Like most living things, deer are most motivated by food. They will choose where they stay and when they move by what foods are most available to them. Like all animals, they have preferred foods but will fall back on other less favored sources when those run dry. Understanding the big picture of what deer want, what time of year they have access to it, and how plentiful it is will put you miles ahead of the game in understand and locating deer.
We choose trees for a variety of purposes. No matter the time of the year, tree species will provide food for deer from the depths of winter to blazing summer heat. When all other plants are barren or dead, trees still provide. Trees also provide shelter, keeping deer close even when other foods are available.
There are many varieties of trees that will produce foods most at different times of the year through buds, nuts, fruits, leaves, and even bark it times get really tough. Though you may not be able to hunt deer at most of these times, the deer know their food sources and will pick areas that are most able to support them year round. If you can find woodlands that have trees in close proximity that will sustain a population in every season, you have landed on a treasured hunting location.
There is no clear way to organize a list such as this. It can’t be organized by season as some trees will provide food across multiple seasons. It can’t be organized by favorites because a deer may love a tree in spring and then ignore the remainder of the year. Even organizing by the edible part is off the shelf, deer may eat the leaves of a plant in spring and the fruit of the plant in fall.
Perhaps the best way is just to dive in.
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1. White Oak (Quercus alba etc.)
There are a variety of species of oak trees mostly divided into White Oak and Red Oak. Though each contains a variety of species under their generic name, the two groups of oaks are very different. White oak acorns are much sweeter and a beloved food of deer. The timing of their fall makes them a very important crop for the deer hunter.
In the fall, deer will browse heavily on the fallen nuts and often travel between stands of oak trees looking for newly fallen acorns. If your timing is good, setting up a deer stand near white oaks can provide you with a great opportunity.
Leaves are lobed and alternating on the stem but may vary greatly between white oak species. They will consist of 7 to 9 lobes per leaf that are rounded at the tip and not pointed
The bark is light grey with deep ridges and furrows.
The easiest method to identify a white oak species is by finding acorns and examining the leaves to see if they are pointed or rounded on the lobes. White oak leaves always have rounded lobes.
2. Hickory & Pecan (Carya laciniosa etc. & Carya illinoinensis)
It’s the pecan tree if you are in the southern U.S. but in the north, it’s a variety of hickory trees that all produce similar fruits. While hickory nuts are not considered edible to humans, deer seem to like them. Pecans are popular no matter what species you are.
In the south Pecans do seem to be more popular than the hickory nuts do. These nuts begin to drop in late Summer and early Fall depending on the area of the country you are in. While they don’t draw deer like acorns do, they last longer on the ground and become a viable source of food as the easier and tastier options are depleted.
With the variety of species of hickories, including the pecan, it is often easiest to identify them by their fruits and leaves.
All hickory leaves are compound pinnate meaning they have several leaflets on a single stem. These leaflets will vary in size and number depending on the species.
Pecans are a green lobed fruit that grows in clusters. There are a few nuts that look like them so they are very easy to identify. Hickory nuts are large, heavy and smoother than a pecan. They may be mistaken for walnuts but hickory nuts have four lines that divide the fruit into quarters where walnuts do not.
There are two species of hickory that are very easy to identify from their bark. The Shagbark and Shellbark hickories have bark that begins to peel off in large scales in adult trees. In all of the eastern woodlands, no other tree does this.
3. American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)
The beech tree is a very majestic and highly recognizable tree. Deer certainly seem to be able to find it. The prickly seed pods begin to drop in mid-fall but can hang on much longer due to their lightweight. Inside there are two to four small nuts that somewhat resemble large brown corn kernels. Deer love these as well as most other herbivores like squirrel.
Beech trees are not as common and the number of seeds that each tree drops are less than most other nut-bearing trees. This makes the beech nuts more of a delicacy than a primary food source. However, if you happen to find a few beech trees that are dropping their pods, you have a prime spot for deer.
Every three or four years, beech trees will drop a much larger quantity of nuts. If you see heavily loaded beech trees, it’s a good year and you should probably move your stand somewhere near there.
The most notable feature of the beech tree is the very smooth steel-grey bark. The only other tree in the eastern woodlands with a similar bark is the American Hornbeam which is much smaller and lacks the seed pods.
