Seeing a deer in the wild is always an incredible experience. If you’d like to bring them home, you must know what to feed deer in your backyard to entice them to visit.
Deer are creatures of habit with a voracious appetite. Those are the key points to keep in mind when encouraging them to come onto your property.
It begins with understanding how the deer view their world and knowing what they must get out of it to make the most of their resources.
Basic Facts About Deer
White tailed deer are native to North America. They belong to the same family as other familiar hooved animals like moose and elk. You’ll find this species of whitetail deer east of the Rocky Mountains with mule deer occupying the area west.
They live in a variety of habitats from forests and prairies to your backyard, hopefully. You’ll also see them on agricultural land, parks, and even deserts. That adaptability helps them to survive.
There are many subspecies of deer that live in specific areas of the country. That’s one of the reasons their weight varies so much, going from several hundred pounds for animals in northern regions to less than 100 in the Southeast.
Their diet, climate, and other factors influence the behavior, size, and longevity of wild deer. They can live anywhere from two to 10 years.
The Rise of the Deer
It’s hard to believe that there was a time when deer were scarce on this continent. They managed all right, despite a host of predators like bears, wolves, and mountain lions. Their success is tied directly with ours as a nation. Early settlers cut down trees and opened up areas for agriculture. They killed off the deer’s enemies.
Then, the farms died off with suburbs and gardens filled with tulips, daylilies, and other tasty treats that the deer gobbled up in droves. The rest, as they say, is history. The deer population exploded in response. Estimates are that there are upward of 30 million today. That has put enormous pressure on the habitats that provide food for them.
It’s not unusual to read about massive dieoffs after tough winters. We understand that wanting to feed deer seems like the proverbial win-win.
Let’s put that notion in perspective with some deer biology and behavior.
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A Day in the Life of a Deer
Deer spend the better part of their days foraging for vegetation of all types for their herbivore diet. Their diet varies seasonally with what they are able to find. Common deer food items include:
- Buds of trees and shrubs
- Acorns and other nuts
- Cacti in desert regions
Deer won’t hesitate to look elsewhere for food such as garbage cans, your garden, and fruit trees. Interestingly, they have a sweet tooth, not unlike people. They are crepuscular, coming out to feed before dawn and after sunset. During the middle of the day, you’ll find them resting on southern slopes, chewing their cud like cows.
Deer breed once a year during the fall and the so-called rut. The social pattern changes at this time, with bucks marking the edges of their territory and fighting with rivals. It’s worth noting since that aggression can extend to people. The does have one, two, or even three deer at a time in late spring. The number depends on how well she ate the year before and how well she fared the winter.
You can easily spot a doe with fawns by her behavior. She’ll stand her ground and not leave her young if a human is present. This odd behavior is a telltale sign.
She may also try to lure you away or stomp her feet to get you to move out of their space. The fawns will nurse for about 10 weeks before they transition to the adult herbivore diet. The does and fawns will yard up over the winter, forming large herds. The following spring, the cycle begins again with the yearlings moving onto their own home ranges.
Before we launch into what to feed them, let’s discuss what’s involved.
Pros and Cons of Feeding Deer
We believe that there are very few issues which are black and white. Most settle in that happy, but the sometimes nebulous, medium of the gray area. Feeding deer is no exception.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t explore this topic further to help you avoid any nasty surprises down the road. It’s not simply a matter of opening the gate, and they will come.
We’ll start with the pro-deer argument.
Benefits of Encouraging Deer to Come to Your Yard
The overriding advantage of feeding deer is getting closer to nature. It’s an excellent learning opportunity for you and your children.
It opens up a lot of educational discussions such as:
- Predator-prey relationships
- Human-wildlife conflicts
- Herbivore-omnivore-carnivore lifestyles
- Doe-fawn behavior
- Winter survival
Whatever you think about deer, seeing one up close and personal is a fantastic experience. It’s like you’re transported from today’s hustle and bustle to a place far away from it all. Priceless.
If you’re a hunter, the other benefits are clear-cut. You’re attracting game to your property to make hunting infinitely easier on a lot of fronts. Some states will allow you to take deer from your land without all of the legalities that regular hunting entails. That can save you some big bucks and put food in the freezer.
Feeding deer gives you as a hunter a lot of advantages. You can learn the habits of the animals to make taking them more successful. You will have the opportunity to observe them, especially if they have shed some of their natural wariness. You’ll know what they eat, where they hang out, and when they’re likely to be around when you’re ready with your firearm loaded and cocked.
