Looks like the mild winters of the past few years are a thing of the past. With blizzard watches and warnings up for the Northeast, thoughts there are turning to winter deer survival. And for good reason. Severe weather can take its toll on wintering whitetails, especially late-season fawns and sick or injured adults.
That’s the bad news; the good news is whitetails have been enduring harsh winters for thousands of years and are doing quite nicely thank you. The key to winter whitetail survival is energy conservation; by deer that is. Winter whitetails can little afford to burn more energy than they take in. Luckily they’re good energy conservationists.
It takes energy to stay warm. A whitetail’s coat with its hollow hair is a great insulator, allowing deer to bed comfortably in snow; it also effectively repels harsh winter weather. But it doesn’t stop there; whitetails are also adept at finding sheltered areas to winter in. Dense conifer stands are a favorite as they block the wind and absorb heat from the sun. Studies have shown temperatures to be higher in dense conifer stands than neighboring hardwoods. South-facing slopes with direct winter sun, less snow, north-wind avoidance, and early green up, are also favorite spots for whitetails to conserve energy in.
It also takes energy to feed. Whitetails are experts at reducing energy usage by eating less during winter. Eating less means less searching for food and since searching for food burns energy, less searching (generally for low-quality foods) means more energy conservation.
Even while burning less energy, wintering deer generally cannibalize fat and protein reserves built up during the late summer and fall feeding frenzy to see them through a hard winter. Some deer lose 20 to 30 percent of their body mass during the winter months. This can really take its toll on pregnant does resulting in fetus absorption or small fawns. Bucks, worn down from the rut, can also be hit hard.
Predators also take their toll on wintering whitetails. Wolves and coyotes take their share. We can only hope that the ones they take first are the weak and weary, which are on their way to a slow and agonizing death through starvation. It’s Nature’s way and we have little say in it.
While we may turn up the thermostat in winter whitetails turn it down. They move less and eat less in an attempt to burn less fuel. If you want to do wintering whitetails a favor stay out of their wintering areas and don’t force them to expend energy avoiding you or your dogs or anything that might disrupt their winter slow down. .
The best man made solution to winter whitetail survival is the preservation and enhancement of known whitetail wintering areas, but not when the deer are using them Do your winter habitat work when and where it won’t put the deer you are trying to help at risk.