Do Deer Have A Sweet Tooth?

I was on a very early-season hunt in Eastern Kansas and, as is often the case that time of year, warm temperatures had reduced daytime deer movement to a minimum. The first morning, while sitting in a funnel between feeding and bedding areas, I saw a doe and two fawns. That afternoon, while sitting over a 160-acre soybean field, I saw nothing.

One of my companions, Rutwear owner Bobby Windham, had a different story to tell. He'd seen several deer, including a nice 11 pointer that ended up riding back to camp in his truck. Hunting standing corn the following morning, I saw a couple does and a small buck but nothing more.

I was becoming increasingly frustrated. The key to early-season deer hunting is food, but with a virtually unlimited supply of corn and beans, it was a case of too much of a good thing. Plus, the deer weren't hitting the fields until after dark. I needed to try something different, but what? "You can try my stand," Bobby offered, "but there's not much there. It's on top of a hill, and it's mostly just brush and timber — no crops." I was about to dismiss the idea when he added, "Oh, and a patch of persimmons." Jackpot!

I'd barely settled in that afternoon when the first deer arrived — a 3.5-year-old nine pointer I estimated would score in the mid-130s. Over the course of the afternoon, I counted nine bucks, including three real tempters. I didn't even bother to count the does. The story was similar the following morning and afternoon. I didn't see any shooters, but I had a ball watching the bachelor group, and I learned a lot about early-season feeding patterns.

Perhaps the most important lesson learned was that quality sometimes trumps quantity. Here I was, surrounded by thousands of acres of corn and soybeans. Yet the deer were leaving their beds early and traveling out of their way to visit a small patch of persimmons barely bigger than my living room. That got me pondering the possibility of other short-term food source bonanzas.

The Gold Standard
I grew up hunting deer in New England, so I wasn't introduced to the persimmon until I started pursuing whitetails away from home. Once I saw how deer react to them, I became an instant believer. There is a very short window of opportunity, but when persimmons ripen and drop to the ground, there is no more powerful deer attractant in existence. Biologists aren't entirely sure why.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that a ripe persimmon is about 30 percent sugar. Imagine yourself at an all-you-can-eat buffet with no rules or guilt. Are you going to the salad bar or the dessert table first?

Back home we do have apples, which also draw deer, but the attraction is much longer and drawn out. Deer will feed on apples, whether ripe or not, as soon as they hit the ground. The feeding seems almost casual at first, as if they're waiting for something to change. Then it does. Frost hits and few if any of the now sweeter apples get left uneaten.

Not All Nuts Are The Same
Several food habit studies have demonstrated that when available, deer prefer acorns over just about any other fall food source (though I wonder if persimmons were included in those studies). It makes sense. In autumn, deer crave carbohydrates as they try to build fat reserves before winter. And acorns are more than 50 percent energy-rich carbs. Not even corn or soybeans pack as much dietary punch.

Even within the acorn world, deer show certain preferences. Oak species can be lumped into two general groups: white and red (or black). In general, white oak acorns tend to drop first (earlier in the fall); so it's not surprising deer will go to them first. However, where red and white oaks are dropping nuts at the same time, deer still prefer the whites, in some cases passing by red oak acorns to get them. This happens despite the fact red oak acorns, in general, are larger. Why? Biologists speculate it's because white oak acorns have fewer tannins (bitter, acidic vegetable compounds) and thus are sweeter.

And what about within the white oak group? Ethnobotanists studying Native American cultures found a strong preference for the bur oak, sometimes called the mossycup oak. Several modern texts suggest bur oak acorns are among the most edible (to humans) without leaching the tannins out. More research must be done before we can extend that preference to deer, but it certainly makes sense.

Timing also can be an important factor. As previously mentioned, deer won't touch a persimmon until it's ripe. Similarly, they'll feed indifferently on green maple leaves, gorge on frost-killed red maple leaves when they first fall, then walk over them with indifference days later. Much the same is true for brassicas.

Deer may largely ignore the plants in early and mid fall until frost hits. Then, like the maple leaves, starches in the plant turn to sugar, and deer ravage them. While we may never know for sure, it certainly appears whitetails have a sweet tooth.

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