It's no surprise that in autumn, deer frequent corn fields, rolling green meadows of alfalfa, old abandoned orchards and the occasional neighbors garden. Every few years, however, some deer hunters complain about the Game Commission, the neighbor shooting too many does, or that it "must of been a hard winter" cause they just ain't seeing any deer. Well the reason could be just beneath your toes!
Leonard Lee Rue III in his excellent book The Deer of North America remarked that he gauged the acorn crop with his size 11 boots. If he put his foot down and covered nine acorns, it was a good crop. If he put his foot down and covered a dozen - it was an excellent crop. Well I tried that here in the Northeastern section of Connecticut and counted 10 acorns on average. And since the acorns are still dropping like mad, I guess its safe to say that we're having an excellent crop this season and that Len was probably not too far off with his measurement.
So what makes them so special?
The Acorn is THE preferred deer food in the Eastern US. Where Oak trees are abundant, and acorns crops are heavy, the deer will be there. Given a choice between traveling great distances between bedding/security cover and feeding areas, or simply hanging out in a secure area with all the food you could eat, there's little reason for the deer to put themselves in potential danger by going elsewhere for food that is not quite as tasty, full of fats and starch, and so easily obtainable. In years of heavy acorn crops, deer may never even venture into that apple orchard - opting to hang tight on ridge tops and deep within deciduous forests feeding on acorns.
The acorn is low in protein content, but very high in fats and carbohydrates. They are easily digestible, their nutrients are readily absorbed, and they are processed and passed through the body quickly. Because these little nuts are so easily digestible, deer eat lots of them per day, which also gets them the protein content they need to be healthy. On a bumper year, deer can gain a lot of weight in just two weeks, while fawns and yearlings gain muscle, mass and bone while foraging on acorns. By late October, the deer has a thick slab of fat underneath the coat, and along the inside of the paunch.
Not all acorns are created equal
Just as acorns are the preferred deer food in autumn, white oak are the preferred acorns. Deer judge acorn taste, and subsequent preference by the level of tannic acid in the nut. White Oak acorns have the least tannic acid and the large rock oak the highest content. Below is the preference list for acorns, and their associated pictures for identification. Look for the nuts, not the leaves to identify hot places to put your stand. Leaves will not tell you if the tree is producing - only that it is there. Find the nuts, and you find the deer.
Produces a heavy crop typically every 3rd year but a crop every other year. Sweetest of all acorns due to a very low tannic acid level.
Produces a crop typically every 2nd year. Low to medium tannic acid level.
Produces a crop typically every 2nd year. Medium tannic acid level, deer will not feed entirely on red oak acorns due to some bitterness associated with them.
Produces a crop typically every 2nd year. Medium to high tannic acid levels - typically a good spring food after thaw.
Very large acorn, Produces a crop typically every year. Medium to high tannic acid level. Large size makes them preferred.
Produces a crop typically every year. High tannic acid levels make this acorn lower in preference
Other acorns for identification - Preference priority not available
Swamp White Oak