You know your favorite deerstand that always seems to produce? I hate to kill your buzz, but bucks don’t stroll by it because you’re wearing grandpa’s lucky cap. More likely, it’s due to a nearby oak that rains acorns like Skittles from a rainbow. Or it could be beech, hickory, persimmon, or walnut. If you know what trees deer prefer, and when, you’ll kill more bucks. This starts with knowing your trees.
Fact is, a deer’s diet changes with the seasons and availability. Studies indicate spring whitetails eat forbes most of all, but these green weeds peter out by summer. That’s when they switch to browse like blackberry, brambles, greenbrier, prickly pear, poison ivy—yes, poison ivy—and dozens more depending on the region.
When fall arrives, some mast trees, such as oak and persimmon, begin dropping their candy. Deer need the fat and carbs these trees provide to get them through the rut. But this candy is like ice cream; it gets eaten, spoils, and disappears fast, so when the ice cream comes around, local deer race to it. As winter rolls in, deer must rely on the late-producing mast trees.
All this biology talk might scare you, but don’t despair. To the disappointment of deer everywhere, surprisingly few varieties of trees offer top-notch deer grub. But don’t believe that just because you have fancy food plots or corn feeders you can skip the following forestry lesson. Recent studies suggest that deer prefer high-protein native food to supplemental food if both are available. So here are a few tree species you should know. (Then you’ll need a tree ID guide to find them.)
Oak is the most important tree family for deer due to its proliferation, appeal, and nutritional value. The mighty white oak, the best of them all, includes copious subspecies like post oak, blackjack, chinkapin, burr, swamp, sawtooth, and others. These spinoffs have adapted to grow in various soil types and environmental conditions. Their ranges overlap, so you’re likely to have several types of white oaks on your property. In general, white oaks are hardy, drop their acorns in fall, and are low in tannins, so their nuts taste delicious to deer. If you discover a white oak raining acorns somewhere on your property, leave your daughter’s dance recital at once and get in the woods!
Red oaks also range across most of the United States. Their acorns comprise a large portion of a deer’s diet, although because they’re higher in tannins than whites, they are eaten last. Reds generally drop in late winter, even in January and February, so they provide whitetails sustenance almost into spring. Reds are also more reliable than white oaks and tend to produce acorns every year.
“The Northern red oak survives longer winters, while the Shumard red oak does better farther south,” said Dudley Phelps of Native Nurseries. “But keep in mind, trees are individuals. One tree might drop acorns every year, while others might drop them every few years. Some trees might have lower tannin contents. Deer can find these trees, so you need to find them, too.”
According to biologists, white oak was not always the first hard mast choice of whitetails. That was the chestnut tree. The nut is so low in tannins and so flavorful that humans covet them. However, in the early 1900s, in what is described as this country’s most significant ecological disaster, blight was introduced from an imported Asian chestnut tree, killing an estimated 4 billion trees. Today, very few native chestnuts exist, but if you wish to have the ultimate whitetail tree on your land, a hybrid, blight-resistant variety called the Dunstan chestnut is available from Chestnut Hill Outdoors. In just five to seven years, the tree should start producing protein-rich chestnuts. Experts like Dr. James Kroll say that whitetails will walk through a mound of white oak acorns to get to chestnuts. Meanwhile, if you catch word of chestnuts dropping anywhere near your area, hail a cab at your brother’s wedding and change into your camos on the way!
Beechnuts are also sought by deer. The huge, slow-growing beech tree is sensitive to drought, so it’s not often found in Texas and Arizona. Beech trees don’t start producing until around 30 years old, but once they do, the deer, squirrels, and bears come running.
Hickory and Walnut
Pecan trees are actually a variety of hickory. They can be a decent food source but are not a deer favorite where there’s other stuff available. That’s likely because the shell itself is very bitter and deer must crunch up the whole pecan to get at the meat. Have you ever tried a pecan pie with the shells on? Didn’t think so.
It might surprise you that hickory and walnut trees don’t make great deer dinner.
“Hickory nuts and walnuts are generally too hard for whitetails to eat,” said Lindsay Thomas of the Quality Deer Management Association. “If you find evidence that deer have been eating hard-shelled mast like these, it’s a warning sign that quality deer food is in very short supply.”
“The fewer walnut trees you have on your property, the better,” Phelps said. “Their roots produce a toxic byproduct called juglone that is harmful to other plants.”
Soft Mast Trees
While there are several more types of regional hard mast trees, more important are the soft mast trees. Any time you can find a tree filled with ripe crab apples, pears, cherries, or plums, you are in business. The easiest way to find these trees is to scout and identify their fruit so there’s no mistake. Kind of like a deer, you’ll know a pear when you see one.
State agriculture colleges, your county ag extension office, and the Internet are great sources of localized tree info and identification, so do some research before your next scouting trip. That’s because great deer hunters are also dendrologists, for trees will provide clues to the whitetail’s whereabouts come November.