This is the time of year when deer show up on the side of the road and in neighborhoods, eating grasses and garden plants. While few deer actually starve to death in the South, they will eat less-preferred foods lacking flavor, palatability and overall nutritious content when the population exceeds the capacity the habitat can support. Land managers can use the dead of winter to evaluate winter forage availability and the deer population.
Deer will eat a wide variety of foods, from nuts to fruits, twigs, leaves, fungi, ferns, grasses and just about any type of plant component with even a sliver of nutritional value. Natural animal instincts lead deer to foods with the greatest nutritional benefits. Foods high in protein, carbohydrates and fats - nuts, berries and flowers - go a long way, but, these foods are short-lived. Most berries and fruits are only available for a short period, and hunters can expect deer to migrate to these areas as they ripen and come available.
For most of the year, deer rely on browse: twigs, leaves, shoots, forbs and buds. Browse from a variety of trees, shrubs and vines are important in winter, such as: maples, yellow poplar, birch, dogwood, crab apple, blackberry, ash, sassafras, Japanese Honeysuckle, viburnum, wild grape and green briar. Deer will nibble the buds, tips and any green leaves from these plants.
During the winter, browse is critically important when the acorn crop is gone and supplemental food sources are nonexistent. The cold temperatures require deer to consume more food than they have all year. High-energy foods are especially important, and winter browse is very important to their survival.
Unfortunately, browse availability does not always coincide with the population of deer in the area. In this case, deer will find other energy sources to consume that are less palatable and have a lower nutritional value. When deer readily consume undesirable vegetation, it is an indication of an overpopulated herd when compared to the natural food availability. Evidence of deer browsing on pine tree saplings, bracken fern, black cherry stems, ironwood, alder, spicebush and waxy gallberry shrubs, are direct indicators of a natural forage base that can't sustain the population of deer in the area.
Look for evidence of deer browsing on plants from two to five feet off the ground in areas where deer generally travel in winter.
The winter can be an ideal period to evaluate habitat and to get a read on the deer population. As habitat improvements are scheduled with food plots and enhancement of natural food sources, land managers should take into account the winter food availability and the number of deer on the property.