Now that white-tailed deer hunting seasons have ended throughout most of New York State, it may be tempting to begin feeding deer to “help” them through the winter. However, feeding deer during the winter or other times of the year is unnecessary, prohibited in New York, and can have very negative consequences for deer, your neighbors, and surrounding wildlife habitat.
During the winter, deer mainly rely on woody vegetation (known as woody browse) for their nutritional needs. The digestive enzymes in a deer’s stomach change in the winter to better digest this browse. If deer are provided with unnatural food sources such as corn or hay after this change in diet has occurred, it can result in deer becoming ill or even dying. Deer will eat the unnatural food source, but can develop acidosis (grain overload disease) or enterotoxemia (Clostridium overgrowth) disease because they can’t digest the food properly. Both diseases can result in the rapid illness and death of deer even though their stomachs are full.
Deer also gather around food sources in winter which can increase the risk of spreading disease. For example, if a deer infected with chronic wasting disease (CWD) visits an artificial deer feeding site it will shed CWD prions (protein) in its saliva directly on the food which can infect other deer that feed there. Deer gathering at these sites can also increase the risk for deer-vehicle collisions and deer-related damage to landscape plantings, orchards, and tree farms.
Habitat improvement, especially the creation of shrubland and young forest habitat, is a good way to help deer and other wildlife so they have food to eat all year. For a list of tree and shrub species that deer prefer to eat in winter that you can promote on your property, visit DEC’s winter deer foods page.
Photo at top: Deer in winter. Photo by John Lehmann. Photo courtesy of the NYS DEC.