Those pods are the second feature to look for. They have a spiky appearance somewhat like a chestnut but are far less sharp and rigid. They will feel prickly but flexible. If you break one open it will have several small nuts rather than a single large nut.
4. Red Oak (Quercus rubra etc.)
As we discussed above, the red oak is very similar to the white oak but as a dietary source for deer, it is quite different. At least it’s different enough to warrant its own section. Where deer will flock to areas where there are white oaks as soon as the acorns fall, red oak acorns are much more bitter. While deer will eat them, they are not a choice food source.
Usually, red oak acorns will lay on the ground much longer and provide a good last resort food in the late fall and winter when food is getting harder to find. If you are hunting late season when deer are likely to roam farther, red oaks could be a good bet to find them.
The bark of red and white oaks are virtually indistinguishable from each other as are the acorns. Differences are just as pronounced between different species in each group as they are between the red and white. This makes finding oaks easy but determining which group they belong to much harder.
Though there are differences in the soils each prefer, without testing the only real way to tell is by the leaves. Where white oaks have rounded lobes, all red oaks have pointed lobes. If its winter, you will have to check fallen leaves or do a tree survey ahead of time.
5. Chestnuts (Genus Castanea)
Though the American Chestnut has been rendered more or less extinct, there are still a large variety of chestnut trees from Europe, Asia, and even hybrids. Three species of trees related to the American chestnut are still doing quite well including the Allegheny chinkapin which is by all intents a chestnut tree.
It is likely that the American chestnut was a preferred and abundant source of nutrition for deer. Since those are more or less gone, any of the other varieties have surely taken their place. This is a late forage tree though the nuts usually drop mid-fall. Deer are unlikely to go after these nuts until the shells and their notorious spikes have split apart to reveal the nut.
Usually found in areas that they have been planted, sometimes even as a decorative tree, they are a good bet for late season deer. Keep your eyes open for any on lands that you have permission to hunt.
This tree is a hard one to identify, especially when the leaves have dropped. Usually larger chestnut trees have a dark grey bark that is heavily rigged and somewhat shiny but there are few chestnuts that get that large. Smaller trees have a smooth, mostly dark grey bark.
Leaves are elliptical and oblong with a thin base. They have a toothed outer edge on most species and can range in size from around 3 inches up to 8 inches depending on the species.
The tale tail way to identify the chestnut is by its fruits. These evil-looking spiked balls are bright green before they drop and will easily puncture the skin. They can be a nightmare for landowners and are often removed.
6. Apple & Crab Apple (Malus pumila & associated species)
There are hundreds of apple varieties, most of which are hybrids and fall under the species name of Malus pumila as a general way of classifying all of them. Crab apples are similar and still of the same genus as the apples we use for pies. Apples and crabapples are frequently crossed to get disease resistance and hardiness.
The good news is, you don’t really have to know any of that. Apple trees bring deer and will bring them in abundance. A single large apple tree can drop hundreds of pounds of calorie dense food that deer absolutely love. Apples will ripen and fall at different times of the year so keep an eye on any likely trees and watch for the fruit to start to change color.
Though apples can drop anywhere between June and October, deer will continue to use them as a food source for as long as they can find them. Even in late winter, the little withered brown apples are a suitable food source for deer. Hunting wild orchards is almost like cheating but if you find a single isolated tree, that is fair game!
There are far too many varieties of apples to learn to identify. Some leaves are narrow, elliptical shapes while others are almost triangular. The bark is generally a light grey and fissured to look like plates but may be simply smooth grey.
The identifying feature of the apple tree is the apple. Not the big red ones from the store but green and mottled green/red is most common. Crab apples are much smaller, almost like large berries but look like an apple in coloration.
In the spring, apple trees will have numerous small white or pink flowers but without a very thorough study, there are dozens of trees that have a similar flower.
7. Pear Trees (Genus Pyrus)
To the best of my knowledge, there are no native pear species in the U.S. but there are dozens of species that have been introduced for either their fruits or as landscaping trees. Some will fruit and others will not. We only care about the fruiting ones though deer will happily feed on the leaves in spring.
