There’s an old saw that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. In a sort of roundabout way the same is true for game. Learning more about what and how they eat could help you be a more successful hunter.

Let’s start with deer. The white-tailed deer is a ruminant. It has a complex four-chambered stomach, the first chamber of which is called the rumen. They eat a variety of vegetative matter but a large component of their fall diet consists of coarse woody browse – twigs, suckers and stump sprouts – all of which are difficult to digest.

Deer feed actively for a relatively short period of time, filling the rumen. They then move off to a secluded area to bed down, where they’ll regurgitate a wad or bolus of partially digested food and rechew it. It then passes back through the rumen and on to the other chambers, the reticulum, omasum and abomasum, to be further digested by bacteria and stomach enzymes, and the nutrients are absorbed.

Deer are most vulnerable when they’re moving around, and this strategy reduces that vulnerability. Hunting a feeding area with abundant browse – new or regenerating cutovers, along the forest edge or in forest openings – is a good strategy but affords a rather small window of opportunity, usually around dawn and dusk. Another option is to set up on a travel route between feeding and bedding areas, hoping to intercept them.

Gallinaceous birds like grouse, pheasants and turkeys have a similar strategy. They too eat a variety of vegetative food ranging from soft herbaceous matter to nuts and seeds. The latter, like woody browse, are more difficult to digest.

Like the deer, these birds feed actively for a brief period, filling the first part of their digestive system – the crop. Later, that food passes into the gizzard to be ground up into a more easily digestible form. Though it’s a tough organ, the gizzard sometimes needs a little help grinding up coarse food like seeds and nuts, which it gets from gravel. That’s why you often see gallinaceous birds, especially grouse, picking gravel along roadsides or on logging roads later in the morning. Turkeys seem somewhat less included to hit the open areas, but still visit sandy, gravelly areas later in the morning.


Much the same is true for waterfowl, though they get their gravel from submerged substrate. That’s a major reason why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service required waterfowl hunters to switch from lead to non-toxic shot back in the early 1990s. Many hunters, myself included, were skeptical about the need for that change. However, I saw the impacts of lead shot first-hand while working on a research project in the late ’80s. Soil samples in waterfowl impoundments had high levels of lead shot. That lead shot was also turning up in fairly large amounts in the gizzards of ducks and geese, and many birds were succumbing to the long-term effects of lead poisoning, which usually didn’t show up until well after hunting season.

Bears have a simpler digestive tract, quite similar to ours. As their dentition (also like ours) suggests, they’re omnivores, eating a broad range of both plant and animal matter. However, they’re inactive during the winter, which necessitates putting on a heavy layer of fat before they den. This they acquire by eating high-calorie foods like acorns and beech nuts. A hunter could simply stake out concentrations of these, but the odds of encountering a bear on natural food sources in the dense Maine woods are slim to none.

That’s why Maine currently allows bear hunters to use bait. Without this practice, bear populations would grow largely unchecked, resulting in increased human interactions and problems.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

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