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Elk (Cervus canadensis) are a large species of deer native to the North American continent. Adult males can eat up to 24 pounds of plant material every day.

Plant material such as grasses, sedges, shrubs, herbs, tree bark, and mushrooms make up most of their diet during springtime when new growth provides ample nutrition.

Elk are herbivores and survive on a variety of plants. In this article, we will look at some of their favorite foods.


Elk Diet

Elk are herbivorous animals, and their diet primarily consists of plants and vegetation. Here are some of the main types of food that elk eat:

  1. Grasses: Grasses are a significant part of an elk’s diet, especially during the warmer months. Elk graze on a variety of grass species found in their habitats.
  2. Forbs: Forbs are broad-leaved herbaceous plants other than grasses. Elk consume a wide range of forbs, including wildflowers and weeds, which provide essential nutrients.
  3. Shrubs: Elk also browse shrubs and woody plants. They may eat the leaves, twigs, and bark of various shrub species.
  4. Tree Bark: In the winter months when other food sources are scarce, elk may resort to eating tree bark, particularly from young trees.
  5. Tree Twigs and Leaves: Elk may also feed on the twigs and leaves of trees, especially in areas where trees are abundant.
  6. Aquatic Plants: In regions where elk have access to water bodies, they may consume aquatic plants and sedges.
  7. Agricultural Crops: In some areas where elk populations overlap with agricultural lands, they may occasionally feed on crops such as grains, alfalfa, and other cultivated plants. This can sometimes lead to conflicts with farmers.

Foraging Habits

Elk are selective with their food preferences and have distinct foraging habits. They typically feed during the morning and evening and prefer cloudy days due to reduced visibility from predators. Elk move freely in search of food throughout the day, changing locations when they feel threatened or disturbed.

The natural diet of elk includes a variety of plants such as grasses, sedges, shrubs, woody browse species, and aquatic vegetation. In addition to these items, elk may also occasionally consume fungi, fruits, and nuts,

Foraging behavior can vary greatly depending on location and seasonality. Elk living in mountainous regions may feed more heavily on shrubs during winter when other sources of nutrition become depleted.

In spring and summer when plant growth is abundant, elk feed primarily on green vegetation such as grasses, legumes, and forbs and browse from woody plants.

During summer, elk tend to graze more heavily on grasses and browse selectively on woody plant parts like twigs and leaves from maple or oaks.

During winter periods, however, they will switch almost entirely to browsing bark or eating twigs from shrubs and trees.

In autumn and winter when temperatures dip below freezing levels, elk switch back to browsing on woody vegetation due to its higher calorie content compared with other plants available at this time of year.

Elk will also eat some aquatic vegetation as they wade into shallow water sources.

Depending upon the region where they live, other foods that may make up part of an elk’s diet include lichens (in northern climates), mushrooms (which can be particularly important during times of drought), and agricultural crops such as alfalfa. Elk also eat berries when they become ripe during the late summer/ autumn months.

A majority of elk’s food consumption comes from a variety of meadow plants but their foraging range may expand if those resources become scarce due to poor weather conditions or heavy browsing pressure from large herds.

Do you know where elk live? Find out here.

Plant-Based Foods

Elk are known for their diverse diet, which primarily consists of plant-based foods. They consume a variety of vegetation such as grasses, forbs, and leaves.

Elk generally feed on what is most readily available in their habitats. Such diets can be influenced by seasonality or other factors that create availability fluctuations within an ecosystem.

Grasses make up a significant portion of an elk’s diet during any given month throughout the year. Grasses provide nutrients while also providing adequate amounts of water content needed to sustain them in summer.

Forbs are also commonly consumed by elks in areas where they are more easily accessible than other types of vegetation. In addition to having high nutrient levels, forbs tend to be easier for elk to digest compared to other forms of vegetation like shrubs or trees.

Leaves from deciduous trees typically compose much smaller portions of an elk’s dietary intake because they contain higher concentrations of tannins and lignin making them harder for digestion due to their indigestible fibers and waxes present within the cell’s walls.

However, leaves from certain tree species may still appear in small quantities as part of an elk’s seasonal diet depending on what is available within its habitat at the time.

Do you know what sounds an elk makes? Find out here.

Seasonal Eating Patterns

Seasonal changes in climate affect food availability for elk and other wildlife. Consequently, the seasonal diet of elk often shifts to reflect what is available during different times of the year.

Elk nutrition is typically composed of grasses, sedges, shrubs, and browse from trees depending on the season. During springtime when green vegetation abounds, elks tend to feed mostly on young shoots and grasses while they consume more bark and hardwood twigs in winter months.

As summer progresses into autumn, elk will switch back to consuming herbaceous plants such as clover, alfalfa, or dandelion before turning again to woody plants in late fall/early winter.

Elk prefer open meadows with plenty of vegetation but they can also be found in dense forests during winter months when temperatures drop significantly lower than usual. By making this adjustment they ensure that they stay safe while being able to fulfill all their nutritional needs at the same time.

Elk migrate towards more hospitable habitats that provide adequate shelter from extreme weather conditions as well as plentiful supplies of food resources.

Find out the Elk’s predator in this article.


Impact Of Human Activity On Elk Diets

The introduction of agriculture, urbanization, and other land-use practices have all been linked to shifts in elk diets. Elk are known to adapt their foraging habits in response to the availability and quality of plant and animal food sources, as well as changes caused by human activities.

Agricultural crops like hay provide an attractive food source that can be easily accessed by elk. In addition, agricultural lands often contain irrigated grasslands or pastures which offer more nutritional value than native vegetation found on rangeland.

As a result, elk may shift away from natural browse when around these farms. periods when these types of farms are available. Urban development affects their diet because it reduces access to natural forage habitats due to roads, fences, and buildings that create barriers between them and traditional feeding areas.

References And Further Reading

Utah State University – Diet composition, forage selection, and potential for forage competition among elk, deer, and livestock on aspen–sagebrush summer range. Rangeland Ecol Manage 58:135–147 Beck J.L and J.M. Peek. 2005.

Scholarworks – Diet, nutrition, and reproductive success of Roosevelt Elk in managed forests of the Olympic Peninsula, Washington, by Nicole R Hutchins.

Elk: Behavior, Ecology, Conservation by Erwin A. Bauer