Following moose diet through the seasons

by Tom Armstrong | August 17, 2021
Two moose in the spring wade in the marshland looking at a swan.

It’s amazing moose can fuel themselves eating only leaves, twigs, and other vegetation, especially in the dead of winter. They’re adept at and focused on finding food, and where I hunt in northwestern Ontario, in the Thunder Bay area, moose have a variety of food sources that shift throughout the year. The following is what I’ve learned about their choices in this region. Having knowledge of the foods moose prefer can be a real benefit to hunters.

Late spring and early summer

As winter fades and the woods start greening up, moose have a variety of options available to them. While they still feed on hardened twigs, they will begin to eat succulent twigs and green leaves as soon as they appear. With aquatic vegetation starting to emerge in late spring and early summer, moose gravitate to water. Aquatic plants are highly attractive feed, containing high levels of sodium and other minerals moose need. Moose will gravitate to shallow bays of lakes, beaver ponds, rivers, and streams, typically less than a metre deep. Look for aquatic vegetation, established trails along a shoreline, or ripped-up vegetation and tracks in the muck. Active beaver ponds seem to be more productive for moose than old, abandoned ponds, and often have more signs of aquatic life. Ponds of all kinds offer potential vantage points and are great places to sit and call.

Summer and early fall

Cows with calves are ultra-cautious and prefer to stay out of sight. They have a relatively small core range, often centered around water. Finding a productive water source with good aquatic vegetation, off the beaten path can be a good place to look for cow/calf activity.

As summer wears on, moose feed on the green leaves of trees such as birch, willow, and aspen. They need large volumes of leaves and herbaceous plants, and even equisetum (horsetail). From summer into fall, moose are drawn to fresh growth in cutovers. Cuts of varying ages are attractive, but one- to two year-old cuts, nearly blanketed in a sea of young green poplars are irresistible to moose, suitably nicknamed “moose salad” by a friend. These areas offer both food and visibility for the hunter, and some pre-season scouting to locate these new cuts can be well worthwhile for hunters. Recent burns from forest fires are also highly attractive to moose, with new growth blossoming in the years following a fire.

Preferred aquatic vegetation
• Pond lily
• Pondweed of several species
• Bladderwort
• Milfoil

Fall

As the weather cools and the leaves start to change, moose will start shifting away from aquatic vegetation. During the early stages of the gun season (varies from mid-September to mid-October), moose may still be found feeding on remaining aquatic vegetation, and water will always be a draw for them, especially during a warm fall. They will also feed on green or yellowing leaves as long as they’re around, but will eventually start including more twigs (browse). Moose start to browse on drier ground as the weather cools, but will still visit the water throughout the gun season.

Moose start to browse on drier ground as the weather cools, but will still visit the water throughout the gun season.

Winter

When winter arrives, moose are forced to feed solely on woody browse, which means eating large quantities of twigs. These are low in nutrition and difficult to digest, so moose must consume significant volumes to survive. While they will eat many species of browse, moose do have their favourites. Identifying and locating these will help you find optimum habitat to hunt.

Come winter, moose will shift to areas with more cover, generally mature cuts that provide good access to food. Large clear cuts aren’t ideal, with little escape cover or shelter from deep snow. Irregular shaped cuts offering browse, with patches of nearby cover, are much preferred. If snow starts to accumulate during the last several weeks of the winter, moose will often shift to older cuts with conifers for cover.

Preferred Woody Browse

  • Mountain ash
  • Mountain maple
  • Red-osier dogwood
  • Juneberry
  • Willow
  • Aspen
  • White birch
  • Cherry

Moose will also eat beaked hazelnut and balsam fir (though not necessarily favourites, they’re often readily available).

Originally published in the July 2019 edition of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine

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