Do Deer Eat Meat

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from more than twenty years of deer hunting, it’s that whitetails are full of surprises. And one of the more surprising aspects of their behavior is just how varied their food sources can be when the need arises. Many people think of them as being exclusively herbivores. There’s no doubt the silly picturesque scenes of deer feeding in movies like “Bambi” have helped paint an unrealistic picture of the brutal realities of nature and of deer having to do what they must to survive, which is why it’s quite surprising for many people to learn that deer eat meat sometimes.

It’s not observed often, but it’s been caught on camera enough for biologists to confirm that a deer’s meat-eating habits seem to be entirely opportunistic and not the behaviors of a real carnivore. Still, it’s quite bizarre to the people who have captured footage of deer eating birds, rabbits, dead fish, and other small mammals. This is what we know about the behavior and why deer sometimes stray from their leafy green diet.

Do Deer Really Eat Other Animals?

The answer to this question is a resounding yes. There are countless videos online like the one above that prove white-tailed deer and many related species will opportunistically grab a baby bird, mouse, squirrel, frog, or other small animal and swallow them right up. According to Gizmodo, researchers studying song birds in North Dakota found that deer were the main raiders of the nests they set their cameras on. To the surprise of the researchers, deer ate the nestlings and un-hatched eggs too.

In 2009, a short piece of footage was uploaded to YouTube showing a deer eating a squirrel on what appears to be a backcountry road. Another piece of footage uploaded to YouTube in 2010 very clearly shows a young buck grabbing and eating a baby bird in a backyard. Yet another viral piece of video from 2014 shows ice fishermen feeding small fish to a deer, which first pins down the flopping fish on the ice and then quickly swallows it up. There are also plenty of trail camera videos of deer appearing to scavenge at gut piles left behind by hunters.

The one that made worldwide headlines was a 2017 study of the decomposition of human remains in Texas. Researchers set up trail cameras on a human body in the forest hoping to see what animals would turn up to scavenge the remains. They were quite surprised when the cameras captured photos of a doe gnawing on human bones.

Why Do Deer Eat Meat?

Do Deer Eat Meat

madsci via Getty Images

Deer haven’t developed a taste for human flesh, nor is it likely they’re cannibalistic if they scavenge a little venison from a gut pile. In fact, you probably can’t call deer omnivores because their digestive systems just aren’t designed for it. These animals are ruminants like cows. They have a four-part stomach that’s designed for digesting plant matter, and part of that digestion process involves regurgitating and re-chewing their food in a process known as cud chewing. That’s not a typical behavior for meat-eaters.

So, what’s really going on when a deer decides to eat a small animal or scavenge some carrion? Well, researchers believe it’s likely they see an opportunity to get some much-needed minerals. In the case of the deer that chewed the human bones, it’s believed the does captured on camera were trying to get salt, calcium, or phosphorous. These minerals are all readily available in bones and antlers. Deer have been recorded gnawing on shed antlers from time to time, and it’s likely they’re looking for a little extra calcium.

Gizmodo notes that whitetails aren’t the only members of the deer family that become opportunistic carnivores. Red deer were documented eating seabird chicks in Scotland and the biologists there determined that the baby birds gave the little extra nutrient boost the stags needed for antler growth, which is quite the intensive process on its own. There are also plenty of documented cases of elk eating birds and even rabbits.

It seems that deer are more likely to eat or scavenge dead animals if they live in an area that’s lacking in nutrition. Even then, it seems they are more likely to chew the bones of carcasses than to try and catch and eat prey like other predators. It’s not that the deer have developed a taste for meat; it’s likely a simple survival mechanism that’s pulled out occasionally and only when the deer needs it or the opportunity arises. So, don’t worry hunters. There’s no worry about a herd of deer coming back for a weird type of flesh-eating revenge anytime soon. You can leave that sort of thing solely as fiction for the horror movies.

For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Instagram For original videos, check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis YouTube channels


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