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White-tailed deer in northern climes must deal with winter almost six months of

the year including the brutal January conditions. How do they do it?

Winter hits hard and early in the northern reaches of whitetail country, and it
hangs on for a long time. Sometimes bucks arent even out of the rut when
snow starts accumulating in November. By the end of the month, cold can hit,
too a real, below-zero kind of bitterness that digs deep and wont let up.

By the time autumn officially ends on December 21, the winter solstice,
whitetails may have been dealing with challenging conditions for a month or
more. If the deer had a good fall and fattened up well, December doesnt bother
them much. But theyre really only just getting started on their season of

January a month unto and of itself, the true depth of winter brings harsher
conditions than December dished out. The days might be noticeably
lengthening by the end of January, but meteorologically speaking, the sun is at
its weakest for the year. Dry, intense cold grips the land in between
blizzards, clippers and three-day- long snowfalls.

February gets worse. Limited forage becomes harder to find and get at. This is
when fat reserves whitetails built up during the past fall really start burning up.
An occa- sional rain might fall, followed by deep cold that freezes a crust over
the snow, making deer use inordi- nate amounts of energy when they try to
move about.

By March, a few sunny days and perhaps some above-freezing temperatures

offer a glimmer of hope that winter wont last forever. But March can deliver
sub-zero cold. And its also the snowiest month, providing more accumulation
to tack onto an already staggering snowfall tally.

Then April turns. Though the spring equinox might have already passed on the
calendar and in the skies, April can well be the meanest month of all. It is
spring in name only. Whitetails are at their weakest and most vulnerable after
months spent fighting cold and snow. But winter lingers, and fierce snow
storms are always a possibility in the wet, cool and unstable conditions of an
atmosphere between seasons. These conditions can put whitetails over the
starvation edge.

Six. Thats how many months of the year Northern whitetails must deal with the
elements of winter. Half the year. How do they do it?

Like most natural processes, the simplicity and elegance of the white-tailed
deers wintering strat- egy is precisely what makes its adaptations and
behaviors so successful. Lets look at the Northern whitetails winter survival
formula and see just how deer go about beating this potentially killer season.

Dual-Strategy Coat
During early fall, whitetails exchange their light, thin and summery red coats
for heavy-duty winter garb. Deer grow a short and dense undercoat of wooly
fur, then top it with stiff, hollow, long and dark guard hairs on top.

This dual strategy addresses two key needs during winter. The wooly underfur,
next to the skin, provides excellent insulation and heat retention, while keeping
cold air away from the body. The hollow outer hairs trap body heat that might
escape the underfur. Whitetails often erect these long guard hairs during winter
to assist in this function; this is why deer often look bigger and fluffier during

In addition, on sunny days the guard hairs dark color can absorb the suns rays
and help warm a whitetail.

Building Fat Reserves

Food becomes scarcer and harder to get as winter wears on. Thats why during
fall, whitetails build up dense body fat reserves to draw upon during lean times.
When you field-dress a deer, you can see the white fat globules inside its body
cavity. When you skin a deer, theres the waxy layer of fat reserves deposited
over the deers back and rump; while they last, these particular fat deposits
also provide a measure of insulation.

Fat is the most critical element of the whitetails winter survival formula. Unless
theres a rare mild winter, a deer without extensive fat reserves is a deer in
trouble. In fact, fat is so important that by mid-autumn, white-tailed fawns will
shift to putting on body fat instead of growing taller or adding muscle and body

If forage was good all fall, does go into the winter with the best fat reserves.
This is important because they are carrying next springs crop of fawns.
Relatively speaking, fawns carry more fat into winter than do bucks. Run down
from the ruts rigors, bucks can be at risk if winter hits before theyve had a
chance to put some fat back on.
Bucks can deplete fat reserves during the chasing and breeding phase of the

rut. Many survive but Mother Nature isnt always kind and takes some each

winter with her icy hand.

As winter begins, Northern deer remain active on the move, look- ing for
food, and for some, migrating anywhere from a few to 30 or more miles to
wintering areas.

Conventional wisdom would say that a mammals metabolism should increase

as cold weather intensifies the better to create heat and stay warm. But a
whitetails metabolism actually slows to low gear, and then to a crawl, as winter

Why would metabolism defined as the rate at which a body burns calories to
maintain basic functions decline now? Instead of burning more fat to stay
warm and compensate for the cold, lower metabolism makes a whitetails body
exceedingly stingy in the way it expends energy.

Now, the colder it gets, the more whitetails will just bed down and stay put.
When snow is difficult to traverse and the temperature has bottomed out, any
energy expended obtaining the meager food available would far outpace the
calories gained.

