What Do Reindeer Eat? 7 Important Foods for Their Diet

Written by August Buck
Updated: December 13, 2021
Image Credit mkarco/Shutterstock.com
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Given the unique climate and environment that most reindeer live in, you may be wondering: what do reindeer eat?

Reindeer eat a diet that consists of many things, including moss, fungi, tree leaves, and fresh grass shoots when they are in season.

While Santa may be responsible for feeding his reindeer a balanced diet, what might someone expect a wild reindeer to be eating? Let’s take a look at what this species prefers, and during various times of the year. 

What Do Reindeer Eat
Reindeer eat lichens, moss, and foods like grass shoots when in season.

A-Z-Animals.com

What Foods Do Reindeer Eat?

Reindeer eat moss, fungi, tree leaves, herbs, ferns, and fresh grass shoots during the spring. 

They are herbivores, meaning they only consume plants or other vegetation, no matter the season and available food.

These hooved herd animals are quite selective about what they eat in the wild, choosing to consume only the most nutritious part of whatever plant they’re munching on. While reindeer will take what they can get come winter, they can be quite picky during spring and summer months.

However, this isn’t to say that reindeer don’t also enjoy a treat from time to time. Just like Santa loves his milk and cookies, many children place apples, carrots, or other fruits on a plate as a snack for his reindeer. These herbivores love sweet treats as well, though it will need to be supplemented with leafy greens.

But what else do reindeer choose to eat, and how much do these hooved beauties need to eat in order to maintain their bodies through a freezing tundra season? Let’s take a look.

A Complete List of 7 Foods Reindeer Eat

Reindeer eat a wide variety of vegetation and plant matter- so much so that they have a type of moss affectionately named after them!

Reindeer lichen is one of many wild foods that a reindeer will eat. Even though they are a semi-domesticated breed of deer, reindeer need many foragables in order to survive. Reindeer lichen is a key part of northern ecosystems, and a study published in Ecography shows that reindeer grazing on said lichens is changing the overall habitat!

Besides these cold-weather lichens, wild reindeer also eat:

  • Herbs
  • Fern varieties
  • Spring grass, both shoots and fully grown blades
  • Mushrooms and fungi
  • Moss and lichen
  • Leaves from shrubs
  • Leaves and bark from trees

There are even more treats that reindeer can receive or eat, especially a domesticated reindeer or a reindeer kept as a pet (or working for someone like Santa!). Treats that domesticated reindeer can eat include:

  • Fruits such as apples or bananas
  • Oats and grains
  • Hay or other dried grasses
  • Leafy greens, such as chard or sprouts
  • Vegetables, such as carrots or root veggies

These treats should not be the primary sources of nutrition for a reindeer, whether they are captive or not.

Given that reindeer can be domesticated, you may find that reindeer in captivity eat a larger variety of things compared to their tundra-living counterparts. For example, a wild herd of reindeer isn’t going to stumble upon an apple orchard while traversing the tundra!

No matter what, reindeer need a large amount of vegetation and greenery in order to survive a cold and long winter. Given their selective eating habits, reindeer are instinctually able to find high-density, nutritious options, whether they are in the wild or in captivity.

This is why reindeer lichen is such a key component in a wild reindeer’s diet. This lichen is packed with nutrition and vitamins necessary for many reindeer to survive in the wild. However, eating this moss is easier said than done when winter comes and the snow settles in!

You may be wondering how much food the average reindeer needs in order to survive and reproduce. Let’s dive into that now. 

How Much Does a Reindeer Eat?

Caribou Migration
Reindeer eat up to 20 pounds of vegetation per day.

doliux/Shutterstock.com

A reindeer eats as much as 20 pounds of vegetation and food per day. The average reindeer eats anywhere from 5-15 pounds of food per day, and this number is more likely to occur in the winter when there is less food.

The foods that wild reindeer choose to eat can greatly affect their herd and birth rates- and how much they eat overall. While they are selective foragers, the more selective they are, the more likely they are to reproduce.

For example, a study performed by Robert G. White in the Oikos Journal showed that a 14% body weight increase in young female reindeer has led to as much as a 35% increase in the likelihood of conception and the continuation of a herd.

What Does a Reindeer Eat in the Winter?

Reindeer still need food in order to survive a harsh winter in northern regions. They often eat reindeer lichen and other high-density, nutritious vegetation. But how can these hoofed herbivores find greens to eat when there’s snow on the ground?

Reindeer often need to use their hooves, antlers, and soft noses to dig through snow in order to eat during the harsh winter months. Vegetation and lichen often gets trapped beneath feet of snow, leading to much more work on behalf of a herd of reindeer!

Female Reindeer Have Antlers
The diet of reindeer changes by season.

Do Reindeer Have Any Predators?

Wild reindeer have many predators, but they are listed as an animal of least concern on our list of animal conservation status. Humans are among the top predators for reindeer and caribou, but there are others as well.

Some common predators for reindeer include:

Given the size of many reindeer, it is often the calves or baby reindeer that are hunted by predators in the wild. This is why reindeer have to be especially careful of their young. There is little protection from predators in a barren location like a northern tundra, but reindeer have survived this way for their entire existence as a species.

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About the Author

I am a non-binary freelance writer working full-time in Oregon. Graduating Southern Oregon University with a BFA in Theatre and a specialization in creative writing, I have an invested interest in a variety of topics, particularly Pacific Northwest history. When I'm not writing personally or professionally, you can find me camping along the Oregon coast with my high school sweetheart and Chihuahua mix, or in my home kitchen, perfecting recipes in a gleaming cast iron skillet.