Detect Deer Damage

Deer eating from a flower bed under a magnifying glass with the text "Detect Deer Damage"

Finding the Culprit of Eaten Plants

Deer feed mainly at dusk (late evening) and dawn (early morning). Many will agree that it’s hard to tell if damage is from deer, rabbits, other rodents or even insects. Here are some helpful hints to tell what is eating your garden.

Before The Damage

Start by looking for deer paths. These paths are obvious walkways created through weeds and brush. Typically, deer leave behind hoof prints and deer pellets.

Source: University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources, Photo: Kim Cabrera
Source: University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources, Photo: W. Paul Gorenzel

Aftermath of Damage

Deer will browse on plants and also scratch up trees with their antlers. However,  what many forget is, when it comes to deer damage, they trample any plants as well as  the ones they want to eat. This can result in double damage to eaten plants and also ones that were just ”in the way”.


Deer have no upper incisors. This means there isn’t a clean bite. Deer will  bite down onto the plant and  rip off what is in their mouth from plants, bushes or flowers. .
Source: University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources, Photo: Jack Kelly Clark

Buds and blossoms are gone. Certain plants are preferred by deer. Specific damage to these are another sign to consider when trying to tell who your hungry guest might be.  Hosta, roses, and lilies are some examples. 

What to Look for:

Jagged damage to plants is a tell-tale sign that deer are eating your plants.

“To recognize deer browsing, look for torn leaves or stalks with ragged ends. Deer have no upper incisors and must jerk or tear plants when feeding. Woodchucks, rabbits and other small rodents usually leave cleanly cut plant stalks.”

Pierce, Robert. Controlling Deer Damage. University of Missouri. School of Natural Resources

Rabbits, on the other hand, leave clean cuts typically at a 45 degree angle. Not to mention the only plants they will be damaging are close to the ground only.

Some other examples include, woody plants  that will have frayed ends on branches. Trees will  also have an obvious “browse line”, where only deer can reach. Deer can get to their food source up to 6 feet above the ground, but typically prefer plantings that are  4 – 5 feet tall.

New growth on shrubs and trees is a tender delicacy to deer. If they get ahold of newly planted fruit or nut trees, this could mean trouble.

Antler Rubbing

During mating season, bucks will damage trees and bushes by scraping their antlers on vegetation to leave scent and remove velvet off of the antlers. Trees will have bark scratched off and small / young trees may be pushed over in the process. Not only will you see the rubbing on trees but even fence posts.  They will choose to leave their scent on anything that has a rough surface.

“Another form of damage occurs when male deer (bucks) rub their antlers on trees. This type of damage is characterized by vertical scrapes and shredded bark on the saplings, exposing underlying wood.”

Pierce, Robert. Controlling Deer Damage. University of Missouri. School of Natural Resources

Conditional Damage

Deer damage can be  a range of problems; it is not necessarily cut and dry. Deer change their patterns from year to year depending on weather conditions, available food source, population and much more.

If it is a drought year, deer are more likely to seek out the oasis that could be your yard. Deer  also venture into the human domain in cold and snowy winters seeking food and shelter.

Deer population density plays a big factor as well. Therefore, it is best to assume that the worst year of damage in the past two to five years should be considered your basis for deer control practices.

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