WSB: Mule deer prefer tulips in the spring

By Dana Kobilinsky

A mule deer browses in Yosemite Park, California. Researchers found the deer prefer certain spring flowering plants such as tulips to others such as daffodils. ©daveynin

What’s a mule deer’s (Odocoileus hemionus) favorite spring snack? Researchers tackled this question to help homeowners determine which flowers to plant to avoid deer gobbling up their gardens.

“Deer come along and mow down certain species,” said Michael Conover, a professor of wildlife science at Utah State University and lead author of the study published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin. “Gardeners call wildlife biologists and state wildlife agencies and complain there are too many deer. A lot of this angst could be eliminated if people living in the areas where there are urban deer simply grew plants in the spring that were unpalatable to deer.”

In the study, Conover and his colleagues first went to people’s gardens in Cache County, Utah, and recorded which plants the deer were browsing. They found the deer were consuming crocuses, since they were one of the first plants to bloom in the spring. But were the deer were consuming plants because of palatability or because they were available at a time deer were particularly searching for food?

To figure this out, the team grew a variety of plants, including tulips, crocuses, daffodils, grape hyacinths, liatris and iris, in a greenhouse so they would all sprout at the same time. They took all of the plants to the same location simultaneously and came back later to observe which ones the deer browsed.

They found that deer browsed heavily on tulips, liatris and grape hyacinth, but this time, the crocuses were rarely eaten. Crocuses usually sprout early in the season when deer find little to eat, Conover said, which may explain why the deer consume them so heavily.

Tulips are another matter. “They just love tulips,” Conover said.

He suggests gardeners turn to daffodils, irises or crocuses, which seemed less palatable to deer. Conover said he hopes state agencies and gardening magazines will let gardeners know so that they can choose plants that urban mule deer are less likely to eat.

“Hopefully, we’ll wind up with people who are not so frustrated because they have learned that there’s no use in planting tulips if you’re in an area where there are a lot of deer,” Conover said. “Daffodils are just as pretty and deer won’t eat them.”

TWS members can log into Your Membership to read this paper in the Wildlife Society Bulletin. Go to Publications and then Wildlife Society Bulletin.

Dana KobilinskyDana Kobilinsky is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact her at dkobilinsky@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about her article. You can follow her on Twitter at @DanaKobi.

Read more of Dana's articles here.