What Is White-Tailed Deer Habitat?
Originally published October 2002, revised 2007
Quality deer habitat includes a mixture of trees, shrubs, vines, forbs, grasses and other plants such as fungi and sedges. Certain plants within each of these categories benefit deer more than others. Desirable plants should be well interspersed throughout an area, so that the whole area functions as deer habitat. In this region (southern Oklahoma and northern Texas), adequate woody plants should be present to provide food, shelter and concealment. Some type of water source should be available every mile or so. Enough area with appropriate plants should be available to support a viable population.
Plant diversity is an important aspect of habitat, because deer require a variety of plants to provide their various needs. Many plants are utilized during only one season or a portion of a season. Each plant that is eaten provides only a portion of a deer?s nutritional requirements. Some plants serve as cover and concealment. Deer need a variety of plants to have high-quality, year-round food and cover. Plant diversity is generally adequate where native plant communities are emphasized and managed for a variety of successional stages.
Plant succession is the natural progressive change of plant species and communities on a site across time. Disturbances such as tilling, clearing, flooding, mowing, grazing and burning set back succession by various degrees. Rest or lack of disturbance allows succession to progress forward toward more mature, stable plant communities.
Productive soils generally grow higher-quality foods and more volume of food than less productive soils. Bottomland areas in native vegetation represent some of the best deer habitats, which can support two to four times as many deer as many upland areas.
The most important aspect of deer habitat is an adequate abundance and diversity of forbs and woody plants. Forbs are soft-stemmed, broad-leaved, flowering plants and include most flowering plants species. Forbs are the most important deer food plants and include many species that some people call weeds. When deer have diverse choices, they generally prefer certain forbs over most woody plants and grasses. Of the plants eaten, forbs generally are more digestible and have more protein available for deer than woody plants and grasses. Legumes are probably the most important family of forbs in deer diets. A deer food habit study at the Noble Foundation Wildlife Unit showed forbs comprised 66 percent of spring diets and 81 percent of summer diets. It showed woody plants comprised 69 percent of fall diets and 46 percent of winter diets when fewer forbs were available. Significant quantities of grasses were eaten only during the dormant season and cool season grasses were the primary species eaten. Even then, woody plants or forbs were still more important in deer diets than grasses.
Some tropical and subtropical areas can support deer without woody vegetation because a longer growing season and greater rainfall provide year-round forb availability and adequate cover from tall grasses and forbs. But in this region, woody plants are an essential component of deer habitat. Locally, an area can support relatively high numbers of deer with as little as 12 percent woody cover when woody plants are well interspersed throughout an area and a good diversity is present. More commonly, local areas with less-than-ideal woody plant distribution and diversity require more woody cover, possibly as much as 25 to 50 percent, to support relatively high deer numbers. Four genera (categories) of woody plants are particularly important year-round foods in this area: oaks, Osage orange, sumacs and poison ivy. However, it is possible to have deer habitat without these species.
White-tailed deer management involves two primary facets: habitat management and population management. In habitat management, we manage where the deer live. In population management, we manage the deer themselves. Habitat management is more important than population management because you must have habitat before you can have deer. However, the two are intertwined because deer numbers must be managed to prevent harm to the habitat and for the habitat to provide adequate levels of nutrition.