Do Whitetail Deer Eat Pine Needles?

Question: “I saw a first today for me and whitetail deer. I live in East Texas, land of pine trees. I was watching some deer on my property this morning and there were a couple of bucks, two middle-aged 8 point deer and a young 5 point. I watched as they all ate at the protein feeder, then the clover food plot, then the turnip food plot, and then finally one of the 8 point bucks went and ate on pine needles from a pine tree that had been pushed over from strong winds a couple of nights earlier.

I’m no expert on deer nutrition, but I thought whitetail only liked pine trees for rubbing off their velvet, not for eating! However, I guess he liked it because he ate on it for what seemed like 4 or 5 minutes. Do you know if whitetail commonly eat pine and does it offer a decent amount of nutrition for them? If so, may have to re-evaluate my deer management program.”

Deer Diets, Deer Nutrition and Pine NeedlesResponse: There has been a ton of research on whitetail deer nutrition, so we know what eat and do not eat. Deer diets consist of browse, forbs and grasses, in decreasing order. Pine needles would fall into the browse category since they are leaves. Deer eat a wide variety of plants, and their diet fluctuates seasonally depending on what is available, but I don’t think there has been any research showing that pine needles have ever made up a large percentage of a whitetail’s diet.

Whitetail are good at finding and eating the most nutrient-rich foods that are available to them. It sounds like the deer on your property have it pretty well between protein pellets and spring food plots. Pine needles typically would not hold a candle to these high quality deer foods, but deer will often use lower quality foods for a couple of reasons.

Assuming there is not a deer overpopulation issue, the first reason a deer would use a normally low quality plant such as pine would be if it was no longer low quality. The buck may have been “cherry picking” the buds of the future pine cones, which are much more nutritious than pine needles. Buds and new-growth of just about all browse plants are packed with protein. The buck was probably not trading down to pine needles, but rather picking out the high quality buds.

The other reason a whitetail may eat low quality foods is because it needs something that is missing from its diet, typically fiber. Deer with diets high in protein will seek out fiber-rich foods, even if they typically avoid these items in their diet. I wouldn’t change up your deer management program just yet. The deer on your property have a number of plants that provide both protein and fiber, specifically the food plots, so my best guess was this buck was specifically after the pine buds.

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