It also helps to remove some of the natural barriers that may keep a deer from crossing your land. They learn through experience that your property is a safe place that has food and water.
If you don’t hunt, you can still lease out your land to others and makes some cash in the process. Either way, you win.
Disadvantages of Deer on Your Property
It’s not all daisies and buttercups with deer. The glaring con is that you have no way to confine them to eat what you want them to take. Your tulips, hostas, and rose bushes will look just as tasty to them as the foodstuffs that you place outside intentionally for them.
Deer are voracious no matter what time of the year. You can plant foods that are supposedly deer-deterrent. However, a hungry animal is a desperate one that will expand its palate to eat things it normally would avoid.
Deer-deterrent, therefore, is only a suggestion.
You also must consider the indirect effects, which are also valid reasons not to feed deer. An increased risk of Lyme disease is one of them. However, deer carry a lot of health concerns that you need to think about before inviting them into your home.
- E. coli
However, feeding deer a well-rounded diet goes a long way to keeping them healthy and reducing your risk of getting sick. That’s why we suggest a variety of foodstuffs.
But, wait. There’s more. There’s another valid argument you need to consider too — deer-human conflicts, specifically, car collisions. The numbers are sobering. There were nearly 2 million animal-vehicle collisions in 2018, costing about $3,560 per incident on average. The Midwest states top the places where the risk is highest. Yikes!
Feeding deer removes some of their natural fear about people and all things human. Remember that the reason that deer are so abundant today rests with them avoiding and later adapting to our presence. When you remove that factor, other ones are not far behind.
The key, therefore, is balancing the benefits of enjoying these beautiful and adaptable animals with the risks of having them close to your home.
Knowledge is power, so learning the cons can help you avoid the pitfalls that could sour the experience for you and your family.
How to Attract Deer
If you’ve weighed the pros and cons and made your decision, let’s get down to brass tacks and explore what to feed deer in the backyard.
You may find that deer will find your home before you set out the welcome mat. You can tell if they have been browsing your plants by looking at the end of branches and twigs.
Deer don’t have bottom incisors. When they chew a plant, the edges are often ragged, which differs from rabbits that will leave a clean cut.
You may also see other signs such as tracks, scrapped patches of bare dirt, and scratch marks on smaller trees. The last two are an indication of a buck during mating season that has made your land part of its territory.
The best way to attract deer is to provide them with the foods they like, a reliable source of water, and cover to rest and escape predators. They are intelligent animals and will soon learn the habits of your household, along with the activity patterns of your family.
Plants That Deer Eat
We’d suggest getting a variety of plants to provide a nutritious diet. It benefits the deer, and it also keeps them healthy as we touched on earlier. It also gives you an opportunity to plan your landscaping for your needs and wants.
We’d recommend perennial plants and trees. They will continue to provide food year after year to encourage repeat visits. They are also more likely to handle the pressure of the deer foraging on them.
Trees you can consider include:
The last one brings up an interesting deer fact. While yew and poison ivy is toxic to humans, deer can eat them with no ill effects. It has to do with their different gastrointestinal systems.
You can also entice them with shrubs. Deer often eat the buds of these plants because that is where the most nutrients exist. It’s an excellent source of winter food when other things are scarce.
Bushes that deer like include:
Other vegetation is also on the menu that will satisfy a hungry deer.
Some options you can explore are:
- Sweet clover
- English ivy
As you can see, deer are not picky eaters and welcome a broad range of plants. The next question you may have is how to grow them.
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Planning Your Deer Landscaping
Ideally, you have a patch of land that you can plant with these choices and let it go fallow. It’s not like you have to manage it like a regular garden. The deer are handling that end with their foraging.
If you observe what survives year-to-year, you’ll know which ones the deer are avoiding over others. Then, you can supplement it with their favorites.
Also, leave stands of bushes and trees to provide cover for the deer. Unfortunately, you’re still an enemy in their mind, so they need hiding places. On a positive note, you can tick off two boxes with one task by providing shelter too.
Deer must have a reliable source of water when their diet cannot provide them with enough moisture. If you live near a stream or pond, you can clear a path to the shoreline for them.
Like other wildlife, deer strive to conserve energy as much as possible. They will take the path of least resistance whenever they can.
That’s why you see the well-used runs in the woods. It takes less energy to walk an established path than to bushwhack and make a new one. It also explains why you’ll see deer along forest edges and wandering down hiking trails.
If you don’t have a water source, you can add a water feature to your landscaping. The deer won’t mind a pond filled with koi and goldfish. Even a birdbath or horse trough will suffice. However, we’d suggest that you put a heater in it during the winter so that they have it year-round.
