Sunday, February 17, 2019

Feeding Deer Does Much Harm, Little Good

deeryard A few winters back, there was a doe who frequented our compost heap. The garden fence around it proved an inadequate barrier, as she simply hopped over it to nosh on the rotting shards of jack-o-lanterns and the latest veggie scraps tossed atop the pile. Not far from the garden sits an old orchard, and we’d also spot her there, scratching with sharp hooves to get to the long-frozen, shriveled fruit beneath the snow.

Watching deer forage for whatever bits of food they can find through the cold months of winter, I can understand why some people feel an urge to feed them. Only supplemental feeding isn’t helpful at all to deer. Instead, it’s detrimental to their digestive health, and it pulls them away from safer, more nutritious food sources.

“Supplemental feeding has little or no benefit to the overall health of deer,” said Nick Fortin, Deer Project Leader for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. “Interestingly, northern deer will lose weight in winter no matter what or how much they are fed, even in captivity.”

Like virtually all animals living in climates where winter is cold and snowy, deer use a variety of adaptations to adjust and survive. In the northern part of the Northeast, they often gather in deer yards, where softwood cover offers shelter from wind and cold as well as decreased snow depth. As deer move to and through their winter shelter, they pack down paths, allowing for easier travel to food and quicker escapes from predators.

In winter, deer reduce their energy expenditures by hunkering down during extended cold stretches; this way they can focus their activity during times when temperatures are warmer.

Similar to animals that hibernate, deer store fat – it can constitute up to 20 percent of their body weight, said Fortin – and they can use that fat as a sort of energy savings account.

A deer’s digestive system also goes through changes to cope with less abundant – and different – food sources. Deer are ruminants, which means they have a four-chambered stomach, like cows and sheep. Each chamber contains microorganisms to help with digestion. These microbes become tuned in to a winter diet of twigs and buds, nuts, any fruits and berries that persist, and whatever grasses they can find. A sudden change in diet – say to supplemental corn or rich hay – can wreak havoc on this system.

“As their diet changes with the seasons, so do the microorganisms,” said Fortin. “Deer can easily deal with a slow transition to supplemental feed, but a rapid transition can actually be fatal… There was a case in New Hampshire a couple years ago where 12 deer were found dead as a result of feeding.”

Because of this and other dangers of supplemental feeding, it is illegal to feed deer in Vermont. Maine and New Hampshire have not outlawed the practice; New Hampshire Fish and Game Deer Project Leader Dan Bergeron said several bills – supported by his department – seeking to ban deer-feeding have been introduced in the state legislature over the years, but none have passed into law.

So, what about the doe in my compost pile? “There shouldn’t be enough food [in a compost pile] to draw deer in from long distances and concentrate large numbers,” Bergeron said. Larger feed sites, however, where people put out corn or livestock feed, can cause problems beyond harmful digestive effects by drawing deer away from the shelter of deer yards, leading to greater expenditure of stored energy reserves. The animals often have to cross roads to access the feeding sites, leading to fatal collisions.

Large gatherings of deer outside of natural wintering sites can also lead to increased – and easier – predation. And with so many animals concentrated in a small area, transmission of diseases – like chronic wasting disease, which is present in both New York State and Quebec – becomes a concern as well.

Bergeron and Fortin agree that the best way to help deer survive winter is to focus on efforts to conserve, support, and create areas that offer good shelter and natural food sources.

“Quality winter habitat is far better for the long term management and sustainability of our deer population,” Bergeron said. “In my mind, having to rely on winter feeding is not a management approach, it is a complete management failure.”

Meghan McCarthy McPhaul is an author and freelance writer based in Franconia, New Hampshire. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

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16 Responses

  1. Pat B says:

    I wish it was mentioned that feeding wild deer is also illegal in New York. Furthermore, any large game hunted out of state must be processed before bringing it home to New York.

  2. Dan says:

    Very concerned about the deer herd in the northern and western Adirondacks, which have been in snow since mid-November. That, after a fall that had little pre-winter food supplies in the form of acorns, beechnuts, etc. The deer would certainly benefit from an early spring.

    • Boreas says:

      They aren’t doing well in my area in the Champlain Valley either. Eating poor quality browse on my property (holly, birdseed from feeders, etc.) – that they have rarely touched in the last 20 years. No hunting pressure because of the residences. Simply too many deer for the holding power of the land here. I suspect a few will drop before spring – especially if the icy crust lingers.

