Many people may not know that deer, like some other herbivores, eat meat from time to time. It’s hard to imagine these creatures as steak-seeking predators, but deer will be quick to take advantage of a nutritious opportunity. Biologists say that this behavior is uncommon and rarely is deer depredation documented. Still, the deer don’t exactly keep it a secret.
“Some of these animals really are omnivorous,” U.S. Geological Survey biologist Pam Pietz reported all the way back in 1998.
Lacking natural hunting instincts, deer tend to target (or perhaps more accurately, stumble upon and snatch up) easier meals such as bird eggs and hatchlings. In fact, deer can be a common danger for ground-nesting birds.
“If they come across a nest, where the food doesn’t move or run away, they’ll take advantage of it,” Pietz said.
Other small animals are game too, as long as the deer can actually eat them. There have been documented instances of deer eating squirrels and rabbits, although it is not known if it was the deer that killed them. However, deer are not physically equipped to eat meat, and in most cases will not be able to bite through thick skin with their teeth. In cases where the deer is unable to reach the nutritious organs inside the body cavity, it instead munches on the limbs.
“You think of these animals as grazers or browsers,” says Wyoming Game and Fish biologist Reg Rothwell, “but they occasionally eat some pretty weird stuff.”
Deer are also known to frequent gut piles and other animal remains and are often the first to show up at these sites. They then rummage through the mess looking for tasty treats. It is unknown if they seek out gut piles to eat the meat or simply the apples and other digested goodies laying about. As grisly as it may look, these methods may be tempting to deer during particularly harsh winters.
Below is a video of a deer chasing down and eating a hatchling bird while its parents try to protect it.
Another video of a deer attempting to eat a dead squirrel.
Biologists are concerned that deer eating or otherwise coming into contact with carcasses run the risk of contracting contagious diseases such as chronic wasting disease.
Hat tip to Stephanie Mallory for the story idea.
Image courtesy Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources