It’s not easy being a wild animal around New York Harbor, especially when you’re a big mammal and the cold grip of winter has a hold of you. It’s a stressful and chilly time trying to stay warm and forage for food when only a meager amount can be found.
Yesterday, with high temperatures only in the teens and wind chills below zero, I observed three very hungry white-tailed deer in my backyard feeding on the underbrush. Not much of a herd, probably just a few does working their way through a fragmented suburban forest following well-worn trails and seeking sustenance.
They were browsing on twigs, buds, grasses, and leaves from deciduous plants, maybe even digging for a few nearby roots, practically anything they could find.
The deer will eat now and digest later. Just like cows, deer are ruminants. They will digest their food while resting in a safe, secluded wooded place, away from predators, including coyotes, and winter winds, chewing a cud and processing it though a four-compartment stomach. Deer have evolved to postpone digesting food in order to eat all they can while food supplies are favorable.
Thankfully, deer often do not have to worry about chilly temperatures. They have a dark-colored, thick and heavy coat of hair that is uniquely created to insulate the animal against the coldest temperatures, even when it’s below zero. The hairs are long, thick and hollow, which helps to trap warm air and act as insulation. The dark hair of the deer’s winter coat also helps to absorb more heat from the sun to help keep the body warm.
Yet, winter can still be a stressful time for many deer. Food is in short supply by February and March, as all the best food supplies are often eaten by now. On average, deer need to consume about five pounds of food a day in the winter. If they do not have a decent supply of fat on their body, many deer will not outlive the season. Not all do, as around 15 to 20 percent of deer do not survive due to starvation.
In addition, it’s not easy trying to find food in a congested urban-suburban environment. Over 200,000 deer are accidentally killed each year on highways in the United States.
Fortunately, the deer in my backyard appeared as if they were hungry, but not haggard. After a half-hour, they spotted me taking their picture. The white on the underside of their tail went up, showing a white flag as an alarm. Just like a reflex, the deer quickly sprinted away deeper into the woods probably to rest and digest what they ate on a cold winter’s day.