Winter Survival of the White-Tailed Deer

The Wilder Side of Oakland County

A doe climbing Empire Bluff.

White-tailed deer, the largest wild mammal in Oakland County, are well adapted to life in the cold. They thrive in parklands, wildlands and suburban areas. Deer populations have endured harsh winters, ice storms and blizzards for thousands of years. The key to their survival is energy conservation and behavioral adaptations. White-tails of the “north country,” including Michigan, are significantly larger than their kin in the southern states. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife states,

Northern deer have larger body size than deer further south. This is true of all mammals, in that body size increases as we progress northward. Large body size conserves energy better because of a lower surface to mass ratio.

An adult white-tailed buck from the north may reach 300 pounds , while an adult buck from Florida weighs about 125 pounds.

The highest natural mortality of deer during the winter is among sick or injured adults, and late-season fawns. Most healthy fawns adapt to winter conditions and take advantage of many sheltering opportunities.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service shared that video on their Facebook page and added a comment to help explain the ability of deer to survive in winter.

“Each hair on a deer’s winter coat is hollow, trapping air that helps them retain heat. Quilts, window panes and house insulation utilize air pockets in similar ways. This keeps deer warm through frigid temperatures — even as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit!”

Winter herd resting in sunny oakland county meadow


We crank our thermostats up in the winter, white-tails turn theirs down by lowering their metabolism. During autumn, deer focus on consuming high energy plants, like abundant acorns and other nuts of the county, that allow them to accumulate fat stores under their skin and around vital internal organs. These fat stores act as insulation and serve as energy reserves for the winter.

Deer metabolism plunges in winter, enabling the fat stores to last longer, and deer wander less to conserve energy. They browse on woody plant materials or the occasional bird feeder spillage. Sunny days find deer gathering on exposed southern-facing slopes to bask. During periods of extreme cold or high winds they often hunker down under thick groves of evergreens that hold in radiant heat or seek shelter in landscape depressions near swamps and thickets.

For one Oakland County fawn settling down on the leeward side of a garage, a few dozen feet from a bird feeder, was the easiest away to adapt quickly to windy winter conditions. This captured act of adaption was also the key to its worldwide fame in the connected world of social media.

Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Parks.

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