By Dr. Grant Woods
Deer focus on food sources during the late season. Generally, the colder the temperatures and the more calories deer burn daily, the more likely they are to feed during daylight hours. When winter temperatures are colder than normal, deer tend to feed more during the daylight. And when temperatures are warmer than normal, deer tend to wait until the cooler temperatures after dark to feed.
There are additional factors that determine when and where deer feed. Deer are very selective feeders and tend to eat the best food available within their home range. This food source changes due to changes in deer needs. Deer tend to prefer foods rich in protein during the growing season and rich in carbohydrates during the cool season.
Food sources also change. For example, most forage and grain crops are harvested by this time of year. If you hunt in soybean and corn production areas, you’ve probably noticed that combines have become much more efficient. Caterpillar even produced an advertisement with a hunter asking, “Where’s all the grain gone?” Combines are now so efficient it is rare to find a kernel of corn in a field harvested by a modern combine. This is having a substantial impact on the availability of quality food for deer during the late winter in areas where most of the land is in corn or soybean production. In such areas, grains planted to feed wildlife or not harvested for any reason tend to be deer magnets.
In areas with no agriculture, acorns are often the food source of choice during the late season. Acorns are high in carbs but low in protein. In most areas, especially north of Alabama or so, most white oak acorns will be consumed or rotted by the late season. White oak acorns have less tannic acid than red oak acorns and therefore aren’t as weather resistant, or preserved. Red oak acorns tend to be bitter during the early fall but as some of the tannins leach out and food sources become less abundant, deer readily consume red oak acorns later in the season.
Calories vs. Safety
Although deer behavior is certainly influenced by food availability, nutritional quality and taste, I believe the primary motivation is fear. Deer will avoid food sources they associate with danger. It’s not that they associate a particular type of food with danger. Rather, it is that they may learn to associate particular feeding locations with danger.
Researchers have shown that deer will avoid locations, such as fields or feeders, if they associate them with danger. Just like humans, most deer that have many options of where to feed avoid any food sources they associate with danger. However, if there are limited options, deer seem to tolerate more danger as part of seeking and finding food.
The most common way deer avoid danger from humans is to simply remain hidden during daylight and forage during hours of darkness. Nocturnal deer can drive hunters bonkers! We can find tracks, scat and where deer are foraging, but this won’t be a good stand placement if deer are only feeding there after dark.
Hunters can scout and find the likely path of travel between cover and food. The success of this strategy depends on how alert or how conditioned deer are to avoiding danger in that area. Deer that are frequently hunted and/or have had negative encounters with humans often will not leave thick cover until well after dark.
On the other hand, deer that aren’t conditioned to avoid humans often are active and feed during daylight hours. This is common in city parks and even in agricultural fields before the season starts. Deer tend to learn quickly and often avoid large agricultural fields before dark soon after the hunting season begins.
In areas where there are large agricultural fields everywhere, deer often simply switch to feeding in another soybean or cornfield they don’t associate with danger. In areas with limited food resources, such as food plots, deer can quickly learn to avoid such areas during daylight or altogether. Even though there’s better food in the food plot, deer may eat browse from woody plants simply to avoid areas they associate with danger.
There are typically fewer food resources available during the late season. This makes it easier to find where deer are eating. That’s a bonus of hunting during the late season. However, because food resources are more limited, there’s usually more hunting pressure at each quality food location. Therefore, deer can easily be conditioned to avoid locations with food during the late season given the added pressure from both two- and four-legged predators. Deer will trade eating lower quality food for safety.
I enjoy hunting the late season, but I’ve learned to be more cautious when scouting and hunting during these conditions. My scouting usually consists of low-impact tactics that focus less on finding deer sign and more on pinpointing quality food sources, preferably grains.
The leaves are usually off the hardwoods during this time of year, so I’m also very cautious when picking stand/blind locations to ensure I have sufficient cover to avoid detection. Given that deer have been hunted throughout most of the whitetail’s range for months by the late season, I limit my hunting activity in areas with quality food until the conditions are in my favor. This includes a favorable wind and hopefully a cold front or temperatures at least 10 percent colder than normal. These conditions are very favorable for deer to feed during daylight.
Food is the key to patterning deer during the late season — not just any food, but quality food that deer don’t associate with danger. Remember to hunt wisely so the deer don’t wise up to you!