Beyond the food plots, whitetails are still at work, browsing native forage within woodlands and forested areas.
Beside bedding sanctuaries and using trees to avoid predators like coyotes, what could continually attract deer to spend time under the timber’s canopy, which, in reality, is less nourishing than man-worked green fields?
Obviously, they do it for food, and here are examples.
A white-tailed buck moves slowly through the forest’s foliage and the myriad of decaying deadfall. Its head is to the ground as nasal passages work continuously in combination with his visual capabilities to distinguish certain odors, colors and shapes. By instinct and years of repetitive conditioning through foraging for nutrition, the whitetail locates a delicacy for consumption, a cluster of mushrooms sprouting upward from the moisture filled soil.
Likewise, a white-tailed fawn wanders from its mother, taking a traveled deer trail. The youngster browses for woodland forage along the way. Already at this age, the deer uses its capabilities of sight and smell to seek out a mushroom near the base of a tree stump.
Today, in the world of whitetail management we read and hear so much about managing cultivated plots of clover, chicory, brassica and the like. Although these nourishing plots are vital and can undoubtedly benefit whitetails for nutrition, we tend to forget that deer, by instinct and biological make-up, are selective browsers and will seek out certain natural foods in the woods, even if clover and other plots are thriving nearby.
As long as the rainfall is adequate, and the habitat supports diverse native browse, deer will periodically take to the timber.
Simple moist woody browse and fungi attract whitetails. Even so, the drought resistant food plots are still crucial supplements for whitetails, especially when native forage is lacking.
Also, white-tailed deer will resort to woodland foraging out of necessity for seclusion from roaming predators such as coyotes; and of course in the fall season when the availability of hard mast and hunting pressure begins.
Bucks and does know that the woodlands make it more difficult for predators to sight them. Hunters will attest to the fact that a buck will flee an open field, only to stop in the timber, check its surroundings and either remain motionless or possibly bed down, using the trees and under story for protection.
Lands maintaining forested areas or small pockets of shaded woodlands that receive constant rainfall where various fungi can thrive are magnets for whitetails seeking nutrition as well as concealed bedding sites.
From summer to fall, deer ingest diverse fungi such as morels, boletes, waxycaps, brittlegills and ringstalk mushrooms as well as the new growth of pore and shelf fungi. The animals will also consume puffballs which when broken, release an explosion of tiny spores.
Most fungi are digestible for whitetails, and they provide other benefits, quenching thirst and fulfilling nutritional needs.
The nonflowering plants are predominantly water. During times of drought, whitetails seek moisture from fungi and plants.
Depending on the environmental conditions, most mushrooms contain minimal fat, but are relatively moderate in protein. Vitamin B and C are high nutrients in fungi. They are also loaded with potassium, an important mineral for the white-tailed deer.
Mushroom toxicity to whitetails remains a mystery. The animals appear to avoid highly poisonous fungi, yet will consume other toxins such as fescue grasses, rhododendron and laurel leaves, primarily in the Appalachian Mountains when other preferred foods are lacking. Curiously, deer still occasionally consume minimal amounts of these toxins even when more preferred food sources are available, leaving their forage patterns unpredictable and baffling at times.
Agricultural land possessing cattle and horses that receive adequate rainfall can sprout psilocybin mushrooms, which are known to be hallucinogenic to humans. This fungus flourishes in and around decaying manure and is a good barometer in determining deer browsing activities. Whitetails usually consume these mushrooms to various degrees. In pasture fields with tender forbs such as clover, the antlered ruminants are not likely to travel far, and will be within close proximity if not disturbed.
Despite the potential dangers with toxic fungi, the whitetail’s metabolism is structured to apparently resist various poisons that would be normally fatal to humans and even other animals. As to whether deer experience hallucinations from digesting toxic mushrooms remains uncertain.
White-tailed deer can visually distinguish certain colors and shapes far better than one might conceive. This inherent capability in combination with an acute sense of smell enables them to pinpoint fungi rather easily.
The animals can locate hidden clusters of mushrooms thriving amongst deadfall tree decay and debris from distances of 10 to sometimes 20 feet. Here, the type of fungi spores being released into the air also enhance a deer’s foraging process when detected by their acute sense of smell.
Once fungi clusters are discovered, deer usually consume every morsel, stem and all parts, that is if the pickings are pliable enough to satisfy their digestive process. While whitetails are inclined to consume the entire fungus growth, on the other hand, squirrels nibble mushrooms, leaving evidence of remains upon the forest floor. This is one way to decipher if white-tailed deer are consistently feeding in one particular area.
Lichen growth such as shell and boulder growing on decaying blow-downs and tree trunks are foraged by deer, but only to a small degree in comparison to plush mushrooms. Whitetails will also root up rich topsoil dirt, searching for truffle fungi and the like. Here, the parasitic plants grow underground on the root systems of various trees, providing the animals with a host of nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen.
After a thunderstorm and or high winds, deer may take to the timber, looking not only for fungi but leafy debris as well. Tulip poplar flowering buds and seedlings that fall to the ground and maple leaves are coveted by whitetails. Using their keen vision, they scan the forest floor for these types of food sources.
The white-tailed deer is highly adaptable and can survive in woodlands and forest areas where open fields and agricultural lands are absent, or few and far between. This can even be seen in newborn fawns.
When born, the fawns’ tiny white spot pattern was created for woodland camouflage. Just look at a newborn in an open field in comparison to the difficulty of sighting one in a forested area. With these traits designed into the whitetails’ biology, it is no wonder that they are so adjustable to the environment. Yet we know by proper human stewardship and land management that deer do thrive when man cultivates and properly works the land.
Whitetails are still creatures that utilize the “edge” where sunlight stimulates the growth of pliable nourishing vegetation, which otherwise cannot survive under the timber’s canopy. Here a balanced patchwork of open fields and woodlands provides prime habitat for the whitetail. In turn, females are more likely to produce numerous healthy fawns.
For bucks, there is the potential to sport towering racks.
By all means, mushrooms, lichen, seedlings and flowering buds alone are not sufficient food sources to substantiate proper growth, but certainly these plant species do provide important supplemental nutrients and are a preferred delicacy for these diverse foragers.
Remember, dense woodland pockets of pine, hemlock and oaks that provide seclusion for whitetails also possess the right conditions for fungi growth. If yearly rainfall is adequate, then the white-tailed deer may limit its exposure in fields and plots, spending time devouring fungi and other woodland browse while bedding amid the timber.
These realities need to be considered when scouting your land or lease and preparing for the season’s upcoming harvest. If the deer are not in the plots, be assured they’re in the timber, foraging the native browse.