While not as prolific as apples a good pear tree will draw in a lot of wildlife, deer included. Unfortunately finding these trees in the wild is fairly uncommon. The more likely place to find them is in old farm fields. Just make sure you get permission to hunt around them.
Pears are not as robust as apples and will often rot much quicker. This means that you have to get the timing right. Usually, pears will begin to drop around the beginning of bow season but may hang on into late September. For the early hunter, this could be a likely place.
Pear trees will usually have glossy leaves that are leathery and oval shaped. The bark of pear trees is fissured vertically and usually mottled grey. It can easily be mistaken for maple bark. Spring flowers are very similar to those of apple trees but are stark white.
The best way to find pear trees is to find the pears. A keen eye can spot them from the leaves but every other feature of this tree is fairly generic without intense study.
8. Wild American Plum (Prunus Americana)
While it is a rare tree, the American plum is a real treat to find. It occurs natively in much of the U.S. and is sometimes used as an ornamental tree. The fruits are very sweet and high in calories which makes them great for deer or the deer hunter looking for a treat.
If you find one of these treasures, mark it on your map. It is an invaluable source of food for deer. In the spring, the leaves and flowers are very popular and the falling fruits later in summer are an even bigger hit with the wildlife.
Whit the timing of deer season, it is unlikely that there will be much in the way of fruits left on the plum tree but if you get the early season in a cooler year, you may get lucky. Otherwise, use this tree as a guide. If the tree is there, the deer likely were and probably won’t stray far until late fall.
Even though this is a single species, leaves are highly variable. They may be oblong or ovate but are almost always hairy and have sharply serrated edges. The flowers are very much like most of the other fruiting trees on this list but if it has small serrated leaves and white flowers like an apple tree, it is likely an American Plum.
Young trees may have smoother bark but older plume trees will have a dark brown, scaly and rough bark. The combination of these features will be a dead giveaway as to what the tree is.
Mainly look for fruits which will be about an inch in size and light green early in the summer and darken to red or yellow as the season progresses.
9. American Persimmon (Diospyros Virginiana)
The Persimmon tree is a rare but amazing tree for the deer hunter. Most of this is due to timing. Most food sources have at least started to dry up by November but some Persimmons may just be dropping their fruits. This is almost a guaranteed spot to find deer roaming for food in the later season.
Unfortunately, the fruits don’t last and may drop much earlier in cooler years. If you have located a persimmon tree, keep a close watch on it. When the fruits start to drop, that’s where you want to hunt. Many persimmon trees will drop hundreds of very small fruits over the span of several weeks so you do have a little time.
Most persimmon trees have leaves that are darker green than most other trees and oblong or elliptical in shape. Though that won’t be the best giveaway, it will help to identify potential trees in very early spring.
At the time you want to start paying attention to the persimmon, it will have developed small, 4 petaled flowers that are butter yellow in color. There is no other tree in the eastern woodlands with flowers like this.
These flowers will slowly give way to small, hard green fruits that are almost perfectly round. In mid-autumn, the fruit will ripen into a pinkish-orange color and after a few frosts, will drop. The fruit will usually be very small but have a tomato shape to it. They are safe to eat and when ripe are quite tasty.
10. Red Mulberry & White Mulberry (Morus rubra & Morus alba)
Though not common trees by far, especially the white variety, mulberries will draw wildlife from a large area. Their very sweet berries are high in calories and a prime source of food for many mammals and birds, deer most definitely included.
The red mulberry tree is native to the eastern U.S. and can occasionally be found wild, usually near open grassy meadows. The white variety is introduced from China but can still be found in wild settings. It is capable of doing well in a variety of soils making it very hardy and adaptable.
If you find either, keep an eye out for deer sign. Usually, if you have mulberries you will end up with deer eventually. Because of their fruiting time, the deer hunter is unlikely to be able to hunt these trees but can use them as an identifier of areas that have deer population. Both the fruit and leaves are prime picking.
Mulberry leaves are polymorphic, meaning that each tree will have two different leaf shapes. One is a simple ovate leaf but the other is an unmistakable tri-lobed leaf. If you find a tri-lobed leaf and with a second leaf type on the same branch, you have found a mulberry. Red mulberry will have sharper leaves where white will have a more rounded shape.