Studies show that a whitetails metabolism can drop by half during the depths
of winter. Consequently, deer might only venture out to feed once a day. If
conditions are especially brutal, whitetails will hole up for days at a time, using
fat to fuel that lower metabolic rate and come out ahead. For now.

Size Matters
Northern whitetails grow big for a reason. Ecologically speak- ing, a large body
means there is less surface area relative to total body mass, so the deer
produces heat more efficiently and retains it better. In biological circles, this is
known as Bergmanns Rule. Large size also benefits whitetails when they have
to fight the elements and push through snow.
Its important to have that size going into winter. A whitetail in April can weigh
25 to 30 percent less than it did during late November.


Yarding Up
During winter, whitetails prefer to bed in places that are out of the wind and, if
possible, that offer thermal cover overhead. Conifer swamps (chiefly cedar, fir,
spruce and hemlock) make prime winter bedding areas. In hardwoods, white-
tails seek out the thickest, brushiest, nastiest cover they can find. On the
prairies, cattail sloughs make perfect winter bedding grounds because the bent-
over stalks offer overhead thermal protection.

Where agricultural food is available to Northern whitetails (usually in the form

of corn, soybean or other grain stubble), and if the snow doesnt get too deep,
deer might live through winter in small groups. But deep snow and extreme
cold can push even farmland deer to bunch up into big herds of up to 100 or
more animals, focusing on zones where food is available and thermal cover is

In the more forested areas of Northern deer range, whitetails often migrate to
traditional deer yards as a matter of both tradition and survival. Yarding is
learned behavior, with the location of wintering areas and routes to them,
passed along from generation to generation.

The name deer yard conjures up images of a small place with deer packed in
tightly, almost like cattle. But thats usually not the case. Rather, the typical
deer yard encompasses many acres, often
hundreds upon hundreds of them. Usually located in lowland conifers,
whitetails congregate in a general area because of slightly favorable conditions
that might just make the difference between life and death in the long run:

Lowland geography reduces the amount of wind hitting the deer and sapping
any heat produced.

Thermal overhead cover helps protect deer from descending cold and helps
hold in some body heat.

A thick overhead branch network catches some snow and holds it off the
ground, allowing deer to move about more freely.

During winter, every little bit counts. The environmental benefits of spending
winter in a deer yard can help a whitetail preserve just enough fat to make it
through winters last killer days.
Bedding Behavior
The way deer bed now works to retain as much heat as possible, which helps
preserve precious body fat.

A whitetail bedding in the cold will curl up with feet underneath, then snuggle
down in the snow for some of the insulating properties offered and to maintain
a lower profile against any wind. A deer will also lay its head alongside its body.
If conditions are severe, a whitetail will just stay put like this for as long as

In the open prairie and Northern plains, and in hardwood areas where whitetails
arent yarded up in conifers, winter whitetails will head to open areas to bed on
sunny days. Here, on a south-facing slope with an angle that maximizes what
power the sun has, a whitetail out of the wind can absorb a few rays, gather
free warmth, and preserve some more of its precious body fat.

Despite all of their biological and behavioral adaptations against the cruelties of
winter, some whitetails just wont make it. Thats natures way: The youngest,
smallest, weakest and oldest are culled out, while the fittest and strongest
survive to pass on their winter-fighting abilities on to the next generation.
Presence or Absence of Brow Tines as a Predictor for Future Antler
Characteristics in a Quality Deer Management Program

Many landowners and sportsmen have often questioned why some mature bucks (4.5+ years old) do not have "brow tines." Since
1974, the Kerr Wildlife Management Area has been involved in a series of studies designed to determine the role of nutrition and/or
genetics in antler development. We compared antler development based on presence of brow tines at 1, 2, 3, and 4 years of age.
Antlers were collected from 1974-1997 from various penned-deer studies. Antlers were categorized as to number of points on the
basic frame: if no brow tines were present, if only one brow tine was present, or if both brow tines were present. Data were analyzed
based on the absence or presence of one or both "brow tines" and compared to antler weight (mass), body weight, antler points,
antler basal circumference, antler spread, main beam length, and gross Boone and Crockett score at 1.5, 3.5, and 4.5 years of age.
We examined antlers from 217 deer (N=651 sets) for which at least the first three sets of antlers were available and 168 deer
(N=672 sets) for which at least the first four sets of antlers were available. Results showed that 90% of the bucks without brow tines
at 3.5 and 4.5 years of age were spikes as yearlings. All bucks with 5 or more points as yearlings had both brow tines at maturity. All
bucks without brow tines at 4.5 years of age had none when they were yearlings. All yearling bucks that had both brow tines had
both brow tines at 3.5 and 4.5 years of age. In a related analysis, antler production also based on the presence or absence of brow
tines within cohorts was compared.