Winter Brings Wildlife Concerns

The way in which weather affects the local wildlife is of much concern to all sportsmen.

For critters with fins, it’s pretty cut and dry, so to speak. When lakes and ponds freeze over, you’ll find fish heading to warmer deeper water in search of their next meal.

Those who stroll around on frozen surfaces have a little bit different take on how the winter months can affect them. To cover such diverse territory and climates, whitetail deer have a variety of adaptations and behaviors, including those that allow them to survive harsh winter weather that is common in Canada to the southern climates.

Like many other mammals, deer physically prepare for the winter by better insulating their bodies. In the fall, deer gradually trade their summer hair coat for a winter one, which consists of thicker, longer, and darker hairs, called guard hairs, while also growing in a much thicker undercoat.

This winter coat absorbs more sunlight and traps more body heat than the summer coat, and provides an extraordinary amount of protection from the cold. Deer also have oil-producing glands in their skin that help make their hair water repellent, which is especially valuable in the snow. For further insulation, their bodies also begin to retain more fat in layers during the fall.

Deer also alter their behavior to survive the winter. They are generally less active, sometimes dropping their metabolism by half, which allows them to save energy and eat less. Deer may physically hunker down during particularly harsh weather, not moving for days even to eat, which is made possible by relying on their fat stores.

Deer also typically seek areas that are more sheltered in which to rest and eat, such as stands of coniferous trees that maintain their needles during the winter and allow snow to build up, both of which help provide some wind resistance and possibly cover. These areas, sometimes known as “deer yards,” may encompass many, if not hundreds of acres, providing shelter for lots of deer.

Usually deer can comfortably survive the winter by eating their usual diet of twigs, stems, grasses, and other plants wherever they typically would find them, as well as by supplementing with higher-calorie foods such as nuts, fruits, and even mushrooms. Because deer are generally browsers, like goats, and not grazers, like cows or sheep, they do not need to get under the snow to eat, though they can and sometimes will.

Deer have four stomachs which is a little-known fact about the deer stomach, but is still not as universally recognized. In fact, cows and deer are both a part of the same mammal group along with goats, camels, giraffes, and other animals, and both of them have a single stomach that is split into four compartments. Animals with these multi-compartmented stomachs are called ruminants, with the compartments being known as the rumen, the reticulum, the omassum, and the abomasum.

I know this be a little deep for some folks, but please stay with me because it will all come together at the end.

Humans and other single, simple-stomached animals cannot digest many plant-based foods because our digestive systems can’t process cellulose.

Thanks to their ruminant stomachs, deer actually do have the ability to derive nutrition from cellulose, which is why they are able to subsist on little more than woody browse for the majority of most winter seasons.

So why are deer able to digest cellulose, beyond the simple fact that their stomachs have multiple compartments?

The reasoning is contained in a process that uses bacterial microbes located in the rumen stomach compartment to ferment plant-based foods and extract their nutrients prior to digestion. These bacterial functions do most of the work necessary to break down cellulose and pull nutrients from woody browse and other fibrous plant matter.

Like other ruminant mammals, deer are able to break down cellulose thanks to their compartmentalized stomachs. However, since the bacterial microbes in the rumen can’t always do all the work necessary to break down plant matter and pull nutrients out of it, deer often have to chew their food twice: first when they are eating their meals and eating it directly from trees, bushes, or food plots; second when the stomach regurgitates it, in fermented form, as what is called a “cud.”

This second round of chewing helps to further break down cellulose compounds and unlock their nutrients. It is also the reason that ruminant mammals like deer are also sometimes referred to as “cud chewers.”

For this reason, a couple things are important to remember. When there is a break in the weather, night or day, deer are up feeding. This is easily seen directly after a storm or major front moves through. This is why directly after a major front is good time to take to the woods during hunting season.

Deer can go some time between feeding. Their stomach holds food that they will pull nitrites from when need be. This is not to say that deer can go a long time between feeding, but it has been shown that a few days between feeding has little effect on deer.

What effect does the long bitter cold snaps have on feed patterns? When do they feed? Where do they spend the majority of their time?

There is a plenty of research on these questions and a quick web search will answer many of these questions, but I still find the topic interesting. Understanding how critters make it through can help us appreciate and better understand what makes these critters tick. The 24/7/365 existence of wildlife is part of what keeps us all learning, and once we stop learning we stop growing.

So far, the winter of 2019-20 has been a “light” one. Long forecast into February shows the majority of the leap year month will have highs in the mid to upper 30s. This may be good for local wildlife, but not so much for hard-water anglers.

I have long believed that a late ice-off keeps the weed population in check. With little ice on the lake, if the theory holds true, it should be a great year for weed harvesting.

While small amounts of snow in local woodlots and fields is not a major problem for local wildlife, snow-ice combination can be very dangerous.

The wild turkey has a difficult time breaking through a snow ice pack to get down the mother earth top layer for feeding. For the most part feeding is all turkeys do, all day long. That is there major chore for the day, feeding. Taking what little reserves they have in their system to break through layers of snow and ice is difficult.

It’s not so much the cold weather or deep snow pack that affects local wildlife, it’s the snow-ice combinations that put pressure on them.

It’s important to remember the feeding of wildlife is illegal in New York State, in any forms. There are new laws coming on the books this year that make it pretty cut and dry, regarding feeding wildlife. So what is a sportsman to do then if they feel their wildlife is not getting enough food. First thing to do is not to feed them. There are other things we can do to help out.

If one is able, clear a track of land down to the top soil or field bed. What we have done over the years is make the browse easier to reach by cutting limbs down or leaving tree tops in reach. This will make it easier for deer to get their food without having to dig for it.

Over the years we all have been concerned during the winter months about local wildlife and each year they seem to come out of the winter in good shape. Often times it’s best to let Mother Nature run her course.


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