Despite fairy tales, a wolf is not likely to be eating little red riding hood, but wolves still need to eat.
Unless you are an avid wolf lover, or someone who just loves nature documentaries, knowing what wolves eat can be a bit of a curiosity.
Wolves are classified under a broad taxonomic family known as Canidae, which is a family that includes Jackals, Foxes, and Coyotes. These are carnivores, they will hunt anything from fish, to mice, deer, elks, goats, moose, polar bear cubs, birds, and even bison.
What they eat does depend on where they live and the breed of wolf. Their diet will always consist of meat, but the meat they eat depends on a variety of factors, seasons can even come into play in this.
We are going to talk you through a wolves diet, talking about what breeds of wolf eat what, how the seasons may affect their diet, how they hunt, their nutritional needs and more.
We are howling with excitement, so let’s get straight to it!
Wolf diet by type of Wolf
Looking at four types of wolves, we have gray wolves, red wolves, Ethiopian wolves, and maned wolves. These all have different diets, although there may be some consistencies between them in certain parts of their diet.
Gray wolves will eat bigger animals than the rest, being able to hunt and eat deer, elk, and bison, but also snacking on hares, rodents, and beavers.
Red wolves can eat bigger animals such as deer, but they will usually eat smaller animals, including a wide variety of rodents, rabbits, and even raccoons.
Ethiopian wolves have a diet that consists of rodents including giant mole rats, and hares, but they will also eat antelopes and lambs too.
Maned wolves don’t touch larger animals, they will focus on eating insects, rodents, and even eat vegetables and fruits too!
As you can see, depending on the wolf, the diet can vary a lot, with Gray wolves being the most ambitious and eating the largest animals of all wolves, all the way to Maned wolves who go for the smaller meals and sometimes eat greens.
Let’s look at the specifics now.
Gray wolves have a palate that has great diversity. They will eat deer, elk, bison, moose, hares, rodents, and beavers. These wolves are also known as timber wolves.
Their tails are long and bushy and often have black tips, while their coats are usually gray and brown, however their under color will vary depending on the subspecies.
The size of these wolves can vary depending on their habitat and location, although they will often grow to lengths between 3 and 5 feet, and they can weigh anything from 40lbs to 175lbs.
They live in many habitats and can be spotted in the tundra, forests, Savannah, deserts, and woodlands. Their diverse habitats is part of the reason for their diverse diet.
In comparison to other wolf breeds, red wolves are an endangered species. They have a diet that shows they are opportunistic feeders, they are not picky, and they will eat deer, rabbits, raccoons, and a wide variety of rodents.
These wolves have brown and buff hues and often have black on their backs. On their ears, legs, and heads, they have a striking reddish color.
They are less heavy than gray wolves and can weigh anything from 45lbs to 80lbs. They can be found in marshes and coastal prairies.
Ethiopian wolves are native to Ethiopia, as their name suggests. These wolves mainly feed on giant mole rats and common rats, however, they are also partial to hares, young antelopes, and lambs.
They are considered to be a very rare breed, and the members of this species are very slender, with long limbs. They have bushy tails that can grow to nearly half a meter long, and they have tawny red fur and a white underbelly.
It is understandable why someone who is unfamiliar with this breed might even mistake them for a very big red fox.
These wolves live in rocky areas, shrublands, and afro-alpine grasslands, often where their food is plentiful.
Maned Wolves are omnivorous wolves. They are the only breed who are. As well as a meat and insect diet, they also consume greens too. They will eat insects, rabbits, small rodents, as well as fruits and vegetables when they are in season within their habitats.
Maned wolves get their name from the unique mane they have around their necks. These wolves could in some circumstances also be mistaken for foxes, as they have long red-brown fur.
You may also spot a white hue on their throats, tails, and chins. Their mouths, legs, and backs are usually primarily black in color.
These wolves live in areas with scrub forests and grasslands where rodents are plenty and fruits are common.
Wolf diets by seasons
Looking at the most common gray wolf, their diet through the seasons changes significantly. Winter can be a tough time for wolves, it can either be favorable or unfavorable and for these wolves, it really depends on the snow conditions.
If snowfall in wolf regions is slow, then it becomes harder for wolves to catch things such as whitetail hares, which is one of the wolf’s main food sources.
In heavy snowfall with deep and crusted snow, deer are more vulnerable, and wolves can have a feast.
In winter, the availability of these animals affects the wolf’s ability to feed. Wolves will traditionally need a good 2.5lbs of food per day for a complete diet, remember, this is per wolf, not per pack.
If a female wishes to reproduce, she will need a good 7lbs of food per day. However, during winter months, adult wolves have adapted to survive without food for days or weeks at a time.
