Every once in a while, a video will circulate on the internet of a deer eating something unexpected, such as a rabbit, snake, or some other kind of animal. While these videos may surprise some who know deer to be plant-eaters, it's really not that unusual for deer to eat meat.
Deer are surprising creatures. And one of the more surprising aspects of their behavior is just how varied their food sources can be when the need arises. Pop culture scenes of deer feeding in movies such as "Bambi" have helped paint an unrealistic picture of the brutal realities of nature.
Despite what many people believe, deer are not strict herbivores. Biologists have confirmed that deer's meat-eating habits are usually based on opportunity. Deer don't typically display the prey-seeking behaviors of a carnivore. Deer eat whatever they can to survive. And they have been documented eating all sorts of other animals, including birds, rabbits, dead fish, and small mammals.
Do Deer Eat Meat, Really?
The answer to this question is a resounding yes. Deer do eat meat. There are countless videos online like the one above that prove white-tailed deer and many related species will opportunistically grab a baby bird, mouse, squirrel, frog, or other small animal and swallow them right up. Back in 2015, researchers studying song birds in North Dakota found that deer were the main raiders of the nests they set their cameras on. To the surprise of the researchers, deer ate the nestlings and un-hatched eggs too.
In 2009, a short piece of footage was uploaded to YouTube showing a deer eating a squirrel on what appears to be a backcountry road. Another piece of footage uploaded to YouTube in 2010 very clearly shows a young buck grabbing and eating a baby bird in a backyard. Yet another viral piece of video from 2014 shows ice fishermen feeding small fish to a deer, which first pins down the flopping fish on the ice and then quickly swallows it up. There are also plenty of trail camera videos of deer appearing to scavenge at gut piles left behind by hunters.
The one that made worldwide headlines was a 2017 study of the decomposition of human remains in Texas: Researchers set up trail cameras on a human body in the forest hoping to see what animals would turn up to scavenge the remains. They were quite surprised when the cameras captured photos of a doe gnawing on human bones.
Why Do Deer Eat Meat?
Deer haven't developed a taste for human flesh, nor is it likely they're cannibalistic if they scavenge a little venison from a gut pile. In fact, deer are not technically omnivores because their digestive systems just aren't designed for it. They don't have the true ability to digest meat.
Deer are, instead, ruminants like cows. They have a four-part stomach that's designed for digesting plant matter, and part of that digestion process involves regurgitating and re-chewing their food in a process known as cud chewing. That's not a typical behavior for meat-eaters.
So, what's really going on when a deer decides to eat a small animal or scavenge some carrion? Well, researchers believe it's likely they see an opportunity to get some much-needed minerals. In the case of the deer that chewed the human bones, it's believed the does captured on camera were trying to get salt, calcium, or phosphorous. These minerals are all readily available in bones and antlers. Deer have been recorded gnawing on shed antlers from time to time, and it's likely they're looking for a little extra calcium.
Gizmodo notes that whitetails aren't the only members of the deer family that become opportunistic carnivores. Red deer were documented eating seabird chicks in Scotland and the biologists there determined that the baby birds gave the little extra nutrient boost the stags needed for antler growth, which is quite the intensive process on its own. There are also plenty of documented cases of elk eating birds and even rabbits.
It seems that deer are more likely scavengers that consume dead animals if they live in an area that's lacking in nutrition. Even then, it seems they are more likely to chew the bones of carcasses rather than catch and eat prey like other predators do. It's not that the deer have developed a taste for meat; it's likely a simple survival mechanism that's pulled out occasionally and only when the deer needs it or the opportunity arises.
So, don't worry hunters. There's no worry about a herd of deer coming back for a weird type of flesh-eating revenge during deer hunting season. You can leave that sort of thing solely as fiction for the horror movies.
READ MORE: Breaking Down the Muth of the Nocturnal Deer
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