When you imagine deer in the wild, you might think of Bambi-like creatures innocently running around eating plants or grass.
Since deer are designed to eat plant-based foods as a result of their narrow snouts and long tongues which enable them to retrieve specific plants they like, they are considered to be herbivores.
What foods do deer like? Deer are animals that are very selective when it comes to the plant food that they consume. It should be high in protein but low in fiber while being easy to digest.
This is because deer have simpler gastrointestinal tracts than animals such as moose and cattle. That said, deer will eat a variety of plant-based foods, such as grasses, crops, vegetation, nuts, and even acorns!
Based on their feeding habits, you might be finding it difficult to imagine deer running after prey and taking it down in the way a lion would – it just isn’t going to happen! But, are there instances when deer do eat other animals?
Can Deer Eat Meat?
What animals in the wild consume depends on how they’re designed to feed. Physically, deer aren’t equipped to eat meat like other animals in the wild.
They lack the sharp teeth that enable them to tear and rip into animal hides, teeth that you’re likely to find in large predators such as lions. They also don’t have enough jaw strength to achieve this task.
When experts studied bones that had been chewed on by deer as well as various other animals, they found that a deer’s jaw leaves behind a forked pattern on bones that occur as a result of the zigzagging motion they make when they chew.
Meat-eating animals, on the other hand, use their sharp teeth that make pits and punctures in the bone. This shows just how differently the teeth and jaws of herbivores and carnivores are designed.
Are Deer Opportunistic Eaters?
Unlike carnivores that hunt for food, deer are opportunistic feeders. This means that if they see meat and they’re very hungry, they will consume it.
As U.S. Geological Survey biologist, Pam Pietz has been reported as saying, if deer find a nest or other location where animals don’t move or run away, they have been known to take advantage of this opportunity and eat them.
If an animal is already dead from a previous kill, such as in the case of a rabbit being left to die in the wild, the deer might also feed on this leftover meat if it needs to eat.
In an interesting ornithology study that was conducted in Canada, researchers caught bats and birds with the use of safety nets, intending to release them after the study.
However, deer had other plans when they came upon these nets – a herd of deer ate the birds alive!
So, while deer won’t make it their mission to hunt prey, if they’re lucky to find animals that are dying or trapped, they will add them to their diet.
Why Do Deer Eat Meat?
Although there is evidence that deer can sometimes consume meat, this certainly doesn’t make them carnivores. As any animal in the wild, deer take advantage of food opportunities that present themselves when they need to eat.
Here are some examples of when this is likely to happen.
The Deers’ Environment Is Harsh
If there is a food shortage and deer can’t find many plants to feed on, they will not say no to eating a small animal that’s been killed.
Similarly, other environmental factors such as if there’s a long drought in their region or the winter months are particularly harsh, can cause herbivores such as deer to consume small animals and animal carcasses that they find in their habitat in order to survive.
They’re Not Getting Enough Nutrients
If deer cannot get enough nutrients in their diet from plant foods alone, such as because plants are in low supply, this can lead to calcium and other nutritional deficiencies.
To combat this, deer will be forced to seek out other types of food, such as meat, in order to boost their nutritional intake.
They’re Being Fed By Humans
There have been some rare instances where deer have been spotted eating cooked meat. An example can be seen in this video where a blogger shared a few pieces of cooked beef with a white-tailed deer who seemed very happy to eat them.
How Much Meat Can A Deer Consume?
While deer will choose to eat meat if they’ve run out of plant food sources, they generally won’t eat a lot of meat because they don’t hunt for food. They lack the ability to stalk, chase, and kill prey, so the meat is not their priority.
As we mentioned earlier, deer also aren’t equipped with the physical features to eat and digest meat.
How A Deer’s Digestive System Works
Deer are built with a four-chambered stomach.
- The first chamber is called the rumen. It’s used for storage so that the deer can eat a lot of food and then digest it at a later stage. During the eating process, the deer will bring the food back into their mouth and chew it for a second time, a process which is known as chewing the cud.
- The second chamber of the stomach is the reticulum, where microorganisms live. These consume the chewed food that the deer has eaten in a process known as fermentation. It breaks down the cellulose in the plant food so that it can be better absorbed by the deer. When deer chew the cud, the microorganisms are blended in with the food, which is vital for the deer’s nutrition.
- The third chamber is known as the omasum, and this is where the chewed and digested food travels next.
- The cud then enters the fourth chamber, the abomasum. Here, gastric juices continue the process of digestion. Once the food comes out of the fourth chamber of the deer’s stomach, it enters the intestines where it can be absorbed by the deer’s body.
While it’s difficult to calculate how much meat deer will be able to eat, such as during the length of a day, their lack of carnivorous practices are evidence that deer won’t be able to consume a lot of it.
A deer will only eat meat that doesn’t put up a fight, basically, which can sometimes be hard to find, especially since mature deer tend to feed within just 100 to 150 yards of their bedding area.
That said, deer require a lot of food every day to survive in the wild. Generally, a deer needs to eat the equivalent of between six and eight percent of its body weight to stay healthy!
So, a female whitetail deer that weighs around 90 pounds will require between five and seven pounds of food per day! Based on this, it’s clear to see why deer will be on the lookout for any extra sources of food they can find.
What Kind Of Meat Will Deer Eat?
Earlier, we mentioned that deer will search for small prey that they can eat.
Since they don’t have the manpower to be able to hunt animals, deer tend to stick to smaller types of animals that are easier to eat and digest, such as baby birds, frogs, squirrels, mice, rabbits, and fish.
These types of animals accommodate the deer’s lack of strong jaws and sharp teeth, so their softer skins and lack of strong hides will be easier for deer to slice through and eat.
What about bones?
Sometimes bones can form part of a deer’s diet. A few years ago, there was a story about deer that were found to be chewing on human bones in the wild.
While this seems quite disturbing and sinister, it’s important to note that sometimes deer will munch on bones they find in the wild to gain minerals such as sodium, calcium, and phosphorus from them.
Deer have also been found to eat animal bones, and they don’t discriminate between different bones in order to get the minerals they require in their diets – they won’t even know the difference, after all!
Although sometimes deer have been known to consume meat in the wild, this isn’t the norm.
It’s usually a last resort for deer who require more nutrients than their plant-based diets allow, such as because of climate change or other environmental factors that are affecting their food sources.
In this article, we’ve looked at when and how deer can become meat-eating animals, and how their digestive systems work.
While deer might eat meat from dead animals or small animals they can successfully hunt, they’re not carnivores.