7 Reasons Whitetails Survive Really Cold Winters

By author of Brow Tines and Backstrap

Did You Know These Things?

They Grow Larger Bodies

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1 | They Grow Larger Bodies

You’re probably aware that the further north you go, the bigger whitetails’ bodies get. That’s due to one thing — winter survival. Over time, deer that live in colder climates have adapted. Whitetails that have made it in colder climates lived to pass on their genetic makeup. It just so happens that most deer that survive are larger-bodied and more capable of storing the needed fat and energy to make it through ecologically difficult situations — including cold weather.

This is the case with all mammals through the world. The further you get away from the equator, the large the species gets. Fascinating? Yes. A requirement for survival. Absolutely. Going to change? Not likely.

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They Put on Their Coat

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2 | They Put on Their Coat

Deer have summer coats and winter coats. In early fall, they begin making the transition from the former to the latter. It’s a very interesting process. And the reasons whitetails are so resilient lies primarily in their hide.

There are two layers to their winter coat. The first layer is very thick and almost has a wooly feel to it. This helps insulate the deer. The second layer is another (thinner) layer on the outside with hollow hairs that aid in heat retention. This double-layering really helps keep deer warm when temperatures drop.

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They Build Up Fat Stores Throughout the Year

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3 | They Build Up Fat Stores Throughout the Year

A deer spends the summer and fall doing one thing — preparing for the following winter. A deer can lose up to 25 to 30 percent of their body weight by the end of winter. It takes time to replace what’s lost, and then build even more fat stores beyond that to prepare for the next cold season.

They do this by consuming high-fat and high-protein food sources to bulk up prior to the first snows. Agricultural food sources such as soybeans, corn, wheat, milo and other options help with this. Food-plot food sources such as brassicas, peas and other plant types do as well. And don’t forget natural food sources, too. Soft mast (persimmons, apples, pears, etc.) and hard mast, such as acorns, are great food sources for deer.

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They Yard Up Together in Areas with Advantageous Cover and Food

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4 | They Yard Up Together in Areas with Advantageous Cover and Food

It happens every winter. A ton of deer seem to appear out of nowhere, or all of them seem to disappear at once. I know, those are two very different extremes. But it happens, nonetheless. This is a direct effect of the term “yarding.” Some people might wonder what that is. It’s ultimately the term used for large masses of deer congregating in one area. It occurs during times of severe cold and decreasing food source availability. Food is declining, so deer flock to what little is left. It’s more common to see this in places with a lot of snow. This behavior — spending a lot of time in a confined area — allows deer to consume available resources and conserve energy. They benefit from grouping (and bedding) in large numbers.

Common places to see deer yard up are near south- and east-facing slopes, agricultural fields with a lot of waste grain, late-season food plots, white cedar thickets, and anywhere else they can find good shelter from the elements and food for their bellies. If you have one or more of these, it’s likely you’ll see deer yarding there this winter.

I’ve witnessed as many as 75 to 100 deer using the same cut cornfield in late winter. That’s the power of food. I haven’t seen it yet this winter. It’s been way too warm. But cold weather is on the horizon, and the typical yarding behavior will follow. If temperatures remain low enough, expect yarding to be in full swing by mid-January in the far North and late-January in the Midwest and Mid-South.

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They Move Less Often (In Colder Weather)

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5 | They Move Less Often (In Colder Weather)

It’s commonly believed that deer move more during really cold weather. That’s true and false. Sometimes deer will feed (and move) more just prior to and even during serious cold snaps. But in the middle of winter, when there are significant waves of persistent cold weather, it’s more common to see deer bed up together and move less.

Sure, this might go against traditional thinking. But it’s backed by research. Have you ever noticed less movement in the middle of winter when it was really cold, only to see deer pour out of the woodworks once temperatures climbed back up? If you say no, you’re either lying or haven’t ever paid attention. There’s still plenty of winter left. Get outside and observe deer behavior between now and spring. You might be surprised at what you see.

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They Slow Down Their Metabolism

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6 | They Slow Down Their Metabolism

Deer are capable of slowing down their metabolism when it gets really cold. No, deer don’t hibernate. But they do slow down their biological clock when they bed down for extended periods of extremely cold weather. They do this to conserve energy. Burning less of it means it lasts longer and deeper into spring.

Whitetails are extremely adaptable. They have a keen ability to make the best of difficult situations. And they not only make the best of it but also thrive and grow, too. That’s why it doesn’t come as a shock to know that deer slow down their metabolism at will when necessary. That said, this generally happens the most in late January, February and early March when winter severity is at its peak.

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They Feed on Available Browse

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7 | They Feed on Available Browse

Food sources might seem bare this time of year. But they aren’t. At least, not in the eyes of a whitetail. As previously mentioned, remaining winter-time food doesn’t typically have the high levels of nutrients that spring, summer and fall food sources offer. But there are still plenty of options available.

Deer frequently rely on plants such as white cedar, sumac, beech, maple, honeysuckle and many other species. Forbs are a very popular natural food source during winter, too. Whitetails are pros at seeking out and consuming these readily available food sources during the winter months.

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Winter. It’s a direful time to be a deer. But they’re built for it. And not by chance, either. Their very DNA is designed in a manner to equip them with the tools they need to overcome the harsh conditions they find for nearly a third of the year.

As the season progresses, most would believe food sources begin to deplete. And they do — but not in the manner that we typically think. Instead, it’s more of a shift in food sources. Sure, what’s left in the dead of winter doesn’t have the nutrients that most summer and fall food sources have. But a whitetail’s body is designed to live off of such until spring arrives.

But none of this explains how or why deer are capable of living through such hard times. What makes them so resilient? The truth is, not all of them are. Some young, old and physically inferior deer will die during the winter, especially in the northern half of the country. But most of them do survive. There are seven major reasons why.