Like all living things, deer have three fundamental priorities: food, shelter, and water. Understanding the needs of deer in this regard is the first step to developing prime habitat for them. However, managing for one species at the expense of others is neither recommended nor wise. By understanding the needs of many wild animals and by taking an approach that will encourage diversity, the land can support a host of creatures that will add to the enjoyment of people as well. Fortunately, most practices that encourage white-tailed deer also add to the health and diversity of the landscape. Many people in suburban areas understand that too many deer can be a huge problem. Too many deer means deer suffer from malnutrition and many other health problems. This can also affect people in negative ways such as car accidents, tick infestations, and destruction of property. Therefore, the tools in this paper should only be used to encourage a healthy deer population to flourish.

Food Through the Seasons

Deer eat a wide variety of plant parts. It is commonly known that deer are browsers, often nipping off the buds of newly planted shrubs in yards. But, deer only resort to browsing when more palatable vegetation is not available. They prefer the leaves of many shrubs and trees as well as sedges, clovers, and wildflowers.  Acorns are perhaps their favorite food (Whitetails Unlimited, 1998). They will eat grasses, but generally prefer other plants.

In spring deer move out of winter cover in search of early greens. They will eat new green buds of trees and shrubs as well as grasses and leaves. Through the summer months they continue to eat plants such as sedges, asters, clovers, alfalfa, sumac, goldenrod, bush honeysuckle, jewelweed and various shrub and tree leaves. Preferred food plants are found along forest edges and in open growing forests. In the fall, deer turn to mast (acorns and other nuts). The fall is critical to deer as they eat these high energy foods that will sustain them through the winter. Through the winter months, they will browse on dogwood, sumac, and willow or dormant or dried plant material on the ground if snow cover allows.

While food plots have a place in providing for a deer’s needs, they are often used as a substitute for proper deer habitat management. Food plots only provide for one of the animal’s core needs and usually only for a portion of the year. In addition, proper design and farming practices are important to consider. It is not always as simple as just planting some corn.

Food for white-tailed deer is best addressed by large-scale management of the plant communities where deer live. The key to producing food is in creating diverse native plant communities. In most situations, the need for food plots to supplement deer nutrition, regardless of all of the media attention, should only be addressed after the manager is satisfied that the native plant communities encouraged and maintained and deer densities are maintained at levels that the habitat can support. Only then do food plots occasionally have a place in deer nutrition management, depending on the manager's goals. (Stevens, 2004)


Deer under coverDeer prefer beds in locations where they are protected on one or more sides: under a large tree, behind a downed log, or near a pile of brush. They will bed in taller grasses and in drier locations in marshes. Deer will maintain several beds and may choose a particular bed based on weather, threats, or other considerations. So, diversity in cover types is useful.


Deer get much of the water they need from the food they eat. Still, they will often drink at streams or ponds, especially in warmer weather, so a source of water is important.

Habitat Management Considerations

Aggressive buckhornThe biggest threat to habitat quality in southern Wisconsin is buckthorn. Buckthorn is an aggressive European species that invades woodlands. Along with exotic honeysuckle, it is the first to leaf out in spring and the last to drop leaves in the fall. As a result it initially shades out ground covers like sedges and wildflowers. As it takes over, native shrubs and young trees will be affected. Eventually, regeneration of oaks and hickories will be greatly disrupted. As the mature oaks die, there will be no young oaks to succeed them and eventually the woodland will revert to a brushy wasteland dominated by buckthorn, honeysuckle and a few straggling elms, box elder, and cherry.

Deer typically do not use a buckthorn woods for cover because of the lack of ground covers. While a buckthorn thicket may look dense to us, to a coyote, it looks like an umbrella. Under the canopy is bare soil. Deer make very little use of buckthorn for food as it is generally unpalatable (Loos, 2013).

Deer thrive in a diverse landscape surrounding a forest matrix. In southern Wisconsin, the criteria are as follows:

Open oak woods with healthy ground covers and multiple age classes of trees and native shrubs

Adjacent meadows or openings with legumes and wildflowers

Brushy thickets of native shrubs and young trees and away from roads and along the edges between forest and meadow

Areas of tall grasses.

Therefore, a well-managed property will ensure that these structural elements exist in some form. On a given property, it may be possible to identify areas that provide different needs which already exist. It is equally likely that developing good habitat will require an active approach of planting trees and shrubs, eliminating invasive species, and introducing prescribed fire.

Oak woodlandThe oaks are the cornerstone species in southern Wisconsin. While the ancient giant white and burr oaks that are found throughout the region are beautiful to behold, the landowner should look more carefully. Are there young oaks present? Or, do you see buckthorn, box elder, cherry and elm growing in the understory? If young oaks are not present, your forest is on a negative long term trajectory. It is possible to bring an oak forest back to a healthy state, but it requires time and attention and the skills of a talented professional.

In a healthy oak woodland, deer find shelter and food. The oaks create the matrix around which a property owner can establish openings, meadows, prairies and food plots. An unhealthy woodland will provide poor cover and little food. Meadows, prairies, and food plots will not be attractive to deer without the woodland matrix. 


Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (web brochure), Managing Your Woodland For White Tailed Deer

Loos, Ralph (10/16/2013). Outdoor News. Deer presence could be altered by common shrub

Stevens, Russel (9/2004). The Samuel Roberts Nobel Foundation (web article). Think before planting food plots

Whitetails Unlimited (1998). Brochure. Forest management for white-tailed deer.

Contact Midwest Prairies to learn more about creating wildlife habitat