Fruit is either deep purple-red or white when ripe and looks like a long slender blackberry in shape with small lobes. It is very sweet to the taste when ripe and will start to drop, if there is any fruit left to drop, in late summer.
Like the leaves, the mulberry bark is a dead giveaway. It is lightly fissured and of a dark golden brown color. As the tree ages, the space between the fissures will form into long, narrow ridges.
11. Sumac (Rhus typhina & Rhus glabra)
There are a variety of Sumac trees which shouldn’t be confused with the poison sumac. All sumac are members of the cashew family but poison sumac is in a different genus than the sumac we are interested in.
The two predominant species of sumac that are important for deer are smooth sumac and staghorn sumac which are native to all 48 states in the contiguous U.S. The small clumps of dark red berry-like fruits are tart to the taste and are quite popular with deer species. I have noticed deer even grazing on this during the middle of hot summer days.
Usually, the fruits are ripe around mid to late summer so they miss the deer season but are a sure way to check for deer in the area. Examine the plants to see if large bunches of the fruits have been stripped away. Most likely it was a deer that did it.
Sumac are short trees, often between 10 and 15 feet high at maturity. The pinnate leaf structure is long, well over a foot, and can have between leaflets that are long, thin, and serrated. Once you know what the leaf looks like, it’s hard to miss but not as sure-fire as identifying from the fruit.
Bot species of sumac have the small red drupes, which are a berry-like stone fruit. These will grow in a hornlike shape around 6 or 8 inches long. The Staghorn sumac has a much more clean and orderly look than the smooth sumac. These are nearly unmistakable in the wild.
Sumac will grow with a lot of branches and trunks, making them dense and twisted. The bark is a very dark grey and can be smooth or lightly fissured, depending on the age.
12. Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)
The seeds of the honey locust make for great fall browse for deer across most of the country. Though these trees aren’t prolific, they are common enough and the deer always seem to find them. The leaves of young honey locust are also prime springtime forage, making this a good multi-season tree.
Despite its wicked-looking thorns, deer still seem to go after any food it provides and may even shelter under its mass of twisted branches. This is all around a good tree to keep an eye out for. Not to be confused with the black locust which is a different species and not viable as a food source.
Keep an eye out for these trees in late fall and check underneath for sign of bedding sites. Look for game trails around the tree. You can almost bet that the deer will filter into the area at some point during the mid to late fall and may even stay there.
No part of the Locust tree is edible for people that I can find. Leave them for the deer.
Three features are important in the ID of the honey locust but you can get by with two. The least important of these is the leaf which is small and grows in groups of 15 to 30 leaflets on pinnate structures that are often a foot or more in length.
The second feature to be aware of are the seed pods which contain seeds much like a flattened green bean. This is the part the deer are after!
The bark of the tree is the true tale tail sign and not something you are soon to forget. The long spikes, sometimes up to 8” form as the tree matures. Each spike is forked and grows in small clusters, making the tree look dangerous.
13. Sugar and Red Maples (Acer saccharum & Acer rubrum)
There are numerous subspecies of maple trees and most of them are a good source of spring forage for deer but the Sugar and Red maples seem to be the most popular. Deer are also likely to feed on entire small saplings and seeds but the nature of maple tree seeds makes it hard to judge.
After the spring, this tree is mostly useless as a food tree but works well as a marker. In other words, the primary reason to know this tree is to find woodlands that will hold deer year round. This is such a prolific early food source that is likely woodlands without these trees will not be a prime deer habitat.
It’s hard to miss a majestic maple tree if you have ever seen the Canadian flag. Despite the color, the leaf on the flag is much closer to a sugar maple leaf than a red maple leaf but they are quite similar.
Sugar maple leaves have 5 lobes that are toothed, the back 2 lobes are very small compared to the others and may be confused as part of the tooth pattern. The red maple has the same 5 lobes but without the toothed pattern. The lobes on a red maple are much less pronounced.
The bark of a maple tree is also quite distinct. It appears in long, vertical strips and is splotchy as grey-green, grey-brown, or even black. Once you get to know the bark, you won’t mistake it for anything else.
