Deer are a common animal seen just as often in the wild as in residential backyards. These hoofed animals can make a mess of our yards, gardens, and ornamental plants, but they also serve as an essential part of the food chain for many predators.
Common animals that eat deer include wolves, bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, feral hogs, bears, lynxes, alligators, and large birds of prey. Deer have multiple ways to defend themselves against predators, most of which involve evading the predator or running away.
In this article, we’re going to go over the most common animal predators that go after deer. But first, let’s talk about how deer defend themselves.
How Do Deer Defend Themselves From Animals?
White-tailed deer and mule deer are two common species of deer found in North America. Other subspecies include the blacktail, Sitka, coues, and the Florida key deer, but these are simply subspecies of either whitetail or mule deer.
Deer are found almost everywhere in the United States. These skittish animals are wary of pretty much everything in their environment. When confronted by a predator, deer have a few ways to defend themselves.
The most common response to a predator is to flee, but this isn’t always possible if the deer is still a fawn or if fleeing increases the risk of becoming a meal.
Let’s take a detailed look at how this important mammal evades its predators.
By the way, you can read more about what to do if you find a deer in your yard or garden here incase you’ve seen one, and then landed on this article!
Deer Use Their Keen Sense Of Smell
A deer’s best chance of surviving an encounter with a predator is to get a head start.
They use their amazing sense of smell to sniff out predators before they can even get close.
If you’ve ever been walking in the woods and suddenly a deer you never even saw starts running, it probably smelled you long before you could get close!
According to Penn State University, deer have around 297 million olfactory receptors, giving them a jump start on detecting predators, especially those that are upwind of the deer. In comparison, humans have about 20 million olfactory receptors.
Smelling a predator gives the deer a chance to flee before the predator gets close enough to pounce or attack. If a predator is downwind of the deer, it will be more difficult for the deer to detect the predator.
They Flee Predators!
Chances are you’ve had an encounter with a deer before. They are very shy creatures that run away far before you can get close. Deer apply the same principle to predators as they do to humans and flee rather than fight back.
White-tailed deer are more likely to flee from a predator than mule deer, who typically stand their ground.
Deer can run and bound up to 30 mph and use difficult terrain to escape predators.
They have no worries about prancing through dense brush and thickets to avoid a wolf or bobcat.
As the deer runs, it lifts its tail to expose the white fur beneath it. This is a sign to any deer nearby that danger is around.
Pretty thoughtful, right?
Deer Are Good Swimmers
Despite looking nothing like an aquatic animal, deer are decent swimmers and use this to their advantage when evading predators.
Deer can swim up to 10mph and will enter large streams, rivers, and other deep waterways to escape predators.
They will either cross to the other side of the water source or continue swimming until the predator leaves.
Some predators on our list such as alligators and wolves are talented swimmers and will pursue deer in the water. Others, mostly the big cats like mountain lions and lynxes, have less love for the water, giving the deer a chance to escape.
While swimming in the water, deer can also become vulnerable to attacks from large raptors like bald eagles who look for prey in rivers and streams.
Fawns Use Camouflage To Avoid Predators
We’ve talked about how adult deer evade predators, but what about fawns? These wobbly little animals are even more vulnerable to predators than adults.
According to Mississippi State University, fawn predation can be as high as 72% or as low as 18% depending on the area. With such high predation rates, fawns need a way to protect themselves.
Mama deer take amazing care of their fawns, but at some point, they have to leave them to find food.
If the fawn is too small to follow, it must use camouflage to avoid being seen by a hungry predator while mom is away.
There are two techniques that fawns use to avoid predators:
- Physical camouflage: When laying down, fawns will stretch their necks out and lay completely flat against the ground. This helps them blend in with the landscape
- Scent camouflage: While waiting for their mothers to return, fawns hold in their bathroom needs until mama deer comes back. Once she does, she will then consume the excretions to cover any scent of the fawn.
Mule Deer Stand Together Against Predators
White-tailed deer always choose to flee from predators. Mule deer, on the other hand, typically stand their ground against predators to increase their chance of survival.
A study reported in the Journal of Oecologia found that when individual mule deer fled, they had a lower chance of survival than white-tailed deer. However, mule deer had a much higher survival rate when they stood their ground in a group.
White-tailed deer are typically solitary but may travel in groups. Mule deer are more likely to travel in groups because they use this as a defense mechanism against predators.
9 Animal Predators That Eat Deer
Deer are fairly large animals and it takes a special kind of predator to take them down. Some predators on our list feed mainly on fawns such as the coyote, but others will take down full-grown adults such as wolves and mountain lions.
Now that we know how deer defend themselves, let’s take a closer inspection at the predators that can get around these defenses and make a meal out of deer.
Wolves are the ultimate predator. They’re capable of taking down prey that is much larger than they are because they stalk in packs.
