As temperatures drop and snow deepens, you may notice a group of white-tailed deer digging around in an open field or wandering through your yard in search of food. While you may be tempted to feed the deer, they are well adapted to our winter conditions. It is also illegal to feed deer, and it may do more harm than good.
White-tailed deer go through both physical and behavioral changes that improve their survival odds during winter.
Deer spend much of the fall season building up fat stores that will provide them with warmth and energy throughout winter. Externally, deer develop a thick winter coat of fur that helps them absorb more sunlight and traps in more body heat. They have special glands that secrete oils that make their hairs water repellent, keeping them warm and dry. Deer often move less during winter to use less energy.
During periods of deep snow, deer may temporarily migrate to areas of dense conifer stands which protects them from wind and holds in heat. This behavior is commonly known as ‘yarding.’
While at your local hardware or garden store, you may have noticed that bags of cracked corn and other animal feeds have a label reading, “NOTICE TO CUSTOMERS – It is illegal to intentionally feed wild white-tailed deer and moose in New York State.”
Although providing deer with additional food in winter may seem like a good idea, there are negative consequences of doing so. The natural winter diet of a deer consists of leaves and twigs, but when deer are introduced to large amounts of grains (wheat, oats, rye) or corn, the increased carbohydrates can result in acidosis, which can be fatal.
Another concern is that by feeding deer in winter, you get them used to your presence and make them less reliant on natural foods. Causing large numbers of deer to gather at feeding sites can also increase the spread of disease among deer or between deer and other animals. It can quickly make deer become a nuisance.
The best way to help deer and other wildlife survive through tough winters is to make sure they have enough natural food during all seasons. You can do this by keeping deer numbers in balance with the habitat and improving the quality of existing natural foods. See Winter Deer Foods and Cutting Browse for Deer Feeding for more information.
Photo of white-tailed deer by John Lehmann.