In spring, things are better for wolves, it is a very prosperous season due to the diverse food options available to them. In this season, wolves will have diets that are made up of large mammals.
This is when they will have oxen, deer, moose, elk, and so on. This is especially good if a pack is supporting a litter of pups at this time.
Aside from these larger mammals, beavers are also a staple food for wolves in the springtime. They actually make up a good 25-75% of a wolf’s diet in this season. During this season, wolves may also prey on vulnerable pups and young left in the dens of other packs.
They might also nibble on fruits or vegetables for a treat if they want or need to. Wolves will also munch on rodents during this time too, anything they can kill, they will eat, and spring is plentiful, so they have to make the most of it.
By the time summer has come, the pups will have grown to adulthood, making for a bigger pack and more hunting opportunities. The beavers’ population will have dwindled, so they will usually turn to their bigger prey options, such as deer. Wild wolf populations in the US kill over 45,000 to 57,000 deer in one year. Wolves are expert hunters, and hunting in a pack makes getting a kill more successful.
In the fall months, wolves will have to prepare for a quiet winter, so they will try to stock up their fat reserves. Wolves do not hibernate, so they need to get as much food in them as they can. During fall months, wolves seem to prefer fishing to hunting.
This may be due to the relative scarcity of food and prey being harder to find. Fish and small mammals are now the most abundant, so they tend to eat this prey more in these months.
During the fall, wolves will eat salmon quite a lot. They provide a lot of nutrition in both fat and energy, which is vital in their preparation for winter.
Fishing also takes less effort than hunting, which means this is better for them to save their energy. Fishing is also less dangerous, and they are less likely to get injured.
These wolves have a very diverse diet that changes as the seasons do. The scarcest time for them is winter, however throughout the year there can be struggles.
In areas where the salmon swim upstream, they need to time this right, and they will also need to be wary of bears, who also tend to indulge in this abundance of food before winter comes.
From rodents to elk, to moose, to beavers, to salmon… wolves are not picky eaters. They are just doing all they can to ensure they and their pack survive.
The nutrition in a wolf’s diet
A majority of a wolf’s diet is made up of prey animals. This means that they eat organs such as lungs, liver, heart, and kidneys which are given importance.
These are high in B vitamins, A vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids. All of which are key for growth, maintenance, and healthy reproductions.
Typically, a wolf diet will consist of a good 49% protein, 44% fats, and 6% carbohydrate. This means that they consume a good 85- 90% meat.
Remember that this applies to gray wolves mainly, maned wolves will have a very different diet as they are more omnivorous.
How do wolves hunt for their food?
Wolf hunting is spectacular, and if you ever had a chance to watch it (without being the prey) you would be astounded. While wolves can hunt alone, and could bring down a moose alone if they absolutely had to, they prefer to hunt in a pack as this is the most natural way for them.
They tend to hunt large animals, and hunting them as a pack is way more effective. When they hunt rodents or beavers, this is usually less of a team effort, but hunting as a pack against something like an elk, or moose is much more effective.
Hunting patterns will vary depending on the prey, if the animal is likely to fight back or attack, they alter their strategy to avoid getting hurt. Large deer will be hunted from behind, to avoid attack from their front hooves.
Once the prey has been killed, no wolf can eat until the alphas have had their share.
Wolves, much like lions, have teamwork strategies, with some larger animals, one or two wolves may run ahead to streamline the prey while attackers chase it from behind.
They work as a unit to either exhaust their prey or trap it. They will often encircle it as they chase it, so it has no way to escape without meeting a wolf.
How often does a wolf need to eat?
Wolves live a lifestyle of feast and famine, when their food is plenty they feast like kings, and when food is scarce they starve. They can easily survive like this, as their bodies are tailored to endure both extremes.
They will typically eat about 2.5lbs of food per day, this is an average though. Gray wolves can consume up to 22,5lbs of food at any given time, these wolves feed less often during scarcity, so they make up for it when food is plenty.
Wolves and the food chain
Despite what you may think, wolves are not at the top of their food chain, and they themselves can become prey to other animals. They can fall prey to other wolves, or other wolf species, coyotes, mountain lions, and bears.
They play a very significant role in the food chain. Furthermore, they prey on a vast number of animals of different species, they keep populations under check by eating so many, this definitely applies to beavers, whose population has been known to reach destruction.
Their role also ensures that ecosystems are maintained as healthy, again… think about beavers and their destructive impact on ecosystems. Finally, they are also a vital food source for those who hunt and feed on them. Maintaining balance in the ecosystem they live in.