White-tailed deer do not stand out as particularly ferocious predators. It’s hard to imagine an animal so cute as a meat-eating carnivore. After all, their diet mainly consists of plant-based food that doesn’t require killing or hunting. But that’s not all they eat.
While deer are generally considered herbivores, they are known to eat meat if given the opportunity. Field cameras from scientific research have confirmed that deer will sometimes eat small birds and also consume the eggs from bird nests.
The behavior is remarkable, mainly because the digestive system of deer has not fully adapted to processing meat-based protein. The animals will normally exclusively eat plant-based material and fungi. Nature isn’t always as black-and-white as we originally assumed.
Deer Do Eat Meat (Occasionally)
The common belief is that deer have an exclusively plant-based diet. Biologists agree that it is not the norm for deer to consume the meat of other animals. However, there is scientific evidence from field research that proves the opposite: deer will eat meat if given the opportunity.
Nature does not always conform to the ways in which humans like to think. For centuries, biologists have grouped animal species into one of the following three brackets:
- Carnivores – Those animals that exclusively eat meat
- Omnivores – Those animals that both eat meat and plants
- Herbivores – Those animals that exclusively eat plants
However, this is not how wildlife perceives the world. Reality is much more fluid. Herbivores can temporarily turn into carnivores if the opportunity arises (as well as the other way around). Deer definitely have the gut bacteria for digesting meat, so why should they not eat animals?
A wild animal is always thinking about its next meal. It never knows when it will come, so it will take any opportunity to consume any calories it can consume. The YouTube video below by The Budget Museum explains the concept in an accessible and entertaining way:
What Animals Do Deer Eat?
While it is not the norm for a deer to eat other animals, deer will generally eat small birds, as well as bird nestlings and their eggs. Deer are also known to eat the carcasses of dead animals, most commonly dead fish that drifted to shore. Other animals deer might eat include rabbits, squirrels, or frogs.
Most individuals will only show their meat-eating tendencies from time to time. Especially in the fall, when the deer are preparing for winter, it is beneficial for the animals to take every opportunity they can get to fatten up for the cold months.
It must be noted that deer will not just eat dead carcasses it might encounter. Wildlife sightings have been recorded of deer consuming healthy, alive birds in a field. While the animals are not considered to be formidable hunters, it does happen that deer eat small wildlife that is still alive.
Do Deer Hunt Other Animals?
While deer are known to kill and eat animals that are still alive, they will not actively hunt them down. Deer are not built to hunt, mainly because they lack sufficient jaw power, their teeth are built to consume plants, and their hunting instinct is completely absent. If a deer eats another animal, it is usually a carcass.
The smell of a dead carcass might attract the animals in periods when extra nutrition is needed. They will not actively seek out prey, but will not hesitate to consume small wildlife that does not put up a fight.
Wounded, old, or sick animals all fit the definition of the prey a deer might ‘hunt’. If the opportunity arises, a deer will go out of its way to kill and eat a small animal that is already weak. This might also include a member of its own species.
Are Deer Cannibalistic?
It might surprise people to learn that deer are in fact cannibalistic in nature: they are known to eat the organs of their own species. Their appetite for dead flesh can go really far, and their animal instinct will kick in as much for herbivores as for carnivores.
There’s a clear trend to note here: dead carcasses, roadkills, and wounded animals are all seen as food by our antler-wielding friends. That might even include us…
There is at least one scientifically confirmed case where a wild deer has eaten the flesh of a dead human. Let’s just say that Bambi was really hungry that day. Deer are even known to be attracted to graveyards and ritualistic sites where humans and animals are buried.
Predator Or Prey: Where Deer Fit In
If there is one thing you should take away from this article it’s this. Humans love to simplify the natural world for their own convenience. Nature is not always that straightforward, and we should not put herbivores into the ‘vegan plant-based food only‘ box.
Reality is often much more complex. Deer behavior has perplexed and amazed us many times, and will probably continue to surprise us in the future. We have been conditioned too much to see deer as soft, cuddly cute creatures that gnaw on grass leaves, and acorns.
More realistically, one should consider this worldview: nature is an unforgiving, harsh place where survival is key. Sometimes, plant-based food is simply not that abundant. Other times, winter is just around the corner. That’s exactly where eating meat will make all the difference for a deer.