Wandering Through Winter with White-Tailed Deer


Wandering through winter is the way of life for the white-tailed deer living in our midst. They need not wander far. For snowy days, temperatures below freezing, and winds that howl across open meadows and fields rarely present a danger to the thousands of deer that live in Oakland County. Deer have evolved a four-step basic strategy for surviving winter that is really rather simple: go about a slightly altered routine, don’t over exert, sleep near your best food supply, and just wait for spring. They can do this thanks to physical traits and behavioral patterns that slowly changed as autumn faded.

Laying down in snow, even in a sheltered location on a frigid winter night would surely mean death for a human, but for deer, it’s the perfect place for a good night’s rest. Winter mortality of healthy deer in Oakland County rarely results from environmental factors. It’s automobiles that present the most danger. Coyotes, and occasionally domestic dogs, will also take down weak or injured deer.

“Put your coat on or you will freeze.” We’ve all heard that coat command from mom when we were little kids and it was time to go out and play in the snow. Mother Nature has assured that every deer has a winter coat, a coat provided in late autumn by the “evolution” store. Here’s what the Michigan Department of Natural Resources writes about the deer’s coat, stored fat, retention of body heat and a change in metabolic rate.

“In the fall, deer grow a specially designed winter coat and begin to store fat. The winter coat has hollow guard hairs for insulation with a fine hair underfur for warmth – this helps them retain body heat, thus reducing energy demands to stay warm. The fat reserve provides nutrition over winter. In addition, deer decrease their metabolic rate during the winter, which reduces food requirements to approximately one half of what they need in the summer.”

Where a deer sleeps, or shelters from a storm, is not random. Dense stands of conifer trees such as cedar, hemlock and pine block strong winds and actually absorb and hold heat on sunny days, making them perfect places to bed down for the night, or wait out a storm. The upper reaches of our state have very large stands of conifers, sometimes referred to as deer yards: areas where deer congregate in winter to shelter from extreme conditions. Those with northern white cedar provide another benefit as cedar is a favored winter food. Cedar swamps are found in some of our larger parklands and wildlands, especially in the northern townships of Oakland County. Woodlands and meadows with south facing slopes are other areas that are sought out by deer when it’s time to bed down.

Many species of wildlife, including white-tailed deer, are extremely adaptive animals. Adapting is the key to survival. Deer have learned not only to coexist in a world ‘infested’ with humans, but have the ability to thrive in our midst, especially when altered habitats provide new opportunities for food or shelter. Suburban homeowners quickly discover to their dismay that some ornamental shrubs and tree twigs are all-you-can-eat winter buffets for deer. The thick cover of a cedar swamp may be the perfect place to hunker down in a deer “bed” and wait out a winter storm. However, the leeward side of a garage in the rural northern fringes of our county also works very well to break the wind, as this yearling demonstrated two years ago this week just outside my den window in Brandon Township.

FEEDING DEER: Contrary to common belief, it is not a good idea to feed deer, intentionally or unintentionally. I am guilty of unintentional feeding. My bird feeders serve as an easily accessible café thanks to spilled sunflower seeds, millet and thistle. Deer have learned my ways very well, and know the loud squeak of the wooden shed door in winter usually means I am about to restock my feeders. Sometimes less than five minutes pass after restocking before a few deer wander up from the woods at the edge of my meadow for a daylight snack.

Here’s what the website of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) says about recreational feeding of deer that is applicable to Oakland County, starting with the definition of feed. Feed means a substance composed of grain, mineral, salt, fruit, vegetable, hay or other food material, that may attract deer or elk for any reason other than hunting.

  • Feed volume at any residence cannot exceed two gallons.
  • Feed may be no more than 100 yards from a residence on land owned or possessed by that person.
  • Feed must be scattered on the ground. It can be scattered by any means, including mechanical spin- cast feeders, provided that the spin-cast feeder does not distribute more than the maximum volume allowed.
  • Feed must be at least 100 yards from any area accessible to cattle, goats, sheep, and new world camelids, bison, swine, horses or captive cervidae.

Wildlife agencies confirm problems with the unnatural gathering of deer at feeding sites:

“There is an increased risk of disease transmission between animals associated with feeding. Feeding sites may harbor and concentrate disease agents deposited by infected animals creating a reservoir of contaminated feed or infectious excreta. Deer cannot avoid fecal consumption at feed sites. Some diseases and parasites spread through ingestion of contaminated excreta material include bovine tuberculosis, CWD, salmonellosis, toxoplasmosis, large lungworm, and larval tapeworms.”

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a growing and serious concern in the state of Michigan. As of this writing, CWD has not (yet) been confirmed in Oakland County but the MDNR continues to monitor the situation. Anyone who loves viewing deer, or hunts deer, should familiarize themselves with this rapidly spreading emerging disease. Learn more about CWD from the MDNR by clicking here.

Mother Nature provides well in winter for the survival of deer in our diverse rolling hill habitat with abundant natural foods browsed from trees and shrubs. See the MDNR’s list of some of the favorite winter foods that deer eat. With hundreds of thousands of oak trees in OAKland County, deer also scrounge under snow for acorns. As winter starts to fade in late March, deer will begin to wander to sunny southern slopes where fresh grasses will first appear during the season of snow melt. That is nature’s way on the wilder side of Oakland County.

Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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