuts, seeds, and grains become more appealing to them than sweet treats. Deer will forage on pumpkins and sweet potatoes if they’re available, but not every deer has access to these fall garden goodies.
So, what’s a deer supposed to do with no autumn veggies to snack on? Cue acorns. Also sometimes called oak nuts, acorns are a moderate source of protein and an excellent source of fat and carbs. Oak trees grow throughout the U.S. and produce hundreds of acorns every season. So come September when the acorns start to drop, there’s a good food source available for the deer nationwide. This helps them to fulfill their nutritional requirements before the hard freezes set in.
Why do deer eat acorns from some oak trees and not others?
The more tannins in an acorn, the more bitter it tastes — it’s the same thing with wine. Even though deer don’t mind bitter-tasting foods as much as we humans do, they still don’t like their acorns to be too bitter. They prefer to peruse acorns that have fewer tannins. And the deer aren’t the only ones who prefer acorns with fewer tannins. Wood mice select acorns with lower tannin content, too. So it seems the deer have got some competition when it comes to foraging for this valuable food source.
Deer will browse on just about any oak tree’s acorns. But if the question is “do deer prefer to eat acorns from some oak trees over others?” the answer is yes, they do. Some oak trees produce acorns with naturally low tannin content. Water oaks, white oaks, and pin oaks are favored over red and black oaks, which produce acorns with medium to high tannin content. Sawtooth oaks are popular, too, and deer seem to prefer the acorns made by younger trees over aged and established ones.
If an acorn crop turns out to be especially unpalatable, and if other food sources are available in abundance, the deer may turn their noses up at them. If you have sunflower seeds or peanuts out for the birds, they may choose to nibble on those instead of the acorns. Deer may also choose to eat pecans since they fall around the same time as acorns, though these nuts are not typically favored by hungry deer.
Which other foods do deer eat to prepare for winter?
Deer prefer to eat acorns over most other foods when given a choice. It’s a natural part of their diet. So don’t be surprised if the deer ignore your dried corn and prepackaged deer feeds in favor of the season’s acorn crop. It’s nothing personal.
That said, deer need more than acorns to bulk up for the winter. These animals are ruminants with four-chambered stomachs designed to extract every ounce of nutrition out of whatever vegetation they find before sending it out of the business end. Even though acorns are nutritionally dense, deer still require more variety in their diets.
In addition to acorns, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes, deer enjoy eating soybeans and apples during the fall to gear up for the winter months. These are excellent sources of protein and carbohydrates. Deer will also continue to forage on any green vegetation that’s still available. Japanese honeysuckle and flowering dogwood are two plants that stick around well into autumn. These plants provide the deer with the fiber they need to keep their delicate digestive systems in good working order.
How can you help your local deer prepare for winter?
If you’re serious about helping your local deer get ready for winter, listen up. Start by hanging your rake back up in your shed and leaving your oak trees’ leaves right where they fall. Acorns drop before the oak tree’s leaves shed, so they get covered over with the dead foliage. This helps keep them hidden from other foragers, and the deer don’t mind sifting through the leaves to look for acorns. It also keeps the acorns from being exposed to sunlight, which can cause them to lose moisture and, consequently, nutritional value.
The second best thing you can do is provide your deer with an additional food source. But don’t feed them too much. Because their stomachs are designed to enter a period of relative fasting during winter, feeding them too much can be damaging to their health. Throw a couple of handfuls of peanuts, oats, or deer corn in your backyard every couple of days. That should be enough to help your herd stay fed. Leaving a mineral block out for them and a large bucket of water (preferably warm water, so it doesn’t freeze over) will help them, too.
So, do deer eat acorns? Of course, they do! But they also enjoy eating other foods, too. By providing your deer with alternative food sources in the autumn months, you’ll ensure there’s plenty to go around as these magnificent creatures prepare for winter.