The white-tail deer is found from southern Canada, throughout almost the entire United States, and all the way south to Bolivia. This makes them the most visible land mammal, with estimates of around 15 million in the continental U.S. alone.
Deer use the fall to prepare their bodies for the cold months to come. During the winter months, deer may often create special yards, find forest stands, or even search for sheltered land formations.
Keep on reading to learn about some of the ways that deer prepare for cold weather and the places they’re most likely to hunker down when the snow starts to fall.
How Do Deer Prepare For The Winter?
As most mammals do, deer work toward getting physically ready for the cold of winter by insulating their body in a few different ways (similar to the way we humans tend to eat more when it’s cold outside).
They Grow a New Coat
First, deer shed their summer coat for a winter version. In the summer, deer have coats with short, thin, and wiry hair.
In August and September, Deer start shedding their summer hairdo in preparation for a new one that will provide more protection from the elements. The winter hair has guard hair, which is thicker and longer than usual, as well as an undercoat that also grows in thicker.
This new darker hair works to absorb sunlight and trap body heat. It’s also hollow, which traps air inside to help them keep warm. Like a thick puffer coat, their new coat provides most of the shelter they need in the cold weather.
Add to this a cool gland that produces oil that makes their coats water-repellent. Which is super handy when it’s 15 degrees outside. Deer will keep this hair until April and May when they throw out the winter duds and prepare for spring.
Deer Pack On The Pounds Before The Cold
Deer also take the more abundant fall season to add and keep a few extra layers of fat. They cut their metabolism in half because they’re much less active than at other times of the year.
Deer eat over 100 different plant species in warmer weather, such as:
- A variety of tree leaves and twigs
- Grassy Plants
As browsers (like goats), deer can successfully find food just about anywhere. Browsers are animals that eat things that might sit a little higher up from the forest floors.
Browse is considered their primary diet, according to PennState Extension. In the fall, deer also add things with more calories to their diets, like mushrooms, nuts, and fruit.
Deer tend to pack on the pounds so that they can conserve energy in the winter months. The fat reserves that they gain can help them survive the cold. Sometimes there are days when deer will hunker down in a storm and not eat, they rely on these fat reserves to get them through days like that.
Deer Have One Last Party Before Winter
One last fall activity is what is called the rut where female deer (does) are particularly receptive to mating in the fall from their accompanying buck!
Starting in September (through January), does over 7 or 8 months old can begin breeding. Young male deer (bucks) usually leave their mother’s home range when the rut begins, sometimes traveling dozens of miles to find that perfect doe to mate with.
To attract the does, bucks spend a lot of time-fighting each other, showing off, and generally throwing one last rager before they have to start conserving their energies. Bucks then tend to live in what the Pennsylvania Game Commission calls “bachelor groups” of 2 to 4 animals, who live and travel together until the rut comes around again the following year.
They also shed their antlers each fall and begin growing a newer and more impressive set in the spring months so that the next year they can look even cooler for the ladies.
Since deer pregnancies last for 6½ -7 months, does spend their winters getting ready for springtime motherhood. They often rejoin their mother’s group after mating, and there can be several generations of does in one group. Does have between 1 and 3 fauns, depending on the following:
- Age of the doe (adults over 2 ½ usually produce twins or triplets)
- Health of the doe (poor overall health leads to more male fawn)
- Quality of the habitat (poor quality habitats lead to more male fawn)
Where Do Deer Go During The Winter?
So now that we know what they do to prep for the cold, it’s time to look at where they go.
During the winter months in cold climate areas, deer look for areas that are more sheltered from the elements. This will allow them to hunker down and ride out the chill. Here are 4 places that deer typically like to go.
Just like during the winter months, deer are also fairly private during the day as well. Read more about this in our article on where deer go and live during the day.
1. Sheltered Trees Called Forest Stands
In northern, colder, more forested areas, deer look for sheltered areas that have a ton of trees – otherwise called a forest stand. These are groups of trees that are similar in one of four ways:
- Type of species
- Age of the trees
- Height of the trees
- The trees’ canopy closure
The best forest stand trees are dominated by coniferous trees like cedar, spruce, fir, or hemlock. These trees can be located in a forest, on game lands, or private property.