Wolves have a few advantages that make them one of the best predators on the planet:
- Speed: Wolves can run around 35-40 mph, which is slightly faster than a deer which runs around 30 mph.
- Endurance: Most of the time, wolves catch deer by running them to exhaustion. Wolves have no problem covering a distance of over 40 miles in just 12 hours.
- Intelligence: Wolves go after prey in packs and use clever tactics such as decoy wolves to fool the prey into running toward a waiting ambush wolf.
Deer prefer to hide in thick forests but will come closer to edge environments and open fields when foraging for food. This is the most likely place where a wolf will go after a deer.
Unlike deer, wolves are only located in a few states in the United States, mostly in the northwest.
When going after deer, wolves typically employ a few tactics such as decoy wolves to steer the deer in a particular direction. If that doesn’t work, they will try to run the deer to exhaustion.
The amount of deer consumed by wolves depends on where the wolves live. For example, in Yellowstone National Park, 61% of the wolf’s diet is elk with just 3% being deer.
Bobcats are one of the most skilled stalkers out there. They will patiently and quietly follow their prey until the opportune moment and then pounce!
These big cats only weigh in at around 15-30 pounds, but they can still take down prey that is larger than themselves, including deer. However, taking down adult deer on their own is very rare.
More often than not, bobcats will only prey on adult deer if they are old, injured, or sick. They may also prey on fawns which are easier to catch.
If you’re interested, you can read about the animals that eat bobcats here!
3. Mountain Lion
Once widespread from coast to coast in the United States, mountain lions are now only found in the west except for Florida on the east coast. These apex predators can be found in a wide range of habitats just like deer.
Mountain lions try their best to use the least amount of energy to capture deer. They will either sit and wait to try to ambush deer or they will slowly stalk the animals until they are close enough to pounce. Stalking is their preferred method for catching deer.
Deer are a major component of a mountain lion’s diet.
According to research from the University of Arizona, mule deer made up around 62% of an Arizona mountain lion’s diet. If taking into consideration all types of deer (elk, moose, etc.), mountain lions consume around 48 per year.
Mountain lions prefer to be secretive and use dense vegetation as cover. They are most likely to go after deer in areas of heavy cover where they both exist, but it isn’t uncommon for these lions to stalk deer into more open areas or rocky terrain.
It may come as a surprise that these medium-sized canines can take down a deer. While this is true, coyotes prey on fawns more than adult deer.
Coyotes can be found everywhere, in every state in the contiguous United States and into Canada and south into South America. Because of this, their populations often overlap with deer throughout North America.
Most coyotes will hunt either alone or sometimes in pairs. However, when going after healthy adult deer, coyotes will form packs. The packs take down deer using a few different techniques:
- Ambush: Like wolves, coyotes will chase deer and steer them in a specific direction. This is to direct them to another coyote that is waiting to ambush.
- Exhaustion: Coyotes will take turns chasing the deer until the animal has spent all its energy and slows down, at which time the pack moves in.
It’s not unheard of for a single coyote to take down a deer, especially if it is old or sick, but more often than not they will form small packs.
You can take advantage of a deer’s fear of coyotes by using a Coyote 3-D Predator Replica Visual Scare for Bird and Pest Control.
Similar to mountain lions, coyotes are somewhat specialized predators of deer, which make up a large percentage of their diet. However, unlike mountain lions, coyotes cannot take down a fully grown adult deer very often. Instead, they opt to go after young deer and fawns.
According to an article in the Journal Mammal Review, southeastern coyotes cause around 44% of all fawn mortalities. The percentage is quite a bit lower (16%) in the eastern United States.
You can read more about the animals that coyotes eat here if you’d like!
5. Feral Hogs
Feral hogs are an invasive species that was introduced way back in the 1500s but have since taken over and dominated their habitat by being extremely adaptable. They will eat whatever is available and have no qualms about temperature or rainfall. All they require is access to water in warm climates.
Unlike mountain lions and coyotes, feral hogs are not major predators of deer. They will not take down a healthy adult deer, but rather prey on fawns.
The majority of a feral hog’s diet includes underground tubers, roots, and bulbs. They’ll also snack on acorns and agricultural crops, much to the distaste of crop owners!
There’s nothing quite as intimidating as a bear. They are the largest terrestrial predators in North America with the Polar bear topping the list!
Despite their large size, bears go after young deer more often than adult deer in most areas.
There are three species of bear in North America:
- Polar bear: Polar bears are the least likely to eat deer unless we are talking about reindeer, which is a species in the deer family.
- Brown bear (grizzly and Kodiak): Brown bears eat the most deer when they are located near abundant sources of deer such as dense forests or foothills. Brown bears that live near rivers are more likely to eat salmon than deer.
- Black bear: Black bears typically only feed on fawns and rarely take down a full-grown adult.
