Hopefully, now that the holiday season is past, we human beings can get back to our regular eating patterns, now that we have made it to the depth of winter here.
And so far, though we have had some snow and cold snaps, the winter of 2019-20 is shaping up to be a mild one. And though it is good news for humans, it is really good news for whitetails because it makes it easy for them to find food.
Contrary to whitetail deer, just about the same food is available to us in the middle of the winter, as it is at the height of summer.
We just go to the grocery store, paw through the freezer.
But nature has equipped deer with different coping mechanisms to deal with the cold, short, daylight hours.
Unlike humans, whitetails shift their diets when winter sets in.
Since there are no longer leafy herbaceous plants to forage on, their gastronomic chemistry shifts to being able to assimilate woody browse almost exclusively.
Deer feed almost exclusively on living twigs and buds … the terminal tips packed with nutrients.
A whitetail's digestive process here in the North Country shifts into a different gear with each change of season.
In the fall there is a shift to a high percentage of mast (apples, acorns, beechnuts, etc.). But now, in the winter, their diet is mostly browse, that is twig tips, augmented with fortuitous encounters with other food sources, such as grasses at a spring seep, a little grain at a bird feeder, an old, overlooked wrinkled apple, still clinging to its bare tree, or turnips in a food plot, under the snow.
Inside each living twig's tip is an embryonic leaf getting ready to unfold in springtime. Nutrients from each stem concentrate there.
And that's where the whitetail finds its wintertime sustenance.
The twig tip browse is a lifesaver to northern whitetails in winter.
Deer prefer some varieties of trees and shrubs a lot to others, and often the whitetail’s nippers prune the fancy, expensive imported ornamental shrubbery right next to our houses.
But those of us who live in the northeastern United States, on the other hand, eat pretty much the same things as we do all year round.
But by being inside more, almost within arm's reach of the refrigerator, and a supply of food, we tend to consume quantitatively more than usual, especially during the holiday season.
Many of us who live in areas with real winters actually gain weight through the winter. (Except of course those of us who make a New Year’s pledge.) This is in stark contrast to whitetails. Deer lose weight in the winter.
Whitetails in the Northeast and Midwest stock up their fat reserves during summer and autumn to sustain them through these lean winter months. And fat isn't all they need.
The minerals in their bones partly went into creating the antlers on the buck's head and the embryonic fawn's bones in the does. There is created therefore a kind of element and mineral deficit. And it has to be replenished.
And most whitetails manage to survive (except for some bucks, which "run off" their weight during the, rut or breeding season, and are too debilitated and rundown to survive a challenging winter, and they die.) Though deer do sustain their metabolisms on woody browse, it's significantly less nutritious and has less protein than their summer and autumnal fare.
Interestingly, some deer in northern deer yards, fed dried herbaceous plants and grasses, like hay during the winter by well-meaning people, have been known to "starve" because their stomach's chemistry was not able to quickly change from browse back to a herbaceous fare.
However, people and whitetail deer are alike in that they both "down shift" in winter, and become less active.
Many humans say, and follow through with the notion, "It's too cold to go outside."
Most people's activity here is cut back during the winter.
One would think at first glance that deer don't have an "inside" or an "outside," always being in the woods, in the outdoors. But in fact they do, and are not too different from humans in this aspect.
Northern whitetails head for preferred wintering areas or "yards" as the snows build up. Often it is adjacent to or in a coniferous stand, whether pine or hemlock. Incidentally, whitetails seem to especially enjoy eating hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis.) And they head to the southern, sunny exposures on our hills and ridges to take advantage of the solar warmth.
In fact, the temperature, not to mention the wind chill, in a thick stand of pine or hemlock trees in the sun may be as much as 10 to 15 degrees warmer on a cold, bright day than temperature "outside" in a nearby windswept field.
So, deer do head "inside" in the winter, just like we do.
And by becoming less active, less food is burnt in the internal metabolic kiln, be it whitetail or human. But whitetails do not gain weight during the northeastern winter while in contrast, most humans do.
Some deer researchers have postulated that whitetails cut their metabolic rate almost in half during the winter! It's a good thing that human beings don't or we'd really be in really bad shape when Spring roles around.
If whitetails find a concentrated food source, such as a bird or turkey feeder, the older and larger deer often eat first and keep the young, less dominant animals away.
New York state recently made it law that it is illegal to feed deer during the winter, stating that artificial feeding of deer concentrates them making them more susceptible to disease transmission, such as CWD (Chronic Wasting Disease.) However, incidental feeding of deer at a bird feeder can get the owner a warning. The second time, a violation. New DEC regulations also prohibit the sale of commercial deer foods or deer feeding equipment unless such products are affixed with a label that warns consumers that the products are illegal for use in New York.
The best way to feed deer is with a chainsaw, allowing them to browse on the terminal buds of trees that are out of reach.
Oak Duke writes a weekly column appearing on the Outdoors page.