When these types of trees get above 30-40ft tall, snow becomes significantly lessened in the areas underneath! This type of tree acts like a roof, collecting the snow and keeping the ground a bit dryer for the deer.
Coniferous trees also work to cut out some of the wind, protecting the deer and giving them some much-needed cover from the elements.
Deer prefer to use southern exposed dense thickets of trees and shrubs and extensive hardwood stands for protection, according to The Pennsylvania State Game Commission.
2. They Create Deer Yards (Large Groups Of Deer)
Deer wintering areas are also called deer yards. Deer yards consist of huge groups of deer that winter together, similar to how snowbirds congregate in Arizona when the temperature dips below 60 degrees!
But while we like to go where it’s warm to play, deer get together in deer yards just to survive.
According to Maine’s Fisheries and Wildlife Dept., these areas can range anywhere from 5 to 15% of their normal summer roaming area.
The deer sometimes travel up to 40 miles to meet their deer yard-mates (though it’s more typical for them to travel just 5 to 10 miles). They make the pilgrimage along with their brethren in November and December, after the rut.
Building Trails Is Vital To Their Success
Deer yards have several benefits to the deer. First, the large number of deer contribute to the system of trails they use to travel between areas of browse that they need to survive
These trails are built day by day by the deer, who know them like we know the streets in our neighborhood. Because the trails are so well known to the deer, they can also be a huge help when it comes to avoiding predators.
Finally, and most importantly, sharing a space like this lets the deer preserve their energy and help one another maintain the trails between shelter and food. The more deer participate in yarding, the more successful at surviving the winter they tend to be.
The value of trails is likely the reason that large yarding areas equate to a high survival rate for the deer. Trails can be the difference between life and death in the winter for deer.
Think about it this way… have you ever tried walking in snow (or sand) that isn’t packed down? It can be difficult, even getting your heart beat up a bit as you tackle each step.
But imagine you’re in a group of 20 people and you’re the last person. The first person might struggle, but the 10th would be breathing easier.
By the time it’s your turn, the surface is so packed down that it’s like walking on a hard surface. That’s why trails are so important to deer, they help deer preserve the energy they’ve saved up so they can survive the winter.
3. Deer Like to Browse Close to Home
Browse is vital to any good yarding area. Deer are selective browsers, so they tend to pick areas that have their preferred foods.
Preferred foods are those that the deer eat first, including:
- Blackgum trees
- Oak trees
- Basswood trees
- Maple trees
- Tulip trees
- Poplar trees
- Aspen trees
- Hickory trees
- Ash trees
- Pin cherry trees
- Dogwood shrubs
- Viburnum shrubs
- Elderberry shrubs
- Hawthorn shrubs
- Winterberry shrubs
- Sassafras shrubs
- Raspberry shrubs
- Blackberry briars
Once those preferred foods are depleted, deer will move onto marginal foods, and then onto starvation foods.
This would be like humans eating bugs to survive: they provide minimal nutritional value and don’t taste so hot when compared to a nice juicy steak… but they might just keep us alive for a while. Because deer can consume about 1 ton of browse each year, their habitats have to support their needs.
Younger forests tend to have browse that is abundant and of pretty great quality since there are many sources of smaller, brushy trees. Young forests can provide deer with up to 1,000 pounds of food per acre each year according to Purdue University!
But mature forests also play a big role in deer diets, especially since they provide things like acorns and nuts that are higher in calories and can help them thrive in the winter. Just like us, deer need variety, and because forests turn from young to mature in 15 to 20 years, they frequently move locations.
Experts agree that it’s vital not to feed deer during the winter months, and, in some areas, it’s even illegal. Not only does feeding attract predators and pests, but it can take weeks and even months for a new source of food to give deer the proper microorganisms in their stomach for nutrients.
So even when we feel like we’re being kind, we could be harming the deer when they’re at their most vulnerable.
What landowners can do is fire up a chainsaw and bring some trees down that need to be taken down anyways – This provides deer with browsing food and some potential areas of rest.
If you’re worried about deer going after your new springtime foliage, take a peak at our guide on how to keep deer away from your trees here!
