Spotting deer at the cottage can be a delight, particularly in winter when you don’t need to worry about them eating your flowers. Some people love them so much that they set out corn or hay feeding stations to help deer through the winter. Are you helping them by feeding them?
The answer is a bit complicated, but in most cases it’s no: you’re not helping the deer, and you may even be doing them some harm.
Deer are adapted to moderately cold and snowy winters. In late fall, before the snow starts in earnest, they will grow thicker coats and will start to move into winter “deer yards,” areas where they gather in herds that can range from a handful of deer up to the hundreds.
These deer yards are well-established spots where the deer return every year. Usually they are spots where there’s lots of natural food around, and where they have a mix of cover – including some deep coniferous woods where the snow isn’t as deep.
Coming together in a herd gives them lots of eyes and noses to detect predators. They will also pack down trails over the course of the winter, which makes it easier for them to run and escape predators like coyotes, wolves, or domestic dogs. Deer are fine in snow that’s a foot or two deep, but they struggle in heavy snow.
In a typical winter, deer will feed on woody material like twigs. They love hardwoods such as maples, oaks and birches, but will also eat balsam, cedars and other conifers. The food isn’t as rich as the greenery they love in summer, but deer also slow their metabolism in winter so their nutritional needs aren’t as high. They rely on the fat stores from summer to survive the winter, so they will often lose around 20 percent of their body weight by spring.
If the winter has particularly long cold spells or an unusual amount of snow (which buries too much of their food), the deer will begin to starve. It’s typically the yearlings, which don’t have as much fat, or the old and sick animals that die first.
So what’s wrong with feeding them? For starters, harsh as it may sound, there needs to be a certain amount of starvation to keep the herd healthy. If there are no losses over the winter, there are more fawns born in spring (does who are well-fed through the winter are more likely to bear twins). It isn’t long before the overall deer population hits an unsustainable level. Disease can spread more easily, predator numbers increase, and in extreme cases the deer numbers exceed the food supply of a territory, even with supplemental food.
Feeding deer in the wrong place can also put them at risk by drawing them closer to roads or to areas where dogs can chase them. And the wrong kind of food can actually be bad for them. Apples and carrots are like candy to deer, and they don’t supply the nutrition the animals need; corn, barley and wheat are high in starch, and can cause digestive problems if the deer don’t balance those grains with enough roughage like twigs and bark; even hay can cause digestive problems, particularly if the deer are in near-starvation when they start eating it.
Helping the herd
There are, however, some things you can do to help deer through the winter. If you are cutting down any trees this year, leave the branches in the woods so the deer can feed on them. This natural food is exactly what the deer need to eat.
Once the snow begins, go out on snowshoes or a snowmobile and pack down some trails. If there are deer in the area, they will appreciate these extra trails, particularly if you create a network of intersecting trails so they have options when running from predators.
Keep your dogs from chasing the deer, since every time they run, they are depleting those precious energy reserves.
And when you do see deer, just enjoy the sight and know that they are one more creature with whom we share this gorgeous place