Whitetail Deer are one of the more common animals seen in forests and woods throughout North America’s Eastern and Midwest portions. Deer are typically classified as herbivores, identifying them as plant-eaters. However, a deer’s diet is impacted by its specific habitat and the food sources found within that habitat. Deer are also opportunists when it comes to food and will eat several fruits and vegetables that are not typically found in their natural habitat.
When it comes to the diet of the Whitetail Deer, one of the more common questions that I see asked at my day job and online is this one: do deer eat pumpkins or can deer eat pumpkin? This question generally comes up around Halloween and is usually asked from the following two perspectives:
- A wildlife lover trying to figure out if they can feed the deer in their backyard leftover pumpkin from Halloween.
- Or, prospective deer hunters who are trying to figure out if those same post-Halloween pumpkins can be used as a deer food source as they are spoiling.
Are Pumpkins Safe and Healthy For Deer?
Even though pumpkin fruit (and pumpkin is classified as a fruit) is not a traditional food source commonly found in nature, it can be a good food resource for deer. They offer an excellent source of energy in the fall to help the deer get through cold temperatures. Deer love to eat pumpkins, including the stalk, vine, leaves, seeds, and skin, and can absorb a significant amount of the vitamins and nutrients from this fruit.
The most common form of pumpkin is the small, round variety, which is often used as jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween. This form of fruit is normally seen in two types: field pumpkins and carving pumpkins. Field pumpkins are larger than carving pumpkins and have tougher skins. Carving pumpkins are more commonly used for cooking purposes and recipes. While deer can eat pumpkins and pumpkin seeds when they are green, they are not as nutritious as the orange variety.
Do Pumpkins Attract Whitetail Deer?
The natural inclination for deer is to feed on the most convenient food source available to them. If deer come across pumpkins while they are foraging, they will most likely feed on them. As this fruit ripens, it emits an odor that deer may smell, so a pumpkin can attract deer to it.
This is one of the reasons that you may see deer feeding in your pumpkin patch or garden or see obvious evidence that deer have been eating your pumpkins. Because of a deer’s fondness for pumpkins, savvy hunters also plant pumpkins (where legal, and that’s an important caveat) as a source of deer food in the fall.
The one downside of planting pumpkins for deer is that this fruit has a short lifespan and only stays ripe for a few weeks. This short lifespan means that the deer only have a short window of opportunity to feed on this squash-based fruit before it begins to over-ripen.
Should You be Feeding Pumpkins To Deer?
In and of itself, pumpkin is not exactly bad for deer as they can digest this fruit and extract some nutritional value from it.
However, as I mentioned before, pumpkin is not part of the Whitetail Deer’s regular diet. As this fruit has become more popular as a deer attractant in food plots, its use has raised several questions from wildlife researchers and deer biologists. Some of those questions are:
- Pumpkin is a non-standard food source introduced by man, and what happens if that food source is taken away?
- Do the pumpkin seeds pose any potential threat to deer in terms of intestinal blockage?
- Since pumpkin is higher in sugar than most other natural deer food, is that a concern?
I reached out to a state biologist resource that I know and posed the should deer be fed pumpkins question. He indicated that he was not aware of an incident or any current data to suggest that it was explicitly detrimental for Whitetail deer to feed on a pumpkin. However, he cautioned against providing or offering this fruit as a primary food component for supplemental wild deer feeding as it was not a standard food item found in the wild for Whitetail.
My suggestion would be to only offer pumpkin to deer as a secondary food source on a limited basis and only where legal. I look at fruits like pumpkin and apples as more of a treat for deer versus a primary source of food. For example, I routinely take a few post-Halloween jack-o-lanterns out to my hunting land and place them out for deer to feed on before they over-ripen and rot.
Here are some frequently asked questions that I see regarding the question: do deer eat pumpkins:
Is pumpkin dangerous for deer to eat?
As I mentioned above, there does not seem to be any existing data from the biologist side of things to suggest that eating pumpkin is harmful or dangerous for deer. However, I say that with a note of caution as not much data exists on the other side of the coin, suggesting that pumpkin is a good quality food source for deer.
I would approach it much like people eating cake. A little bit is OK, but you wouldn’t want to eat cake all the time as it would have long-term unhealthy side effects.
Are there any concerns with deer eating a rotting pumpkin?
I’ve seen deer eat pumpkin and pumpkin plants that were in various stages of being over-ripe, and I’ve seen them pass on eating pumpkins that were showing clear signs of decay and rot.
Based on my experiences, I think hungry deer have a point where pumpkin or pumpkin plant becomes too ripe or decaying for them to eat, and they will intentionally pass on eating it. I’ve seen this occur many times in pumpkin patches where deer will forage through the patch, smelling and inspecting pumpkins in various stages of development. During this process, I’ve witnessed them opt to feed on the ripe pumpkins while passing on the over-ripe ones that had already split open.
I’ve also observed situations where deer will eat the pumpkin leaves or pumpkin vine but leave the rotten parts of the fruit alone.
Do deer eat pumpkin plants?
Although whitetails seem to prefer the pumpkin fruit, they are known to eat the pumpkin plant as well. They may browse on the leaves and stems of pumpkin plants, especially if other food sources are scarce.
I’ve been deer hunting in archery season and watched whitetails consume wild pumpkin plants that had not produced pumpkins yet. Those deer ate the blooms, leaves, and pumpkin stalk. Then, they uprooted the plant to eat the main stalk all the way down to the root.
Can deer eat pumpkin seeds?
Whitetail deer can and do eat pumpkin seeds as they are consuming the pumpkin fruit. My research combined with discussions with a state biologist didn’t turn up any evidence stating that consumption of the seeds was an issue for deer. in fact, some deer researchers theorize that deer and other animals consumption of pumpkin seeds may be one way that the seeds of natural pumpkins are spread for new growth.