14. Dogwoods (Cornus florida & Cornus amomum)
Dogwoods, especially the Flowering Cornus (florida) and Silky (Cornus amomum) varieties are very important summer to autumn food trees for a variety of wildlife. So much so that most people never ever realize that these dogwoods have fruits. They are often stripped long before you get a chance to see them.
Like the maple tree, this is a good marker tree. If a forest has dogwoods, it will likely support deer population in the summer when the first fruits ripen. Continue your search in these woodlands for fall forage trees. Finding these trees around oaks or beech are generally a very good sign that deer will be present.
Dogwoods of a number of species have been widely used as ornamental plants, drawing deer and other wildlife into people yards. Not that you should use this as an excuse to hunt in your neighbour’s backyard but it can help in locating local deer trails and seeing where they go.
Both trees have leaves that are ovate to elliptical and veins that are very prominent and run parallel to the edges of the leaf. This is an uncommon combination in leaves and can be used to firmly identify a dogwood.
Of course, the flowers, especially on a flowering dogwood, are the dead giveaway. All dogwood flowers have 4 bracts (think petals) per flower though the ones on the flowering dogwood are larger and more pronounced. A natural dogwood will always have white petals though ornamental varieties may have pink or red flowers and may not fruit.
Flowering dogwoods have red fruits when ripe that somewhat resembles a more ovate cranberry. The fruits of the silky dogwood are blue-black but of a similar shape. Reports vary about the edibility of these berries but they are likely best avoided. Besides, they have a strong unpleasant bitterness to them.
15. Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
The one tree in the woods that deer will pick absolutely clean of any part they can reach from the fruits, flowers, leaves, and even twig tips. Redbuds are quite prolific but few survive the early spring browsing of deer. Usually, these are one of the first trees to start to bloom and that makes them a target for any herbivore species that has spent the winter starving.
In the fall, the seed pods of the redbud begin to drop and will collect deer though they are not a preferred food source. If you are having trouble locating deer, check around redbuds in the late season. You may just get lucky!
The leaves of the redbud are heart-shaped and the only tree with those bean-like pods that has a simple leaf as opposed to leaflets on a stem. Redbuds will often stay green longer into the fall than most other trees and develop pink flowers very early in the spring.
The fruits of the redbud are the same flattened bean shape of the honey locust but are a darker brown. The seeds inside the pod are very dark, almost black. Usually, these pods will stay on the tree very late in the year, often into winter.
16. Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)
The Yellow Birch tree is another great spring feeding tree for deer. The twig tips, leaves, and even bark on younger trees are all good sources of early calories for deer after the winter. In areas where other foods may arrive later, this is one of the most popular trees in the woodlands.
Even in winter deer may forage from this tree if they can find anything remaining to forage from. While this doesn’t make it a good tree for hunters to seek out as a hunting spot, it does provide a good marker tree and could be used in the winter months if no other place to set up your stand presents its self.
As soon as other foods are available, the birch will be forgotten until food runs low again.
Birch trees are among the easiest trees to identify in the eastern woodlands with distinct bark and leaves. Though birch do flower, the resulting bud is not very distinct and seeds are very small.
The leaves of the birch tree are ovate with closely serrated edges. Veins run at an approximate 45-degree angle from the stem out to the margins of the leaf. In the winter they will turn golden yellow and may hang on to limbs far longer than other leaves do.
The true marker of a birch tree is the somewhat shiny bark that has a silvery appearance with yellow-brown spots. As it ages this bark will begin to peel off into rolls or curls. This alone makes spotting these trees a simple task.
17. White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis)
Mostly in northern climates, this is a year-round tree that will be a constant go-to for deer to snack. It may not be a preferred food, due to its lower calorie value, but they seem to like the taste and it is high in vitamin C.
This is also an important shelter tree that often grows fairly low and spreads out wide. This makes them great for bedding sites and are often used as such.
It is important to note that this is not actually a cedar tree but a member of the Cyprus family. It has no relation to the red cedar below.
The first of two features used to identify this tree are the leaves which almost appear to be pine needles until you look closely. Their scaly pattern and blunt tip give it away. Each of those scales is a single leaf that is layered like shingles on a house. These individual groups of leaves will attach to longer sprays of leaves until it finally gets back to the branch tip.
