Deer in Winter
Updated: Feb 16
A new miniseries for the Holiday Season! "Deer in Winter"--a look into what it takes to survive, in 6 brief posts. Do you ever wonder what it's like to be an animal, out in the elements, drenched by rain, baked in the heat, or snow piling up on your head? What would this mule deer buck have to say on the subject? He'd probably acknowledge it starts with being warm-blooded. Meaning his cells, hormones, and metabolism are adjusted to run all the time. His thermostat is set on high, his pipes are winterized, and his body added some extra insulation just in time for the cold. And you better believe his heating bill is high at the end of the month!
Happy New Year! and Part 2 in this miniseries. How do they do it? Surviving temperatures that drop below 0 degrees F? Getting by on twigs and dry weeds? Especially at a time when they need more food than ever...food as fuel to keep their internal fires burning hot when it's so cold outside. Particularly in a season when predators know they're at their most vulnerable: hungry, weak, and foundering when the snow gets deep. Well, they have a system that's based on teamwork. They watch out for each other, and for the dangers that lurk. They learn from each other what is good to eat, they break trail for each other. They teach each other the best ways to get through the rough and rocky landscape. And if all that fails, they count on one another to be the slower one, the less attentive one, the one that gets caught. It's not so different than the office where you work!
Wintertime, and the living is easy... Usually not the case, but on the occasional snow-free, sunny day, with your mom close by, yes it can be. Part 3 in "Deer in Winter" miniseries. Why do you suppose big fawns like this one keep following their mothers around, long after they've been weaned? They still count on Mom for a lot of learning. Especially when it comes to what to eat. Mule deer are landscape epicures--they have discriminating tastes. Like the fussiest of human gourmands, they nose through the vegetation, taking parts of some plants, avoiding others, only eating certain species during certain seasons...it can amount to over 100 different kinds of plants. Why so picky? Because plants fight back, with thorns, stickers, poisons, avoidance tactics. And if the deer messes up, the consequences can be big...think tongue full of cactus spines, rumen full of toxins, or not enough food to fuel the microbes they count on. In winter, when the pickings are slim, Mom showed this fawn it's ok to lick up the juniper berries from the duff for a nutritious snack. Moms are the best.
Part 4... it's time for the Cellulose Challenge! Could you eat mouthfuls of twigs, bark, stringy fibers and such, and stoke your inner fires with it? Undoubtedly not, but deer can! It's one of their survival secrets, and extra important in the winter when the nice, soft green vegetation has disappeared, and all that's left is the hard stuff. Think how you struggle to get through a plate of vegetables, even after it's cooked--that's because your body is dealing with plant cell walls, filled with undigestable cellulose...it's what we call fiber. Deer are experts in this department. They run sophisticated breweries, employing microbes to break down the cellulose mammals can't, but only after it's gone through processing. Which is the deer's job. He carefully selects the raw materials that get delivered to the brewery, but he's got to harvest them quickly, gulping them down before moving on to a nice safe spot. Then he can lie down and get to processing. Up comes the wad of collected vegetation from his fermentation vat, and he carefully chews it up. Back down it goes, now mixed with saliva and broken into little bits. The microbes get to work breaking apart the cellulose molecules, and reproducing like bacteria and yeast do. Product (a stew of volatile fatty acids, other nutrients and bacteria) drifts to the bottom of the tank, and if it passes quality control, it's on its way to the absorption rooms. Bottom line? It's a sure way to win the Cellulose Challenge and make a living off a challenging landscape.
Part 5 in "Deer in Winter". I'm always amazed how quiet something as big as a mule deer can be. That's one way they get through winter, stealthily appearing then melting away. It helps to have something for them to melt away into, and that thing is known as "cover" among wildlife biologists. Cover can be trees, tall bushes, even big rocks--it just needs to be high enough to hide them from a predator. Good cover also provides some relief from the elements, shelter from the wind, a little protection from the cold. You've probably seen a deer panic and bounce away toward the trees, then stop a few feet in. That's because it knows darn well you're probably not going to give chase, that you can't see it well any more, that it's put a little buffer of protection between itself and you. And it's probably weighing why it should run again unless it really has to, when calories are hard to come by. Especially in the winter through the snow. It's thinking the trees between you and it give it the upper hand. To us, those trees may not look like much, but to the deer, they are home base in the game of survival.
Part 6 Series Finale. Combine winter with shallow snow, shrubs, wild country, urban interface, peaceful places, and the West, and what do you get?--mule deer. They are our most ubiquitous ungulate in much of the western U.S. And how do they do it? They have their ways down, honed to perfection, and deserving of our respect. Whether it's careful regulation of their high body temperature, their social nature, their extensive knowledge of plants, their fermentation partnership with microbes, or their cunning use of cover and habitat, deer have it figured out. It's no doubt taken thousands of years of trial and error. Eliminating the loner genes, the genetic variants that drove some to keep running long after danger had passed, the traits that dulled senses of smell and taste. Not just the process of elimination, but the doubling down on helpful genes. Those that thickened their winter coats, enlarged their parabolic ears, gave them extra musculature to bound through snow and brush.
Mule deer: they are a perfect expression of the West. Perfectly adapted for its prickly, tough-love qualities. Subtly beautiful, yet designed to blend in. Like an elegant, high performance car. And sadly, that is the one thing about winter that they haven't figured out--our lethal cars.
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