Northern whitetails are never in danger of suffering from starvation or a lack of adequate nutrition during spring, summer and fall. Winter is another matter. When snow is belly-deep or deeper to whitetails (see trail of desperately plunging deer in three feet of snow in above photo), while winds are strong, temperatures are far below zero over extended periods and where deep snow lasts well into March or April, many northern whitetails perish as a result of starvation.
In my far-north study area, whether snow covers the ground or not, whitetails suddenly quit feeding on grasses and such about the beginning of the second week in November and begin feeding on thin stems of woody shrubs and certain tree saplings. By this time buds, the most nutritious part of woody stems, have become prominent, such as on red osiers and mountain maples, much relished by whitetails. Red sugar maple saplings bristling from stumps in clearcuts are also much favored. Certain dried leaves, especially those of red oaks which are retained on branches throughout winter, are another favorite winter food. About the end of the third week in December, (earlier if snow is especially deep) all whitetails in my study area migrate to two traditional wintering areas where evergreen cover and favorite browse plants are abundant. About half migrate to a lakeside wintering area where white cedar trees crowd the shoreline. The greenery of these trees has enough nutrition to keep most mature whitetails healthy and fleet enough to survive unending predation by a pack of gray wolves. Once snow is belly deep, whitetails are forced to regularly use a maze of trails within a reduced area (deer yard) so they can be used to outrun pursuing wolves whenever necessary. From this time until snowmelt in spring they are locked in. Older bucks, still weakened by the rut—having used up much of their accumulated fat stores while battling other bucks and because they did not eat regularly while does were in heat—generally become easy deer yard prey for wolves during their seventh winter. Within a deer yard remaining browse stems poking above the snow are soon completely consumed, forcing deer to stand on hind legs to subsist on thin branches of various deciduous trees and remaining reachable greenery in cedars. This is a time when mature whitetails commonly have blood-red chins, caused by using their chins to help maintain their balance while standing on hind legs to feed on branches that can barely be reached. At this point, smaller deer such as fawns and yearling does find it difficult, if not impossible, to reach high enough to feed on remaining edible browse. Each fall, whitetails accumulate thick layers of fat on their bodies, needed to sustain themselves while winter winds are too strong, temperatures are too frigid and/or or snow is too deep and exhausting to plow through to consider leaving their beds to feed. This fat can only keep whitetails alive without feeding through about three weeks of such weather.
Back in the 1960s, my brother, Bob, and I did our best to feed starving whitetails (with ribs showing) in our hunting area that were locked in deeryards by 4–5 feet of snow. It was tough snowshoe work, using bow saws. Whitetails were so desperate for food that they gave up their fear of humans and flocked around us on usable trails as we cut boughs from white cedar trees for them. During one of our many weekends of doing this, we discovered seven dead deer in a yard that had been killed (but not eaten) by a marauding wolf pack. Though furious at first, we eventually realized this gave the remaining deer a much better chance of surviving until spring.
Now then, here’s something for all you hunters who toil to create food plots to benefit whitetails to think about. How much do food plots buried under two or more feet of snow benefit starving whitetails in winter? How much do food plots with plants containing higher amounts of protein (the latest rage) buried under two or more feet of snow benefit starving whitetails in winter? If you really want to grow food that benefits whitetails when they need it most, grow something whitetails normally eat in winter, preferably something tall enough to poke up through deep snow. Red osiers (red bark dogwoods) are a good choice in forest areas. Wild osiers are easy to propagate. All you have to do is prune 1-2 foot long stems from existing wild osiers in spring, which doesn’t harm them in the least, keep your stems in a pail of water until planted and then poke the cut ends into damp soil (preferably in a damp or wet lowland) where they’ll get full sun or partial sun. They’ll all take root and grow and continue growing for many years, feeding lots of grateful deer in winter as long as they are not smothered by second growth quaking aspens (popples).