Alsheimer: Deer Get Through Winter by Browsing Natural Foods

Alsheimer Buck Eating Goldenrod Leaves

Deer will browse through the winter. This buck is eating goldenrod leaves.
(Photo copyright Charles J. Alsheimer)

Winter takes a heavy toll on the white-tailed deer, especially in the snow belts of North America.

North of the 38th latitude (Virginia north), food can be tough to come by, especially if food plots and agriculture crops are not available. In such settings, whitetails must rely heavily on natural foods. In my area of western New York the preferred browse species for deer during winter are wild apple, basswood, ash, soft maple, aspen and red oak, in that order.

When a whitetail browses it will nip off 1″-3″ of the branch and two-thirds of the nutritional value will be found in the first inch of the branch. Due to snow and cold a northern whitetail’s food consumption is but a fraction of what it was during the spring through autumn time frame.

How Long will a Deer Bed in Winter?

When a whitetail feeds in winter will depend on the weather conditions. If the temperature drops below what is normal for the area, with gusty winds, deer will stay bedded. It is not uncommon for deer to go 48 hours or more without eating if such conditions exist.

In addition, whitetails will also gravitate to mast such as acorns and beechnuts, if available, and a variety of forbs. One such forb that is highly preferred by deer in my area during winter is goldenrod leaves.

I took the accompanying photo of a buck eating goldenrod leaves in January to illustrate a whitetails preference for goldenrod. Though low in the necessary nutrients a deer requires to survive, forbs like goldenrod leaves and natural browse make up the bulk of a northern whitetail’s diet from January through March.

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