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Fences and Deer
You may be surprised to learn that a fence isn’t as much of a deterrent to deer as you might think. As long as it’s less than 6 feet high, an animal can jump across it.
That’s for adults.
We’d suggest leaving a 1.5-foot gap on the bottom of the fence so that a fawn could squeeze through it if it was born on the wrong side. It’ll also leave enough for the doe too.
Providing Other Food for Deer
We talked about plants, but let’s address the elephant in the room: feed. After all, you put out a bird feeder for the songbirds, and the deer sometimes get on their hind legs to snack on the seeds.
There are several factors to think about when determining whether it’s a smart move to get a deer feeder or not. First, there is the matter of whether it’s legal. Some municipalities frown on it for the reasons we discussed earlier.
Also, some states have specific guidelines for what you can and cannot feed deer. It may also vary year-to-year. Some areas allow feeding during harsh winters where the risk of a winter kill is high.
The other consideration is hunting. If you or someone else hunt the deer on your land, you may run afoul of game laws regarding baiting.
The Problem With Corn
Then, there’s the matter of what you provide for them. One of your first thoughts might be why not give them deer corn? It’s cheap and easy to dispense. There are several problems with that choice. It’s not an ideal one for deer to eat as a staple, especially during the winter. The issue rests with the nutrient content.
Throughout the year, deer build up their fat reserves to carry them through the leaner months. With the lack of foliage, they turn to buds and twigs for food. As we mentioned, it’s an excellent food source because it provides a lot of nutrients. Feed like cracked corn, for example, is mainly starch, about 70 percent of it. They are also fermentable and can cause bloating when used in winter feeding.
The woody plants provide some starch but also vital fiber to keep GI track of the deer functioning properly. Corn, on the other hand, can mess with their guts and set the stage for a condition known as acidosis. That creates an overly acid environment, which can kill beneficial bacteria and cause GI distress. The excess water loss combined with harsh living conditions set up the perfect storm for sick deer.
There are specially formulated feeds for deer that avoid the issues of fermentable carbs like corn. However, you have to consider the expense and work for making sure the troughs are filled. Like feeding birds, feeding deer is a commitment. Deer will rely on this food source and take the easy path for finding something to eat instead of foraging.
That might not be as much of an issue in the spring or summer, but it is disastrous in the winter. One could also argue that feeding deer makes them lazy and less in tune with their environment to find plentiful food sources.
So, while the idea of supplemental feeding is laudable, the risks are too high. Therefore, we suggest sticking with nature’s cupboard of nutritious plants to keep the deer fed.
Other Things That Deer Need
If you can make your yard a one-stop place for all their needs, you’ll have deer. But there are other things they must have to stay happy and healthy.
A mineral or salt block is an excellent addition to your deer landscaping. It provides essential nutrients including sodium. While they may not use it year-round, they certainly will during the winter.
We mentioned that deer form habits. They are also intelligent animals that don’t like anything new or variable in their habitat. That is part of what has helped them survive and thrive.
For you, that means they need a place where humans don’t roam so that they can rest in peace and not have to stay on high alert. Make the place where they forage, get water, and sleep off-limits for children and pets.
Tips for Encouraging Deer on Your Land
There are several points to bear in mind when feeding deer to make the most of the experience.
- Deer hang out together in groups, meaning you won’t just have one in your backyard.
- Protect saplings and young plants from the deer until they become established and can provide a good food source.
- Check with your city and the state DNR before you start to make sure feeding is permitted in your area.
- Likewise, find out if you can hunt on your land if you’re feeding the deer and providing a mineral lick.
- Give your neighbors a heads-up, especially if they have dogs.
- Don’t suddenly stop feeding the deer in the winter.
- Avoid plantings of invasive species like goldenrod, which will take over an area and crowd out other ones, reducing the nutritional value that your backyard offers.
Don’t forget to set up a trail camera! After all, you’ve attracted the deer to your yard, but they’re still liable to be skittish even if you’re trying to be kind with your supplemental feeding program.
You have the perfect setup with food and water, along with a safe place to rest. Get some photos of your hooved friends.
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There’s no denying the amazing experience of seeing and better yet, interacting with a deer in the wild. They are gorgeous animals, worthy of the respect of surviving decades of human predation and encroachment.
Learning what to feed deer in the backyard is the ultimate payback for all the joy they can bring to your life. Balancing the benefits and downsides is an essential part of the process.