7 Animals That Deer Eat (And Why They Eat Them)
It may come as a surprise that those sweet browsing deer in your yard are actually flesh-eating creatures!
But wait, Aren’t they herbivores? Contrary to popular belief, deer are omnivores and will consume meat if they have to or if the opportunity arises.
Deer rarely consume meat, but when they do, they will target animals that are already deceased or animals that won’t put up a fight or give chase.
Below, we’ll go over the bizarre world of meat-eating deer and which animals they target. We’ll also talk about when and where these bouts of carnivorous habits take place!
What Do Deer Eat In General?
Deer are well known for being spotted in fields and grazing on various plants and grasses, but deer diets are a little more complex than they first appear.
It might seem crazy to think that a deer could perish from a lack of food when there’s so much grass around, right? The truth is, a deer’s digestive system requires high-quality food to meet its nutritional needs, not just grass.
In other words, a deer could perish with a stomach full of grass.
Instead of grass, deer need high-quality plants such as forbs, nuts, seeds, berries, persimmons, buds, broad leaves, wheat, and oats.
They’ll also scavenge crops and grains from agricultural fields when they can. All in all, there are over 600 plant species that deer will eat.
The time of year will dictate what a deer eats as well. For example, in the fall deer tend to eat more acorns. In the winter they browse twigs. In the spring and summer, they eat more berries, clover, and grasses.
When it comes to eating meat, deer are most likely to consume it in the winter when food is scarce and they happen to come across it. They may also eat meat if they live in an area that is overpopulated with deer, creating food scarcity.
Winter is hard for most creatures. There’s a lack of food, harsh weather, and rough terrain. This is a time when many animals perish from lack of food or exposure, which is why winter is the most likely time that a deer will eat another animal.
Where Do Deer Eat?
It’s hard to travel anywhere in the United States without seeing some kind of deer whether it be white-tail, mule, Sitka, fallow, or some other subspecies.
Deer are common in most states, but there are places where they prefer to live and eat. Deer browse and search for food in the following places far more than others:
- Hardwood forests
Deer may eat in other places, but they are more likely to find their favorite foods in the areas listed above. Forests are an important source of cover for deer, as are brushy meadows. Deer need cover to eat without the fear of being spotted by a predator.
You’re more likely to spot a deer munching on food early in the morning or late in the evening, around dusk. This is when deer are most active. Check out where deer go and live during the day here.
How Much Do Deer Eat?
Deer must eat a surprising amount of food each day to stay healthy. How much they need will depend largely on their weight, but their age and physical activity can also influence how much food they need to intake each day.
In winter, deer typically lower their activity levels, meaning they conserve their energy and can eat less each day. Pregnant does need more food than when they’re not pregnant. Males that are growing their antlers need more food than in the winter. It all depends on the stage of life the deer is in and the season.
According to the University of Minnesota, adult deer need to eat 6-8 percent of their body weight per day. For a 200-pound deer, that equals 12-16 pounds per day. That’s a lot of veggies!
Now that we know the “what”, “where” and “how much”, let’s move on to some specifics: meat. We’ll go over each animal that a deer might eat and discuss where these interactions might occur.
7 Animals That Deer Eat
If you’re like me, then learning that deer eat meat came as a shock. Not only that, but it’s likely to haunt my nightmares for years to come.
However, you don’t have to worry too much about your friendly neighborhood deer going after you or any surrounding animals.
Deer are most likely to eat animals that are already deceased. Very rarely will they track down an animal themselves. A deer’s mouth is not designed to get through the tough hides of animals. Instead, they scavenge animals that have already perished or been taken down by a predator.
It’s speculated that one reason deer turn to eating other animals is due to calcium deficiencies. They are trying to get at the bones of the animal, but eat through the flesh to get to the bone.
Either way, let’s jump into the details of what animals deer eat.
In contrast, bookmark our article on the animals that EAT deer to get a full scope of the deer food chain!
Deer will eat both live fish and those that are deceased, but it is very unlikely that they go fishing in lakes and streams for these fish.
