The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 6, 2004


Feeding the deer in winter? Forget about it

Are you tempted by the advertisements that promote the availability of so-called "deer feed" at the store? Don't be, wildlife biologists say: feeding wild white-tailed deer may harm the animal's ability to survive a New England winter.

(File photo by Midge Eliassen)
"Some people say, 'If the deer look (or seem) skinny and hungry, I should feed them,' '' says Kent Gustafson, deer project leader for New Hampshire Fish and Game. "But it's a lot more complicated than that. Despite our best intentions, supplemental feeding creates an artificial situation in which the deer, the habitat and the public may suffer."

The commercial availability of "deer feed" does not make it okay to feed the deer — in fact, supplying white-tailed deer with supplemental feed can actually cause more harm than good, according to wildlife biologists from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension.

Darrel Covell, a wildlife specialist with Cooperative Extension, notes that white-tailed deer in New Hampshire are at the northern limit of their range. "They have several natural adaptations that allow them to survive the winter, like a thick winter coat of hollow hairs and the storage of fat in fall for later use in winter." In winter conditions, adult deer conserve their energy, getting as much as 40% of their daily energy during winter from their fat tissue.

In winter, cover — not food — is the key to deer survival. Deer seek softwood cover ("deer yards") to avoid deep snow, high winds and extreme cold. Deer move little in these areas, using a network of trails that disperse them and reduce competition for natural food. When humans feed the deer, it disrupts carefully honed survival strategies, and may lead to the deer spending more energy than they can afford outside of safe shelter.

"Quality natural habitat provides the best insurance for deer survival in winter," says Gustafson. "If you care about deer, leave them alone — let them be wild, and find natural foods and appropriate winter shelter on their own."

"Many people think of feeding deer like feeding birds," remarks Covell, "But there are some critical differences that make feeding deer unhealthy for the deer population, for plants near the feed site and for passing motorists."

The bottom line, says Gustafson, is "Please don't feed the deer, and please discourage your neighbors, friends and relatives from engaging in this harmful activity." Here are the top reasons to resist feeding wild deer:

1. Feed sites congregate deer into unnaturally high densities. These high deer densities can attract predators and increase risk of death by coyotes or domestic dogs; spread diseases among deer; cause aggression, wasting vital energy reserves and leading to injury or death; reduce fat reserves as deer use energy traveling to and from the feed site; result in over-browsing of local vegetation and ornamental plants; deny access to food because subordinate deer are kept away from feeding stations, and over-browsing by larger deer removes food available to fawns; and increase deer/vehicle collisions.

2. Feed sites lure deer away from natural wintering areas. This attraction can trap deer in inferior winter habitat and increase the chance of malnutrition and predation. If deer continually go to feed sites instead of deer wintering areas, then young deer may never learn to find their natural winter habitat. Also, landowners may lose their incentive to manage for dense softwood cover, typical natural winter habitat for deer.

This article was provided by the New Hampshire Fish and Game Service. It appeared in the Weekly Market Bulletin in Concord, New Hampshire. It was sent to the Mosquito by Jack O'Connor of Church Street.

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito