Ask The Biologist

Makin’ It Through

Makin’ It Through

By Bob Humphrey

It’s hard to imagine deer making it through a brutal winter, but some always do.

QUESTION: We’ve had over 100 inches of snow this winter where I live. How well will the deer survive? — Steve R.

ANSWER: Without more information, I can’t offer specifics, but I can provide some generalities. For starters, they’ve been doing it for several million years, so whitetails obviously have figured out a way, or ways, to survive harsh winter conditions.

One way is simple natural selection. Deer in northern regions have evolved larger bodies and longer limbs. Some advantages of this are obvious, like being able to travel better in deep snow. Having larger bodies also reduces the relative surface of a body, minimizing heat loss. Coats of dense, hollow hair also help northern deer insulate themselves.

They’ve also evolved behaviors to cope with the cold. One is reducing activity. From about mid-winter on, deer operate at a loss, burning more calories each day than they can take in. By reducing activity, they burn fewer calories and reduce net energy loss. They also seek out protective cover, like dense stands of mature softwoods that reduce snow depth, make it easier to travel and cut the wind.

There are drawbacks to these wintering areas, or deer yards, too. Deer return to them every winter, and if the cover has been cut, they don’t know where else to go. Deer yards also concentrate them in a smaller than normal area, creating even more competition for the little food that is available. Supplemental feeding, when done correctly, can sometimes help. If you put out food incorrectly, it will do more harm than good. In an extremely severe winter, your area might see higher mortality, but some deer always survive, and the population will recover in time.

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Copyright 2017 by Buckmasters, Ltd.

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