Catching a quick-footed deer may sound difficult for such a large animal, but bears are surprisingly fast and agile. To take down a deer, bears will charge the animal from behind and use their powerful paws to latch onto the hind end of the deer.
According to an article in the Journal of Global Ecology and Conservation, deer make up the majority of grizzly bear diets when deer populations are abundant and available.
You can read more about how deer and bears interact here.
Lynxes are often confused with bobcats, which is understandable since bobcats are just a type of lynx. Here, we’re talking specifically about the Canada lynx.
Despite its name, the Canada lynx has been spotted in the United States in Montana, Idaho, Washington, New England, Utah, Oregon, Wyoming, and Colorado.
The main prey of lynx is snowshoe hares, but they have been known to dine on deer. The most likely time a lynx will eat a deer is in the fall after the rutting season. This is when some deer are injured or weakened from fighting over mates.
Lynx will use one of three techniques to catch deer:
- Stalking: Lynxes have enormous paws which help them stalk prey in deep snow. They are stealthy and will try to get within a few bounds before leaping and pouncing on their prey.
- Flushing: Although most lynxes are solitary, mothers and cubs may stay together for some time. While in this pack, the lynxes will walk in a line through fields to flush prey.
- Chase: The final way that a lynx will take down a deer is by sitting and waiting for the deer to come close. Once it is close enough, the lynx will burst from its hiding place and chase the deer down.
In addition to chasing down deer themselves, lynx will also eat carrion left by hunters or by vehicle collisions.
The American alligator is an ancient species of reptile that has been around forever. Its long lifespan paired with its carnivorous diet makes it a top predator in any ecosystem it lives in.
Since deer live mostly on land and alligators mostly in water, these two species do not interact often.
When alligators eat deer, it is most likely because the deer came close to the edge of the water for a drink.
Another reason why an alligator might eat a deer is if the deer ran into the water to escape a different predator. The splashing of the deer will attract alligators who then use their powerful jaws to overpower the deer.
Alligator jaws are seriously powerful! They are capable of generating over 9,000 newtons of force on their prey. Lucky for deer, they are not the primary food of alligators. Most of an alligator’s diet consists of fish, turtles, frogs, snakes, and invertebrates – things they can find in the water.
9. Birds Of Prey
We’ve all seen crows and vultures pecking at carcasses alongside the road, but are there any raptors out there brave enough to take on a live deer?
Surprisingly, the answer is yes!
Eagles and falcons are the main birds of prey that will feed on deer. There are, of course, scavengers such as turkey vultures and the California condor that will also consume deer if it’s hit by a car or otherwise eliminated.
Deer do not make up a large portion of a bird’s diet. If an eagle or falcon goes after a deer, it is usually either a fawn or a very old/sick adult deer.
You can scare deer away by using this 3 Pack Owl Decoy to scare away deer (and other predators as well!)
When going after deer, raptors use their keen eyesight to spot movement from high up on a perch. Once the prey is spotted, the raptor will typically dive, extending its talons at the last second to snatch the prey.
That’s A Wrap!
Deer can be a nuisance when they prance into our gardens and chomp down on our ornamental flowers. On the flip side of things, deer become the prey of several different predators.
To recap, the 9 animal predators that eat deer include:
- Mountain lions
- Feral hogs
- Large birds of prey
Wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, and grizzly bears are somewhat specialized predators of deer. Their diets are mainly made up of either white-tailed deer or mule deer.
Other predators on our list like bobcats, lynx, and alligators are generalists that will eat a deer if the opportunity arises but do not actively go after deer.
Black bears, polar bears, feral hogs, and raptors rarely prey on deer. If they do, it is usually a fawn or a deer that is injured, old, or sick.
Deer have many ways to defend themselves against predators. The tactic used most often is fleeing as they are very agile in the thick brush where they have the opportunity to lose a large predator.
Dellinger, J.A., Shores, C.R., Craig, A. et al. Habitat use of sympatric prey suggests divergent anti-predator responses to recolonizing gray wolves. Oecologia 189, 487–500 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-018-4323-z
Garth Mowat and Douglas C Heard. Major components of grizzly bear diet across North America. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 84(3): 473-489. https://doi.org/10.1139/z06-016
Jensen, A.J., Marneweck, C.J., Kilgo, J.C. and Jachowski, D.S. (2022), Coyote diet in North America: geographic and ecological patterns during range expansion. Mam Rev, 52: 480-496. https://doi.org/10.1111/mam.12299
Lingle, S., Pellis, S. Fight or flight? Antipredator behavior and the escalation of coyote encounters with deer. Oecologia 131, 154–164 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-001-0858-4
Naidu, A. (2009). Genetic Analysis of Mountain Lion (Puma concolor) Feces from Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona [Master’s thesis]. University of Arizona.
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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