Digest This: Scouting Deer Food from the Inside Out

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What drives deer movement? Food! Yes, the rut drives buck movements, but they are searching for does. Where are the does? Where the food is!

Like me, deer are slaves to their stomachs, they feed many times each day, and food is what drives their movement. Identifying deer movement patterns results in successful hunts. To do this, you need to scout food sources on the ground, but there’s another way you can find out exactly what deer are eating right now. That’s right – study the stomach contents of harvested deer.

Deer stomach contents can clue you in to available and preferred food sources that deer are using at that time of the season. “At that time” is important because food sources change from week to week.

This approach does not take the place of traditional scouting, it simply complements it. However, studying rumen contents may help you minimize “scouting pressure” and can save precious time that you could spend in a deer stand.

I can remember checking a doe’s stomach during archery season several years ago – it was completely filled with pokeweed leaves. Pokeweed is a common plant in the South that is often found on recently disturbed ground such as roadsides, logging decks, firebreaks or clearcuts. I ran out and checked a couple of logging decks from a recent pine thinning operation. Sure enough, deer had been hammering the pokeweed, and there was fresh sign everywhere. A friend and I set up on two different logging decks the next morning. I had action all morning and was able to get a doe. I picked my friend up at 10:30 a.m. He had witnessed similar deer activity and had a dandy 9-point buck! We would never have thought about hunting these locations without seeing the pokeweed in the stomach of that doe.

Rummaging the Rumen

To “scout” stomach contents, the first thing you need is a deer at the skinning shed. If you hunt with friends or a club, chances are that somebody in the camp will harvest a deer. The next thing you need is a homemade “scouting box,” which helps you sift out the primary food sources. A scouting box is nothing more than a square wooden frame with a bottom made of quarter-inch hardware cloth that acts as a screen or sieve (see the photos in the Gallery below).

Field dress the deer and find the rumen. Deer have four stomach chambers. As food makes its journey through these chambers, it is increasingly digested. Roughage and pieces of raw food materials will be in the first and largest chamber, which is the rumen. The rumen is what most people will identify as “the deer’s stomach” when field dressing, and even novice hunters can find it easily.

Before you cut into the rumen or handle its contents, put on disposable rubber gloves, as it is very difficult to wash off the odor of rumen contents, and also poison ivy and oak are commonly browsed by deer.

Set the intact rumen in the scouting box, then cut into it and pour the contents onto the screen. Spray or pour water onto the screen to wash away the more digested particles, leaving only the larger pieces behind. If you are interested in seeing the smaller items, you can use a second box below the first with a finer screen. However, I only use the quarter-inch screen because the small items are hard to identify, and the larger items tell me all I need to know.

Rude, Crude, Been-Chewed Food

If the deer has been eating plants, you will see bits and pieces of leaves. It’s relatively easy to identify plants using the larger pieces of leaves, but in some cases you will have to rely on subtle hints from fragments like leaf edges and veins. Although I can identify most southern plants, I keep a field guide on hand for those I struggle with. In the Southeast, one of the best field guides is Forest Plants of the Southeast and Their Wildlife Uses, by Dr. Karl V. Miller and James H. Miller.

You will seldom be able to identify highly digestible plants, especially most food plot crops like clovers, unless the deer consumed them very recently. These simply digest too fast and are quickly rendered into a green liquid.

Obviously, if the deer has been eating acorns, you will see acorns. There will be whole acorns, pieces of acorn meat (usually tan or yellow) and hull. Again, a good field guide is very helpful to identify which oak species the acorns came from.

Soft mast like crabapples, persimmons and various berries can sometimes be tricky because the “meat” is soft and digests easily, and the skin has been chewed. I often have to rely on the seeds of soft mast for identification.

Unless you are just interested, I would not spend too much time trying to identify the small stuff in the stomach. Your goal is simply to determine the primary food source that the deer was eating. It is obviously helpful to check more than one deer. Deer are like people. Given a choice, most of us would prefer to hang out around a seafood buffet rather than a salad bar. But there is always someone who would prefer the salad. I also recommend checking deer throughout the season since food sources change.

Keep Records

Many food sources are only available for short periods of time, and you may not have time to locate the food source or adjust your hunting strategy the same season you see these foods in rumen contents. By keeping records of what you found and when, you can make predictions for next season and plan and scout accordingly (With acorns, however, remember that acorn crops are inconsistent from year to year, and your predictions about timing will be dependent on having a decent or strong acorn crop that year). After collecting information over a couple of hunting seasons, you will begin to see a pattern of feeding habits for each week of the hunting season.

Date, location of the harvest, sex and age of the deer, major food sources present and percentage of their composition are a few things we record from each deer. Recording the location is certainly helpful if you are hunting a relatively large property. Although deer across a property will usually focus their feeding efforts on similar food sources, I have seen completely different diets on the same property due to the availability of food sources in different areas.

An Inside Look at Habitat Quality

Analyzing rumen contents is also a good way to assess your habitat and nutritional management strategies. For example, if you are constantly seeing poor quality food sources such as red cedar or oak leaves in stomach contents, this may be a sign that your deer population has exceeded the property’s carrying capacity. Improved harvest or habitat management may be needed. Your property may appear to have plenty of “green stuff” for deer to eat and may even have a decent food plot program, but a closer inspection may indicate that quality food sources are in short supply. A high deer population results in high competition for desirable, nutritious food sources.

I commonly visit new properties where deer populations are high. From a truck window the woods appear to have food in the understory. But a closer look indicates that most desirable plant species have been heavily browsed or are non-existent. This reminds me of the old saying, “Good from afar, but far from good.” Scouting from the skinning shed will help you monitor your management efforts and make adjustments when needed to ensure deer are getting a quality diet.

Find the Food

It only takes a couple of minutes to “scout” while you are dressing a deer. This is free information that helps you identify what deer are eating so you can concentrate your scouting efforts in specific areas and avoid having to cover the entire property. This not only saves you time and energy, it reduces disturbance. Also, you can assess and monitor your habitat management program.

Although many factors influence deer movements, food is certainly high on the list. Find the food, and you will find the deer!

Dave Edwards is a certified wildlife biologist and the hunting and fishing manager at Cabin Bluff in Georgia. He is also the owner of Tall Tines Wildlife and Hunting Consultants. Dave is a regular contributor to QDMA’s Quality Whitetails magazine and serves on the “Age This!” panel in every issue. He has served as an instructor in QDMA’s Deer Steward courses and a speaker at the National Convention and Branch events.