  3. Tim-Brunswick says:

    March is the deadliest month for Deer simply because they’ve used up their fat reserves and that is often exacerbated by heavy wet snows, which then crusts over in cold nights. Not crusty enough to support deer running, but enough to hold up coyotes and bobcats, which zero in on the weakest in the herd so to speak.

    As to feeding deer in New York it is indeed still legal (albeit a bad practice nonetheless) in Sullivan County per a 2012 County Court Decision. Elsewhere in New York, you risk a ticket

    More information is best obtained by Googling “can you feed deer in New York” and then look for the obvious link to the Sullivan County exception.

    Feeding deer isn’t a good practice in any County/State

    Thank you

  4. John Jongen says:

    Our half-acre residential garden-growing business has been decimated by a herd of some dozen or more white-tailed deer, attracted here by neighbors’ deer-feeding stations. This year’s losses alone include our entire Hosta garden collections and a stand of twenty prized Koussa Dogwood saplings. Even tax deductions and insurance would not begin to compensate for these losses. Morally too deer feeding can be averted to benefit the overall health of deer. Besides, it is illegal to feed deer in NY State (except for Sullivan County in the Catskills). We try to be good neighbors….

  5. Valerie says:

    Many deer died in one area in WNY
    several years ago. The NYSDEC cut them open and I saw undigested corn in their stomachs. Their bone marrow was red and gelatinous. I was told this is indicative of starvation. When I see the deer on my property during nasty winters I have to fight the urge to feed them but then remember the deer that I had seen with full stomachs but still had died from starvation.

    • Boreas says:


      Yes, it is tough. In the NE this time of year, virtually all deer are “starving” in a way. In essence, their metabolism naturally switches over from digesting plant material to burning their fat reserves as Tim_Brunswick mentioned above. Often, their fate is sealed in late fall and early winter – if they were not able to fatten up sufficiently by then (due to lack of food or overpopulation), they go into deep winter with a deficit they can never make up. Their fat stores just won’t make it through, even if the weather turns nice for a while. But they still have the urge to eat even though they can’t really digest much. Early this fall I was seeing deer that were already “poor” with ribs showing. Their fluffed-up winter coat makes it less obvious in winter, but the odds are against these animals – especially if they have to move around often because of predators and snowfall.

    • AG says:

      Weak and starved deer provide a lot of nutrition for predators and scavengers in the winter. It might seem harsh to us – but that is the natural cycle.

  6. Kevin Rego says:

    Areas of the Adirondacks need to be clear cut in 3-5 acre tracks so new growth will grow, this will help with the deer management and provide food and cover for many animals and birds. Having so much of the Adirondacks in mature forest looks great but provides very little for the wildlife to survive in.

    • AG says:

      Most “natural” forests have fires and other natural processes which allows them to renew themselves… It also is better for the soil than just “clear cutting”… Some fires need to be allowed to burn themselves out.

  7. Kevin Says says:

    Areas of the Adirondacks need to be clear cut in 3-5 acre tracks so new growth will grow, this will help with the deer management and provide food and cover for many animals and birds. Having so much of the Adirondacks in mature forest looks great but provides very little for the wildlife to survive in.

    • Boreas says:


      That would certainly work – but this would assume we want an even larger deer herd in the Park. Do we?? Just having large numbers of deer is not necessarily a good thing. They have to BE and REMAIN in balance with the environment. This means proper numbers of predators and habitat to keep the population in check. At that point, we shouldn’t need to artificially “manage” the population by cutting timber. Whitetail deer are not in any danger of extinction. I don’t see the necessity to increase their numbers – especially if top predators like wolves and mountain lions do not exist here.

  8. marilyn wilson says:

    CWD was detected in several captive deer in Oneida County in 2005. Measures were taken to stop the spread and no deer have tested positive for CWD since 2005

  9. AG says:

    Ungulates don’t need “help” from humans. God’s creation works well without our negative interference. The only “help” they need is us not destroying too much of their habitat and harvesting too many of them. Weak undulates are a major food source for natural predators in the winter. Human feeding them only messes up the cycle and only brings predators closer to people’s homes and/or livestock

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