Harsh winter can affect deer, too

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D.S. Pledger
Sunday, January 12, 2014

Over the recent holidays my buddy Dooka and I headed north to the cabin for our annual end-of-the-year trip. The ice fishing was lousy, so we did a lot of snowshoeing around the area looking for tracks as we got a good workout.

Of primary concern were deer. By the time we arrived, the snow was almost knee-deep with more expected. How were the deer coping with it and had they started yarding up for the winter?

Our particular focus was the piece of woods a couple of 40s to the north where I hunted last fall. I saw a number of deer there in November and wondered if there would be much sign of them in the recently fallen snow.

Indeed there was. Deer were still moving, albeit mostly along established trails. While many other parts of the neighborhood contained few tracks, the whitetails seemed to be frequenting this area.

We followed the path to the woodlot near the far end of the property and I suddenly caught something out of the corner of my eye that didn’t fit—a horizontal brown form not more than fifty yards off. Sure enough, a big bodied deer was standing in the deep snow watching us. We’d been talking and making no effort whatsoever to sneak along, so it must have heard us coming. Instead of bounding off, though, it had chosen to conserve its energy and hope we didn’t notice it.

After a quick glance, we kept going and the deer didn’t bolt. Ten minutes later, as we returned from the woodlot it was still there.

This was a concern since such behavior is a sign that the animals are already feeling winter’s stress, and no wonder—besides the deep snow, the temperatures had been in the tank since rifle season. Forecasts for the coming few days predicted lows of 25 degrees below zero.

Still, our native whitetails are well equipped to handle the cold. The hairs on their heavy winter coats are hollow, acting like the insulation on your down jacket that traps warm air and keeps it next to your body. You can tell how just efficient deer hair is when you come upon a bed where a deer has slept, and find that after laying there all night, there was insufficient heat loss to melt the snow under the animal. Deer also use the snow itself as insulation, bedding down in drifts or letting a fresh snowfall cover them.

Of course, snow can also be the animal’s undoing. When it gets deep enough, their forage must change from high-energy grasses to woody browse, which doesn’t hold near the energy. And they have to work harder for it, pushing through drifts and expending precious calories for a meager meal of twigs. In the end, their survival might depend on the amount of fat they’ve stored up during the good times the previous fall.

When things get bad enough, deer will find areas where there is food and nearby cover from the wind. They’ll stick to communal trails and stay in that area—called a “yard”—until either the food resources are gone and they starve or until spring arrives. Sometimes one can see the results of their feeding when you come upon a place in the woods where all the lower twigs on the trees are nipped off at a uniform height—the maximum reach of a browsing whitetail.

Signs of stress in late January or February aren’t uncommon, but in late December? It seems like it’s just too early to be worried about starvation, but this winter, which started about a month early, has been a terrible one so far.

After our encounter with the deer, we snowshoed back to the cabin. It was Dooka’s turn to make dinner, so while he puttered in the kitchen I got a big fire going in the Jotle stove and kicked back to enjoy the warmth.

Then I thought about the deer we saw. Will it still be around next spring? Unless things moderate, perhaps not.

D.S. Pledger is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at maus16@centurytel.net.

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