What Do Deer Eat?

Written by Patrick Sather
Updated: June 21, 2022
Image Credit iStock.com/randimal
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Have you ever seen the movie, Bambi? In it, audiences are introduced to Bambi, a young deer, who must learn how to survive in the wild. In one scene, Bambi meets Thumper, a young rabbit, who teaches him about the joys of eating clover. Bambi tucks into the greens with relish, only to be reprimanded by Thumper for ignoring the much tastier blossoms. This scene is likely most people’s only insight into the dietary habits of deer. Deer are hoofed ruminant mammals belonging to the family Cervidae. The family includes elk, red deer, reindeer, white-tailed deer, roe deer, and moose. Native to every continent except Australia and Antarctica, you can find deer in a variety of habitats. You’ve likely seen deer in your own backyard, or crossing the street down a country road. However, are you able to answer the question, “what do deer eat?”

In this article, we’ll attempt to answer this question as we explore the dietary habits of deer. We’ll start off by discussing what foods deer like to eat. Then, we’ll talk about deers’ senses and how they forage for food. Next, we’ll compare the diets of wild deer versus deer that live in captivity. Finally, we’ll end with a discussion about the diets of baby deer. With that said, let’s get this conversation started and answer the question, “what do deer eat?”

What Do Deer Like to Eat?

Deer eat plant matter including grass, forbs, nuts, and mushrooms.

A-Z-Animals.com

Deer are herbivores, meaning that they subsist also solely on plant matter. Typically, they become more active at night, although you can also see them during the day. They spend the majority of their time browsing for vegetation and eating a wide variety of foods. Given that you can find deer around the world, not all deer eat the same foods. Some deer live in more arid habitats such as scrubland and grassland, while others live in the tundra or temperate forests. As such, no list can completely capture all of the foods that deer like to eat. That said, there are a number of foods that deer gravitate towards and commonly eat. We have compiled a list of 10 foods that most deer like to eat. These 10 foods that most deer like to eat include: 

  • Grasses
  • Sedges
  • Forbs
  • Shrubs
  • Leaves
  • Lichens
  • Fungi
  • Fruit
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

How Do Deer Forage for Food? 

Deadliest Animals in America
Deer have an excellent sense of smell, which they use to locate food.

iStock.com/Matt_Gibson

Deer possess the same five senses as humans. They rely on their sense of touch, taste, hearing, smell, and sight to help them find food and survive in the wild. Above all else, deer rely on their excellent sense of smell to help them find food. Their nose possesses 800 times more olfactory receptors than a human nose. A significant portion of its brainpower goes toward processing different smells, allowing it to differentiate between odors. Aside from their sense of smell, deer also rely on their eyesight to help them find food. While they struggle to see images clearly and in certain colors, their eyes function well in low light. This explains why deer are able to navigate so well at night. As for their sense of hearing, it is relatively comparable to ours. However, as herbivores, they rarely use their hearing to find food.

Deer are typically described as browsing herbivores. Browsing refers to a type of herbivory marked by the consumption of foliage of woody plants. This stands in contrast to grazing, where an herbivore spends most of its time feeding on low-lying grasses and sedges. As such, deer spend more time with their heads up picking leaves off of trees than with their heads down chomping on grass. Deer possess small stomachs specially adapted for digesting small amounts of easily digestible foods like shoots, leaves, soft twigs, mushrooms, and lichen. Because of their low fiber diet, deer must eat every few hours. That said, during winter they will eat higher fiber food like tree bark and nuts. On rare occasions, deer will also eat other animals. Typically, they will eat dead fish, or small birds, particularly young ground-nesting birds. 

What Do Deer Eat in the Wild?

white-tailed deer buck looking at camera
Deer are browsers and mostly subsist on foliage from trees and bushes.

iStock.com/Harry Collins

In the wild, deer mostly subsist on foliage from trees and bushes. Deer love to eat the needles from fir trees, as well as the leaves from trees like dogwood, wild plum, and honey locust. In addition to eating the leaves and twigs from these trees, deer also enjoy eating their fruits and seeds. These foods become especially important in the winter when leaves are less plentiful. Some of their favorite nuts include pecans, acorns, hickory nuts, and beechnuts. As for fruits, they enjoy pears, apples, plums, and strawberries. Additionally, forbs make up a large part of a wild deer’s diet. Forbs are flowering plants that do not belong to the grass, sedge or rush family. For example, deer enjoy eating forbs such as ragweed, pokeweed, wild lettuce, and verbena. In addition, deer will also eat lichen and fungi, particularly in the winter when other foods are less available. 

What Do Captive Deer Eat?

Largest Deer - Thorold’s Deer
Safe food for pet deer includes corn, alfalfa, fruits, and nuts.

Martin Fowler/Shutterstock.com

Due to their cute appearance, some people choose to keep deer as pets. Most often, deer are kept in zoos or wildlife sanctuaries. If you are raising a pet deer, there are a few things you should know in order to keep your deer healthy. You’ll want to feed your deer plenty of leafy greens such as lettuce, clover, and oak leaves. You can also feed them acorns, pecans, or any other type of nut to help them gain fat. As for fruits, stick to things like apples, pears, plums, and persimmons. Deer also enjoy commercial crops such as corn and alfalfa. Some deer owners opt to feed their deer a commercial feed grain suitable for cows, horses, or other hoofed animals. While this is an option, you’ll want to check with your veterinarian first before introducing commercial feed into a deer’s diet. 

 What Do Baby Deer Eat?

fawn, the baby animal name for a deer, laying in grass
Baby deer eat solely their mother’s milk for the first few weeks of life.

iStock.com/nearandfar

Baby deer, or fawns, are very capable shortly after birth. Within 20 minutes, a baby deer is already able to walk and explore its environment. That said, fawns are still very reliant on their mothers for the first few months of life. During the first two weeks of life, they will rely exclusively on their mother’s milk. Once they are old enough, they will begin to eat leaves, twigs, grass, and other plant matter. However, they will continue to drink milk for several months. By the time they are two or three months old, they will be fully weaned and eat the same food as adult deer. If you are raising an infant deer, you’ll want to give it goat milk or a deer replacement milk. Once it’s old enough to eat solids, start out with soft foliage like clover, dandelion greens, or alfalfa. Always consult with your veterinarian before introducing a new food into your deer’s diet. 

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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What flowers do deer not like to eat?

Deer love to eat certain flowers, but there are other flowers that deer do not like to eat. Daffodils, foxgloves, and poppies are poisonous to deer, which means they will strongly avoid them. Besides poisonous flowers, deer also tend to avoid blossoms with a strong scent, such as lavender, peonies, and bearded irises.

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