The bark is the second feature which can vary in color from grey-brown to a very distinct red-brown color. It is generally scaly or stringy but may become more rigid as it matures.
18. Canada Yew (Taxus canadensis)
Though this is not precisely a tree but rather a woody vine, it is still good to know and an important food source for deer in the northeast. This low growing shrub can provide shelter as well but is often too small and short for the purpose.
Both the small red fruits and leaves are edible to deer but please avoid eating the leaves yourself. They can be quite toxic. The fruits are edible at the right time of the year but avoid eating them without professional guidance with you.
Throughout the year this can be a more or less important plant depending on what season it is and how available food is. Generally, deer like to browse this plant but will leave it for more calorie-rich foods as late summer approaches.
As more of a shrub than a tree, the Canada yew usually only grows to be around 6 feet high and otherwise resembles the famed hemlock tree. The leaves are very short, less than an inch and very ovate and pale green.
The bark is often reddish brown. The branches of the tree will often be very thin and sparse across the entire plant with the trunk being only a few inches in diameter.
The primary means of identifying the yew is by its fruits called arils. These milky red fruits have a hollow in the bottom that contains a single black-brown seed. In the U.S. only the two prominent yew species have fruits like this.
19. Common Greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia)
The common greenbrier, also called roundleaf greenbrier, is also a flowering vine rather than a true tree but it can be a very important species for the deer hunter. Due to its dense growth, sometimes like kudzu, it provides a great source of calories from mid-spring to late summer and even into early fall in the more southern areas of the U.S.
The common greenbrier covers a vast amount of the U.S. and in some areas can provide up to 25% of the diet of large herbivore mammals. Usually, it is the leaves that are most popular but small fruits that are black in color are edible to deer.
Though this plant will often be gone before deer season, knowing its location gives you a good place to start your scouting and will often identify areas of the woodlands that will hold deer year around. It is frequently found near the edges of meadows, wetlands, yards, and roadways.
The leaves of the greenbrier are heart-shaped and between 2 and 5 inches in length. The top of the leaf is a shiny green but the bottom is more of a yellow-green color. This is the first key to identifying the plant. Very few plants in the eastern U.S. have similar leaves.
The fruits are small and dark blue to black and may stay on the plant over winter provided they aren’t eaten. They often grow in small clusters and can be mistaken for blackberries from a distance but are actually separate smooth berries.
Being of the briar family, the small stems of this plant are thorny and often green for most of the year, only turning brown in late fall.
20. Easter Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
Unlike the white cedar above, the red cedar is a true cedar tree and though I can’t find what part of this particular tree appeals to deer, they are often very active in areas with thick groves of cedar trees. This leads me to believe it is a preferred bedding site.
If this theory is correct, it means that forests with red cedar populations are likely to hold deer species all year. If I am incorrect, some part of this tree must be a food source.
I have ruled out the leaves as they are never chewed or broken that I have found. The fruits of the tree are very small and only on the tree for a very short period of time before turning to cones.
No matter the reason, the Red Cedar means deer are probably around.
Both the leaves and bark of the red cedar are great identifying features. The needle-like leaves are very prickly and can cause a rash or itch in some people. When the tree is young, the needles are sharp but will become more scale like as the tree matures. They keep the prickliness and needle-like appearance no matter the age.
The bark is the big giveaway though. Red cedar bark is thin and often has a tufted or shredded look. Sometimes this is caused by deer using the tree as an antler rub. The external bark will be a lighter grey with the inner bark a rust orange.
Most of these trees are taken from my own experience or those of other outdoorsmen in my area. This means that some of these trees may not be available to you as a resource. This would be the case with any list of trees. Look for related species or related traits if you want to find additional species in your area that may serve the same purposes.
If you plan on using this guide, realize that the identification of each tree is only a rough guideline and should be supplemented by an actual guide on tree identification. There is nothing easy about getting into the minutia of tree identification and attempting to cover it here would take many thousands of words in explanations and descriptions. That is really beyond the scope of this article.
Remember, don’t eat anything that you don’t know is 100% safe. Many fruits, nuts, and berries have look-alikes that are toxic. Even if it is safe, always be cautious with edible plants until you know how your body will react. Allergic reactions in the woods can turn lethal.
With all of that said, get out there and scout!