Wild Side: Feeding deer can do more harm than good
Early in the Packers playoff game, the announcers were discussing the cold weather when one of them said, “I don’t think you ever get used to the cold, you just get used to being cold.” I would probably be inclined to agree. I would think to get used to the cold, it would take extended exposure, like living in arctic latitudes for extended periods – maybe even generations. It feels like winter lasts forever here, when we are in the middle of it, but we get notable changes in seasons that interrupt our adaptations. However, if you talk to folks from southern states, they would say we Northwoods residents have clearly adapted to the cold. My relatives from Florida, for example, wear jackets when they come to visit us in the summer.
I think I would be more likely to say we get used to being cold, but we also adapt to it. Adaptation is critical to survival. We adjust what we eat, how much we sleep, how we dress, and how active we are in the winter. Humans, for the most part, adapt by changing the environment around us. We turn up the thermostat in our houses, use heated seats in our cars, put on warm clothes and shop commercial food sources to make our adaptations. Wildlife is a different story. Birds and animals have to adapt their behavior and their bodies to work with whatever the elements and environment give them.
I have had a few calls already about how deer are handling this weather, with questions about feeding. Normally, deer adapt to the weather. Their stomachs adjust from being able to digest green plants to being able to digest more woody material. They start to eat branch tips and woody stems, because each little bud on those branches stores a little bit of high quality energy, as it were. Because of this, foods that they could digest easily other times of year, like corn or hay, can actually make deer very sick in winter. Further, they might fill their stomach with hay, which makes them feel full and takes up space in their gut. Then they will walk off and lay down, but if they are in poor enough condition, they will eventually die of starvation with a full stomach. Scavengers like coyotes and crows will find these deer, and start to eat them. Unfortunately, people sometimes find this scene in the woods and decide the coyote killed the deer—when it actually died of starvation. When I investigate these calls, I can determine if they were killed or starved by examining the bone marrow.
We manage the deer herd to ensure that it is below the winter carrying capacity the environment offers, and it is best for deer to adapt to the winter and use what is naturally available. Feeding deer at your home should not conflict with their natural behavior and food adaptations. If you really want to feed deer at your house, make sure you follow all the rules listed in the deer hunting regulations or on the DNR website. We recommend you avoid corn and hay for the reasons stated earlier. I tell most people it is easiest to buy rabbit pellets or horse pellets with about 10 percent protein, or use commercially prepared deer food mix. Look for a mixture that has a combination of corn, alfalfa, oats, soybeans, molasses, vitamins and minerals. I checked with the folks at the local feed store; they have mixes and information available. Even putting out a mineral lick can provide essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients for deer.
Feeding deer can do more harm than good, and you may not see or recognize the negative impacts that result. You can stop by the DNR Service Center, 107 Sutliff Avenue Rhinelander, for a flyer with more information.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.