The Deer Professor: Pass the Salt

Overrated acrons, sodium drains, and scat.

Field & Stream Online Editors

**Why are deer so attracted to salt blocks? ** _

Matt Wermert, Grand Rapids, Mich.

_ Deer may visit salt blocks throughout the year but use them most frequently by far during the spring and summer. That's when they commonly have a high intake of succulent browse with a high water content, and thus require more sodium. Lactation in females and antler development in males creates an additional sodium drain. The drive to obtain adequate levels at this time can be intense. In one study in West Virginia, we observed deer traveling up to 3 miles outside their normal range to visit a sodium source. The activity at this particular site peaked during the second half of July. Similarly, an Indiana study recorded deer moving well outside their normal home bases to visit salt licks. Interestingly, in that study, individual deer used the licks once every one to 12 days, averaging about once every three days. Most visits occurred one to two hours after sunset. Dependence on salt blocks tends to drop off during the fall, so even in states where hunting over salt is legal, it's an unpromising tactic. You'd be better off concentrating on natural food sources.

I'm always reading about how important white and red oak acorns are in the whitetail's diet, but there are no oaks where I live. Does this harm the deer herd? Should I look for beechnuts when hunting? _

Pete Pattavina, Watertown, N.Y.

_ Acorns are highly preferred as forage by deer in the fall, but I think that sometimes their importance is exaggerated. First, there are many regions of the country with few or no oak trees where deer still do quite well. Second, they are a high-energy, low-protein food-important for adding fat before winter, but contributing little to body growth. Third, their production is highly variable from one year to another, and even when abundant, acorns provide food for only a short time. Deer have to eat year-round. The grasses, forbs, vines, shrubs, fruits, and berries that make up the bulk of the diet are just as important.

Nevertheless, there are some areas of the country where acorn production is critical to the deer population. In the southern Appalachian Mountains where alternative fall and winter forages are very limited, as well as on some coastal islands, research has demonstrated that reproduction, fawn survival, body weights, and overall health are closely tied to the annual variation in mast production. Even antler development can be affected in the year following a mast failure. In these areas, providing an alternate source of nutrition such as food plots is good insurance against the periodic failure of oak trees to produce acorns, which occurs every three to four years.

Beechnuts are also sought after, but deer, turkeys, bears, squirrels, and myriad other wildlife quickly consume them. They are only available for a short time. Crops of these nuts vary even more than acorns do, so when you see that beechnuts are present, count it as a blessing and hunt those areas.

**I've noticed that in the same field, some of the deer feces are in scattered pellets, while others are large clumps. Why would deer eating the exact same food have different types of pellets? ** _

Sam Lyon, Charleston, W.Va.

_ Typically, the types of foods that deer are eating determines the consistency of the droppings. When they are foraging on coarse vegetation with a high fiber content such as leaves and browse, their pellets will usually be well formed and scattered about. However, when their diet is composed of more succulent vegetation or fruits and acorns, the pellets may form a looser mass that falls as a clump of poorly shaped pellets. Factors other than diet, such as high parasite loads, disease, stress, and perhaps individual variation, can also result in irregular pellets. You can't readily determine sex or age by the shaape of scat.

Dr. Karl V. Miller is a professor of wildlife ecology and management at the University of Georgia's D.B. Warnell School of Forest Resources and one of the country's foremost whitetail experts.

Submit questions, including your name and hometown, to deerquestions@yahoo.com.