Feeding Deer in Winter – Why Not?

Severe winters like this one cause us to be concerned about the welfare of white-tailed deer and their ability to survive the winter.  While our hearts are well-meaning, we can actually do more harm than good by feeding them.

Deer do not need handouts to survive winter; they will adapt.  In the fall, deer grow a winter coat and begin to store fat. The winter coat has hollow guard hairs for insulation with a fine hair, under-fur for warmth; this helps them retain body heat, thus reducing energy needs to stay warm. The fat reserve provides nutrition over the winter. Deer decrease their metabolic rate during the winter which reduces food requirements to approximately one half of what they need in summer. The decreased winter energy demands can be met with limited natural grazing or browse, supplemented with fat reserves.

When the winter is severe, deer migrate to protective areas which are areas with thick overhead cover such as conifers where the snow is often shallower. These areas provide thermal cover and sufficient natural food for deer to survive winter. Deer substantially reduce their activity in these wintering areas, therefore require less energy.

Deer are ruminants meaning they have a four-part stomach with microbes that help digest the natural woody vegetation. When deer eat food that has not been part of their diet, the microbes are not present to help with digestion. If deer are fed a diet they cannot digest, the deer may starve even with a full stomach. In addition, a food source rich in carbohydrates has been known to cause grain overload and overeating disease which can be fatal.  Corn, fed as a supplemental diet, has been known to cause the death of many deer due to these difficulties.

Artificially feeding deer may also increase the energy demand on deer as they may be tempted to leave the wintering areas to gain access to food.

Feeding deer in the wrong location often results in deer spending winter in a poor location where wind chill is more severe and heat loss is greater. Deer in these locations become dependent upon artificial food to survive as the natural food may not be as plentiful.

The artificial feeding of deer may also cause the concentration of deer into even a smaller area than the habitat they usually winter in, which can cause disease transmission. Bovine tuberculosis and Chronic Wasting Disease have been documented in Michigan.

Deer do not share food.  Placing out an insufficient amount of food to feed all deer will not change what will happen without food. If insufficient food is available to feed all deer, only the biggest and strongest deer will have access to food. The young, old, weak and smaller deer will be denied access. Insufficient food available to feed all deer only ensures the survival of those that would survive anyway. The survival of those deer without access to the food may actually be decreased.  These deer expend valuable energy to try to gain access to food that dominant deer consume.

It’s clear that deer can survive quite nicely when left to their own devices.  In fact, the deer population in suburban Detroit, as with many other suburban areas, has become problematic.  In Michigan there are over 60,000 deer/car crashes annually.  That averages out to over 164 such crashes per day.  In Oakland County the chances of having a deer/car crash are even higher.  Feeding deer can only exacerbate this problem.

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