Deer struggling to survive in wintry conditions

The trimmings are in the trash by now, and the venison has been transformed into steaks, hamburger and bologna.

We all secretly figured that we would pay for the spring-like weather we had the first week of rifle deer season and were we ever right!

A few hardy hunters will venture out in this snowy environment to hunt for deer in the after-Christmas season, but most of us have had to go back to work or school or are struggling with the hardships and inconvenience the white stuff has caused. Especially in the Erie area.

Fifty inches plus of snow with more on the way. Will anyone venture out just now to hunt in the woods around Erie? The deer would have a hard time even walking in that much snow and an even harder time digging in it to find acorns or wild grapes. If they can’t find some browse sticking out above that snow, they will get mighty hunger in a short time.

For wild creatures, these next months are simply an ugly struggle for survival. The snowstorm of last week made life much more difficult for them than for us. The “pretty” deer we admired last summer, that were standing in the middle of a far off field grazing on clover are now yarded-up in the snow somewhere just trying to survive. Most will be hungry. Their food is buried under huge snow banks or ice that they cannot dig through.

You don’t navigate the outdoor world long before you see that Mother Nature is a cruel, feisty lady who doesn’t care at all about individual specimens in the animal and bird world. Her mandate is “survival of the fittest” and she doesn’t care much about how many survive, only that enough do to perpetuate the species.

Deer and squirrels are not singing or dancing around mushrooms, they are hunkered down, hoping to evade foxes that would eagerly have them for lunch, the domestic dogs or coyotes that will run them down in the deep snow and hamstring them and begin tearing at their flesh while they are still alive. Despite the delusional scenes on Christmas cards, there is no way you will ever find a fox and a rabbit seeking shelter under the same pine tree. In real life, the fox and owl would be competing to get the rabbit and cardinal for supper.

When snow is deep and ice covers much of the food supply as it does now, the wild pecking order prevails. The buck eats first; the doe next and if there is anything left after that, the fawn may eat. The doe will kick away her fawn if food is scarce. Which is why the young of most species are the first to starve. Mother Nature operates only so the species will survive. She has no concern or “love” for individual animals. Every wild creature has something it chases, kills and eats and something that chases, kills and eats it.

The hunter is at the top of this pecking order. Hunting seasons are, in fact, a regulated, humane way to harvest excess animals from the woods, creatures that would not survive a winter if food supplies are scarce. And frankly, on most State Game Lands around the state, food is in short supply. Deer are browsers and if there is anything to browse on sticking up above the snow line, and they can make their way through the deep snow, they’ll be OK for another little while.

Much depends on the severity of the winter. Healthy animals in a healthy habitat that is not stressed by over-populations are quite hardy. If snow crusts over, turkeys can walk about in top of it looking for Japanese Barberry, wild grapes and other fruits, and dogwood berries. Icy, crusted snow is tough for deer however, They slip and fall on it, breaking legs and pelvises, lying for weeks dying of starvation slowly or painfully or as easy lunch for coyotes.

Deer can dig around in fluffy snow to find acorns and other browse but deep, fluffy snow is dangerous to turkeys. They fly down from the roost into it and then cannot get purchase to fly out of it again. Grouse will dive-bomb into a snow bank for shelter but if the snow glazes with ice overnight, the grouse cannot escape.

Then there are the stressors that humans inflict on winter-weakened wildlife. Some folks think it is great fun to chase deer in the snow with their machines until the animals collapse. But they are probably dooming that animal to a slow death by depleting its energy reserves.

Dogs love to chase deer and do it with relish in the winter. Most deer-chasing dogs are pets who are near the stove on cold winter nights and eat Purina by day but who are allowed outside for long periods and fulfill their natural instincts by chasing animals. Many pet owners refuse to believe their Fido would chase deer but just about any dog will chase deer if the temptation arises.

Wildlife has few benefactors. They simply must endure as best they can, whatever comes their way.

Someday, the Bible promises, the wolf shall lie down with the lamb. Until then, the wolf stalks and eats the lamb, the fox eats the grouse, the owl preys on turkeys, the coyote ravages deer, the hawk pounces on mice. Boar bears kill their offspring if given half a chance.

Not pretty is it? Animals act on instinct, not emotion. Their struggle is to survive, however they have to do it. Hunters are simply a part of the natural predator-prey cycle on which the outdoor world operates. That’s reality, not Disney.