Which Oak Trees Do Deer Like Best?
While many deer hunters and rural-property owners can recognize most common oak trees, less can name the trees that produce the most palatable acorns for deer. Even less can explain why certain acorns are tastier than others.
Knowing how to recognize the differentiating characteristics of each oak species and learning to identify those species in all seasons — for instance, in winter when trees have dropped their leaves or in summer when there are no acorns on the ground — aid in two things we care deeply about:
- Finding Deer Hunting Success
- Improving Rural Property Value
Oak Trees: Red Versus White
White oak tree photographed in Sumter National Forest by William R. Barbour, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.
There are two main groups of oak trees: the white oak group and the red oak group. When it comes to what acorns deer prefer, the answer is acorns produced by trees in the white oak group. But acorns from both groups are critical to a deer’s nutrition.
In almost all areas of the country, oak trees provide the most mast for wildlife. Take West Virginia just as an example. In a good year, more than a quarter ton of acorns per acre can cover the state’s forest floor. Acorns can single-handedly carry wildlife through the winter. For hunters, this is everything. During deer-hunting season, acorns can inform where a deer hunter sets up, a good mast crop can hold deer on your property, and this valuable source of nutrition is critical to deer health and reproduction.
For rural landowners — those who do not deer hunt — a property flush with oak trees and mast crop can dramatically impact its recreational value. And recreational value isn’t limited to dollars earned upon the sale of a property. This value can be realized through annual revenues on top of the long-term gains possible through rural real estate investment. Often our Land Specialists work with land buyers and sellers to implement land management plans for just these reasons.
Acorns: Sweet Versus Bitter
An oak tree's mast crop. Photo: varjag via pixabay
There are three key things we want to consider when talking oak trees and mast yields.
1. Not all oak trees produce acorns in every growing season.
Trees in the red oak group take two growing seasons to produce a mature acorn, while trees in the white oak group only need one growing season to produce a mature acorn.
2. How oak trees germinate varies.
According to Dr. James Finley, who is a forestry professor at Penn State University, acorns produced by trees in the white oak group germinate once they hit the forest floor. “That is, when they fall, they quickly extend a root from the acorn’s point,” says Finley. “This allows them to move some of their nutrients into a more protected place – under the ground. This strategy is really important, as these white oaks produce seeds lower in bitter tannic acid and, although slightly less nutritious than red oaks, much preferred by wildlife.”
You’ll see white-oak acorns on the ground in the fall season but, by winter, they’re all but gone, consumed by whitetail deer and other wildlife species. Conversely, the red-oak acorns are passed over by wildlife because of their high levels of tannic acid. But they actually offer a higher nutritional value, they’re hardier and less likely to rot.
“(These acorns) spend the winter lying on the forest floor often under the leaves that the parent tree scattered over them after they dropped,” says Finley.
3. It takes 3 to 6 mast-producing oak trees per acre to support a healthy deer herd.
And, finally, the third thing: if you’re managing a property for deer-hunting or you’re looking to improve a rural property’s recreational value and income potential, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recommends three to six large mast-producing oak trees per acre. This ration should supply enough mast to support a healthy deer herd and, equally important, enough seed source for oak regeneration.
Now that we’ve established traits unique to the white oak group and the red oak group, we’ve listed some of the most common oak trees in each group, with descriptions of the acorns produced by these trees. Use the list to learn the features that are unique to each acorn type, including the tasting notes on flavor.
White Oak Group: Acorn Profile
1. White Oak
White oak acorn. Steve Hurst, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
White oak trees are the most widespread oak tree in the U.S. These acorns are sweet by comparison. And like all acorns in the white oak group, low in tannic acid. These acorns are light brown, and a fourth of the acorn is enclosed by a bowlike cup with a warty scale.
2. Bur Oak
Bur oak acorn. Photo: Steve Hurst, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
These oaks are prominent in the Midwest. Some say this is the crème de la crèmeof all acorns. Also known for their sweetness, the bur oak’s acorns feature a deep cup, and its distinguishing feature is a fringe on the margins of the cup. The bur-oak acorn is brown, and nearly a third of the acorn is encased by cup or hat.
3. Post Oak
Post oak acorn. Photo: Paul Wray, Iowa State University
The post oak is brown and broad at the base. It tapers to a narrow tip. The cup covering is hairy on the outside. Cup scales can be thick or flattened.
4. Live Oak
Live oak acorn. Photo: Steve Hurst, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
This uniquely southern tree produces green acorns that turn dark brown at maturity. These acorns, also highly palatable to deer and other wildlife, are around ¾” in length.
Red Oak Group: Acorn Profile
1. Northern Red Oak
Northern red oak acorn. Photo: Steve Hurst, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
This oak species produces one of the largest acorns but — like all acorns in the red oak group — it’s high in tannic acid. This makes the acorn bitter and less desirable. This acorn is chestnut brown and its cup is wide and shallow, only covering about a fifth of the fruit.
2. Water Oak
Water oak acorn. Photo: Steve Hurst, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
These acorns are approximately a ½” in length with alternating bands of brown and black. The water oak produces high yields of acorns. So while the taste is bitter, the abundance is there and the acorns will help carry deer through the winter months. This is critical when acorns from the white oak group are long gone.
3. Pin Oak
Pin oak acorn. Photo: Steve Hurst, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
Similar to the water oak: high yields, a bitter but nutrition acorn. Pin oak acorns are also about the same size and length of the water-oak acorns, but they have a thin, saucer-like cap that distinguishes them.
4. Black Oak
Black oak acorn. Photo: Steve Hurst, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
Common in the Midwest and East, especially in the Appalachian states, these acorns are highly nutritious but very bitter. They’re also resilient, often lasting through winter and into early spring. The acorn is reddish-brown and can range from a ½” to ¾” long. It has a light-brown cup.
Bonus: What about the Sawtooth Oak?
Sawtooth oak tree. Photo: John M. Hagstrom, arborday.org
The Sawtooth Oak breaks some rules. It has characteristics of both the red oak group and the white oak group. It’s a non-native oak and isn’t prominent on the U.S. landscape. Hailing from Japan, Korea, China and the Himalayan Mountain range, the sawtooth oak was introduced to America in 1862. It likely gets its name from the distinctive sawtooth-edged leaves.
The upsides of the sawtooth oak are many. It’s a fast-growing tree: heights can increase anywhere from 13 inches to more than 24 inches in a year. Unlike most oaks, it transplants easily, and its acorns are palatable to deer and uncharacteristically long at 1 inch. The tree grows in a pyramidal shape that rounds over time.
It’s a great tree for hunters and landowners to plant if their property is low on native oak trees, and they’re looking for quick (in relative terms) results. It produces acorns after just five years. At maturity, sawtooth oaks can reach up to 70 feet.
Now that you know which acorns are favored by deer and other wildlife and the unique features of each, can you identify the trees that produce them? If not, it’s OK. We’ve created a field guide to the eight oak trees covered in this blog post: four trees in the white oak group and four trees in the red oak group. You can read descriptions of each oak tree’s distinct shape, bark patterns and leaf structure.