If and when deer eat fish, it is more likely because a fish washed up on shore or is somehow unable to escape. Think of a drought that dries up part of a stream and there are fish caught in a shallow pool of water. Deer will also eat the piles left by fishermen who gut their fish.
Bony fish are better for deer than fish that are pure cartilage, but it’s not likely that a deer will turn down a fishy meal just because there aren’t any bones.
In general, fish is high in protein and low in fat. A study published in the Journal of Animal Production Science found that the maintenance level of protein for deer is around 4-9% of their diet. During the antler growth stage, higher protein diets can help grow larger racks.
Thumper and Bambi don’t get along all the time. Deer will consume rabbits that have already perished. The chances of a deer stalking and tracking down a rabbit are near zero percent.
The most likely place this may happen is along roadsides where rabbits and cars have collided. Deer feed in the late evening or early morning, so it’s unlikely this type of behavior is often observed by people.
Deer may also come across rabbits that have been taken down by predators. The predator may have gotten disturbed and left the rabbit or they could have eaten their fill and left just the bare bones, which deer will pick at.
If the rabbit has passed away from natural causes and a deer comes upon it first, it will not be able to break through the tough hide. In this instance, the deer may just nibble on the limbs or else leave it be and opt for some persimmon leaves or acorns.
If the thought of deer eating meat wasn’t disturbing enough, now they’re climbing trees to get at birds?! Don’t worry, you won’t see deer trying to climb trees in the spring to get at peeps.
Deer only go after ground-nesting birds or fledglings that have fallen out of the nest and are on the ground. Even then, deer cannot take down adult birds and are more likely to go after the eggs or the young.
Ground-nesting birds typically build nests in the cover of tall grasses, bushes, brushy meadows, and vines. Some species of birds will even dig underground tunnels to lay their eggs.
A somewhat perfect storm must happen for a deer to consume a ground-nesting bird. According to an article in the Journal of Zoology, deer predation on birds probably only happens when deer feed on mineral-deficient vegetation and there is a dense colony of ground-nesting birds around.
Under normal circumstances where deer populations are stable, they are not likely to go after ground-nesting birds.
Squirrels And Chipmunks
Similar to rabbits, squirrels are not likely to be prowled and stalked by their deer neighbors. Instead, deer that consume squirrels are likely eating ones that have already perished.
Squirrels have it rough when nuts such as acorns and walnuts are scarce. This can be detrimental to their winter food stores. It’s during these times when squirrels are perishing from lack of food and deer are in a state of malnutrition that they might consume squirrels.
Here’s where deer go during winter and how they cope with the weather here.
Deer can also happen upon squirrels that were taken down by a predator. Squirrels tend to prefer forested areas of hardwood and coniferous forests, which is the most likely place they will run into a deer.
There are two main types of squirrels: those that live in trees and those that live in the ground. In spring, it is a possibility that a deer could happen on a young ground squirrel kit, similar to a ground-nesting bird, and go after it.
Squirrel kits tend to grow slowly and are completely dependent on their mothers for 6 weeks or more. During this vulnerable time, they may fall prey to deer.
Food is food to a deer. They don’t readily differentiate between the bones of a rabbit and the bones of their own species. That being said, deer do not stalk or go after deer with the purpose of taking them down.
The most common time that deer interact aggressively with each other is during the rut, which occurs in fall at varying times depending on the region.
Male deer may fight each other over a doe, which can sometimes result in a fatality, though this is typically a rare occurrence.
A more likely reason a deer would consume another deer is if it was taken down by a predator and there were still bones left. Another instance may be a gut pile left by hunters that deer will sift through in search of bones.
There’s not a whole lot of information out there on how often this happens, but it’s safe to assume that it’s rare.
A deer consuming another deer will typically only happen under specific circumstances if the opportunity arises. Not only that, but deer are unlikely to go after the meat and flesh of the deer itself, but rather go after the bones and accidentally ingest meat along the way.
Frogs may have powerful legs and can jump quickly, but by and large, they are slow-moving animals when they are on land.
The most likely time a deer will consume a live frog is if it’s on land and too far from the water to be able to escape.