4. They nest In Natural Land Formations
When available, deer like to spend their winters where it’s scenic. They prefer to use riparian areas (areas near water) during the winter.
The body of water doesn’t matter, it could be anything from a pond to a lake or a stream to a river in size and strength. This could even be an area that geese or birds couldn’t swim in or that wouldn’t get your feet muddy in the warmer months!
Other natural land formations that deer can use as a wintering area include anything that provides relief from the cold winds blowing. Think about a time when you’ve been walking through an area and it’s been a cold, windy day. It’s always a relief to stand against a building or structure that can block some of the wind.
It’s the same for deer. They look for areas like:
- The bottom of a valley
- Depressions or protruding areas in the landscape
- Lower side-slopes of a hill
5. Suburban Structures
Deer don’t always have access to forested areas. In more suburban areas, deer have to get creative with their housing. Deer will almost always be in areas that can support their dietary needs, so that means there’s always a deer yard that can be found somewhere.
Just like we would use structures to avoid an icy wind, deer can be found using places like a wooded or bushy area behind a shopping center for their winter yarding.
Deer have also been known to make use of cemeteries during the winter months. Cemeteries provide trees under which to shelter and landscaping from which to browse. Plus they tend to be pretty private, particularly during the long nights of winter.
Golf courses also make a great yarding place for deer. Many golf courses feature lots of trees on either side of the fairway that deer can get cozy in.
Many times golf courses also have water features that can provide a thirsty deer a respite. Like cemeteries, people usually avoid them at night, and they’re typically closed in the winter months.
Because deer can lose heat quickly, just like us, deer that are exposed to the elements for too long can suffer during a long winter.
Sometimes deer will not move for days during a longer storm, preserving their calories and warmth until they can browse again. Staying as warm as possible is vital, especially in the northern, colder areas, so that too many calories aren’t burnt unnecessarily.
6. Farmland Features
Deer that thrive in farmland areas can also get creative with their deer yards. Besides using sporadic forests, farmland deer can often be found in a woodlot or copse of trees. These types of areas are smaller than a forest but large enough to support bird-watching and hikes.
Their food sources would include fewer woody trees, instead relying on wintering crops and small bushes. When it’s time for the fawns in the spring, farmland deer might protect their offspring in cattail marshes that protect the little ones from being seen.
In short, deer are adaptive creatures that can figure out their needs almost anywhere they live!
What Do Deer Do In The Springtime?
After a long, cold winter, deer are thrilled to kick off their fuzzy sweaters and start enjoying the warmth again. When spring arrives, deer are hungry!
If they’ve made it through a brutal winter, they spend the spring months chowing down on all that new green growth that starts popping up.
This is also a great time to place a salt lick in a proper area near your home, like this Himalayan Animal Lick Salt on Rope, which has no preservatives or additives but provides 84 minerals to help supply the deer with their depleted nutrients.
This is actually a good method to place a salt lick way away from your garden so that deer are more attracted to that than your plants. You can also use specific scents that deer hate to keep them away when the time comes!
Since early spring tends to still be cold, deer still spend a lot of time yarding during the night while feeding in the morning and after dusk, according to the state of Michigan. To increase their nutrients and give birth to the healthiest possible fawns, deer prefer grasses and legumes such as:
- Canada wild-rye
- June grass
- Orchard grass
- Blue grass
- Medium-red clover
- Alsike clover
- Ladino clover
Deer begin giving birth in late May and early June. During this time, they’re looking for areas that are safe to have their offspring in. Raising the fawns then becomes the deer’s main focus from spring until fall, when the cycle starts again.
If all went well during the winter, the does will be born healthy (and with a twin) and have great antler growth. During the spring, herd sizes can grow significantly year over year, which is why it’s important for deer that they make it through the winter!
If anything, this article should just go to show how amazing and secretive deer are.
Deer are adaptable animals that use all of their skills no matter what time of year it is!
Moen, A. N. (1976). Energy conservation by white‐tailed deer in the winter. Ecology, 57(1), 192-198.
Verme, L. J. (1968). An index of winter weather severity for northern deer. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 566-574
Telfer, E. S. (1970). Winter habitat selection by moose and white-tailed deer. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 553-559.
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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