The way deer -- and humans -- deal with winter

Oak Duke

We humans change our behavior as winter sets in during December in analogous ways to whitetail deer.

But in other ways, nature has equipped us to deal quite differently with the cold, short, daylight hours and accompanying ice and snow.

Whitetails actually change their diets out of necessity. Since they can no longer forage on herbaceous plants, their stomachs' chemistry shifts to assimilating woody browse. That is, they feed on buds and twigs.

Inside each living twig's tip is an embryonic leaf getting ready to unfold in springtime. Nutrients from each stem concentrate there.

Human beings, on the other hand, eat pretty much the same things as we do all year long. But by being inside more, within arm's reach of the refrigerator, we tend to consume quantitatively more, especially during the holiday season.

In other words, people, in contrast to deer, actually gain weight as winter sets in.

Whitetails need to have built up a fat reserve during summer and autumn. And most of them do (except for some bucks which "run off" their weight during the rut or breeding season.) Though deer sustain their metabolisms on woody browse, it's less nutritious and has less protein than their summer fare.

Interestingly, deer fed dried herbaceous plants like hay in the winter have been known to "starve" because their stomach's chemistry is not able to quickly change from browse back to a herbaceous fare.

Human beings and deer each in their own metabolic way, "down shift" in winter, and are less active. Many humans say, "It's too cold to go outside." One would think at first glance that deer don't have an "inside" or an "outside" being always in the woods. But in fact whitetails do, and are not too different from humans in this aspect.

Whitetails head for preferred wintering areas or "yards" as the snows build up. Often it is adjacent to or in a conifer stand, whether pine or hemlock.

Incidentally, whitetails seem to enjoy eating hemlock. (And our hemlock is no relation and not the same species as the hemlock of Socrates.) Our hemlock and the Greek hemlock have nothing in common, except they are both plants and unfortunately and confusingly have the same name.

In fact, the temperature in a thick stand of pine or hemlock trees, protected from the wind, may be as much as 10 to 15 degrees warmer on a cold day than the temperature "outside" in a windswept field. So in fact, deer do head "inside" in the winter, just like we do.

And by becoming less active, less food is burnt in the internal metabolic kiln, be it whitetail or human. But no whitetail deer gains weight in the winter. In contrast, most humans do.

Some deer researchers have postulated that whitetails cut their metabolic rate almost in half during the winter. It's a good thing that human beings don't to that degree or we'd really be in bad shape when spring rolls around.

If whitetails find a concentrated food source, such as a deer feeder, the older and larger deer eat first and keep the young, less dominant animals away.    

Does will even kick and drive their own fawn away from a concentrated food source. Adult does will strike out with a front hoof and even stand on their hind legs and "box" with their front hoofs.

The unfortunate fawns hang around on the periphery of the herd, browsing the nearby area until there is nothing left. As they stand around and slowly starve, they can only watch the larger and more dominate deer eat.

Old does will lower their ears when a fawn or less dominate deer comes near the food source, glare, and then strike out with their fore feet. Most does will give way to mature bucks (even after they have dropped their antlers). Doe fawns are lowest on the totem pole at the whitetail dinner table.

So when someone says at your holiday feast, "Please pass the potatoes, I'm ready for seconds," and there is only a spoonful left in the bowl, know that behavioral adaptation to a scarcity of food is not any different in the wintertime world of the whitetail deer, right outside your door.

Oak Duke is publisher of the Wellsville Daily Reporter.