Another happenstance where a deer will consume a frog is if the frog is already deceased and the opportunity arises for the deer to eat it.
Unlike most of the animals on our list, frogs aren’t around in the winter. They typically dig deep into the soil to hibernate until warmer temperatures bring them to the surface.
With this in mind, it’s even less likely that deer consume frogs than other animals on our list because they do not come across them in the winter when food is scarce.
A more likely scenario would be if a deer happened upon a slow or injured frog in the forest near a pond or stream, or if the frog already perished.
Deer aren’t likely to eat your pesky house mouse, but they will consume deer mice, field mice, and a host of other little rodents that call forests home.
Mice may fall prey to deer if they are injured, old, young, or sick. This most likely takes place in forest habitats or agricultural fields where both mice and deer are abundant. While injury and sickness can happen at any time of year, deer are more likely to consume mice in winter or spring.
In winter, deer may be suffering from malnutrition and if the opportunity arises, they will eat a mouse. In the spring, young mice pups are slow and often fall prey to a host of predators, including deer.
It is very unlikely that a deer will stalk a mouse the same way that a coyote or fox might. Instead, they will only consume a mouse if the opportunity arises and the mouse is easy to catch or already deceased.
So, Do Deer Actually Eat Animals Often?
Deer are called herbivores by many, but really, they are omnivores. They will readily eat other animals if the opportunity arises, but do not often take them down themselves.
Even though deer are omnivores, they rarely eat other animals. When deer eat other animals, it is most likely because they are trying to compensate for a mineral deficiency.
Normally, deer can get enough calcium from the plants they eat, but in times of adverse weather or overabundance, these minerals may not be readily available.
The winter is an especially delicate time for deer as they must find food despite the cold temperatures, snow, and ice. If they happen to stumble upon an animal that’s perished, they may eat it simply for the calories and calcium content. In other words, because they are desperate.
Other animals can also provide deer with protein, which they need especially when they are fawns, pregnant, or nursing. Adult males also benefit from protein as it helps with antler development.
The Favorite Animal Of Deer: Ground-Nesting Birds
We’ve established that deer do in fact eat other animals. Is there one animal, in particular, that’s at the top of a deer’s favorite food list? Not really, but…
The animals that are most likely to be consumed by deer are ground-nesting birds. This is one area where information was plentiful. Ground-nesting birds are easy targets for most predators, and deer take advantage of their slow movements and available nests.
Deer can cover a large area in a single day, which means they are more likely to stumble upon a ground-nesting bird nest than some of the other animals out there.
The other animals on our list are more than likely just an opportunity that arose and the deer took it. For example, stumbling on an animal that has already perished is a quick and easy source of nutrition.
That’s A Wrap!
Now that you’ve been thoroughly disturbed by the fact that deer eat meat, it’s time to wrap this article up so you can go spread the word about meat-eating deer.
To recap, deer eat meat on rare occasions only. The most likely reason that deer will eat meat is that an opportunity arose and they are lacking in some type of mineral that is available in the flesh or bones of the prey animal.
The 7 animals that deer eat include:
- Ground nesting birds
- Other deer
The animals that deer target will likely already be deceased or they are injured, very young, or very old. It’s unlikely that deer track down their prey and take them down on their own.
Dryden G. McL. (2011) Quantitative nutrition of deer: energy, protein and water. Animal Production Science 51, 292-302.
Felton, A. M., Wam, H. K., Stolter, C., Mathisen, K. M., and Wallgren, M.. 2018. The complexity of interacting nutritional drivers behind food selection, a review of northern cervids. Ecosphere 9( 5):e02230. 10.1002/ecs2.2230
FURNESS, R.W. (1988), Predation on ground-nesting seabirds by island populations of red deer Cervus elaphus and sheep Ovis. Journal of Zoology, 216: 565-573. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7998.1988.tb02451.x
R.J. Fuller, Responses of woodland birds to increasing numbers of deer: a review of evidence and mechanisms, Forestry: An International Journal of Forest Research, Volume 74, Issue 3, 2001, Pages 289–298, https://doi.org/10.1093/forestry/74.3.289