Winter Deer Yards

Winter Deer Yards

Deer on winter road

White-tailed Deer Odocoileus virginianus

 

As we ride along, last night’s frost glitters in the sunlight like a million stars fallen from the previous night’s sky.  The clear blue above invites my eyes to look deep into the stark contrasts of winter’s barren landscape.  Brown and gray vertical trunks rise between pale and dark greens of cedar and balsam fir.  It’s here, along a stretch of road where the river carves through the highlands that the deer gather.

Deer Run

Many hoofs tracks make for a well beaten path.

I watch for worn paths that meander down through the hardwoods, tracks skirting under the evergreens until they disappear over the snow banks.  Occasionally, I see one or two dark forms in the woods, alert as they watch the vehicle pass.  More than once in the road ahead, the white flags of their tails fly as a small group bounds ahead of us.  They don’t jump for cover but linger in hopes there will be no reason to move out of the road.  This is only one of many winter deer yards in Maine.

 

Deer in Winter Yard

Deer in winter yard under mature evergreen trees.

I recall the first time many years ago when I visited a winter deer yard in a remote area of Maine.  The stillness of the woods was absorbing as if no life was to be found, then slowly the deer began to move from their hiding places, like graceful statues come to life.  They were curious of their visitors and everywhere I turned the deer were watching me.  Like many events in nature, it was something I will never forget.

The beauty I see surrounding a peaceful existence for these creatures is far from their reality.  Maine winters are hard on deer.  In southern and coastal areas, especially during mild winters, deer will only gather during snowy periods and cold snaps, sometimes lasting less than a month’s time.  But in the north, where cold and deep snow cover can last close to four months it is critical that deer have sufficient winter habitat, commonly known as deer yards.

Striped Maple Deer & Moose Browse

Deer have browsed the bud on the right of the red-colored Striped Maple.

Deer face two challenges in their winter habitat.  First they are herbivores, surviving strictly on plants, woody shrubs and trees to sustain their nutritional needs.  In winter they must turn to the buds of hardwood trees and evergreen needles.  Certain species of trees such as Striped Maple Acer pensylvanicum, are preferred for the amount of protein, fat and sugars they provide.  Balsam Fir Abies balsamea, being one of the least desirable foods, eaten only when there are no other choices.

Secondly, deer must conserve their energy reserves.  Healthy deer go into the winter months with fat stored in their bodies.  That fat serves as insulation of vital organs and as a reserve source of energy.  Cold wind and deep snow or crust are enemies that deplete a deer of its energy possibly leading to starvation if it is unable to find enough nutritional browse.  To compensate these challenges and increase their chances of survival, deer gather together and move into wintering habitat or deer yards.

Winter deer yards are areas where there are mature stands of evergreen trees that provide a forest canopy limiting the amount of snow that is able to fall to the ground below.  As a group, the deer work together in keeping the paths or deer runs to and from this area open.  Think of it as ‘many hooves make light work’ after each snow storm.

Striped Maple Browse

Deer and Moose browse on the buds of Striped Maple.

There is limited browse for the deer to feed on under the dark tree canopy requiring them to travel away from the area to find succulent hardwood tips that they can reach.  Called successional growth, these are shrubs and trees that take over a field after it is no longer hayed or a woodlot after it is cut.  Neither mature forests nor open fields alone can provide the winter habitat needs of the white-tailed deer, they depend on both.

As the winter wears on, weakened animals that have not been able to hold on to their stored energy reserves, may fall prey to the carnivores on the food chain.  And, where some winter deer yards in Maine are much closer to civilization, the deer face other hazards.

Deer as Carrion

Deer hit by Truck

On Route 95 near exit 244, there are electronic signs warning travelers both north and southbound to watch for eagles and deer in the roadway.  Travelers might wonder if it is to alert them to an opportunity to view bald eagles where the highway crosses the Penobscot River, but unfortunately that is not what prompted the signs.  Road-kill, a deer hit by a passing car or truck will become carrion to feed non-predatory meat eating wildlife such as the Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus.

 

Deer Carrion for Scavengers

Carrion serves as an important food source for wildlife species that scavenge to sustain themselves.

The stark beauty of winter often reveals the harsh existence of this gentle creature in its role in the food chain to transfer energy from the herbivores to the carnivores.

The deer in the picture had been hit by a truck.  In 48 hours it had been scavenged by Bald Eagle, Raven, Coyote & Fox.  The hide and bones will disintegrate into the earth replenishing the ground with nutrients for another plant, woody shrub or tree to grow upon.  A place where I may return again and see beauty.

 

Eagle cleaning beak

This eagle was cleaning its beak after feeding on carrion.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Frederick Gralenski says:

    Apparently the best conifer browse is northern white cedar, but I have also witnessed deer eating lichens like ‘Old Man’s Beard’.