The central New York winters of 2007 and 2008 provided many opportunities to observe and photograph wildlife behavior in deep snow. I had my first digital camera, a Nikon Cool Pix 5700, and deer and turkeys were plentiful near home. I managed to get a few photos, but not enough. I didn’t feel a sense of urgency then, because frequent snow storms and persistent snow cover of a foot or more were common. That hasn’t been the case in recent years. I had to tap into those archived point-and-shoot photos to complete this story!
Heavy snow in late winter can be very stressful on deer and turkeys, especially when it follows long periods of continuous snow cover. When this occurs, the search for food may override other survival instincts such as the avoidance of humans. In the snow belt, most of the available, naturally-occurring food supply is severely depleted by February. This is particularly true of woody browse for deer within five or six feet of the ground and persistent seeds and fruits for turkeys. Adding to the dilemma is the fact that fat reserves are depleted too, metabolism is increasing with the longer days, and many adult white-tail does are nourishing fetuses.
I’ve been pruning several dozen wild apple trees on my property, because they’re badly in need of crown cleaning and structural pruning, but also to feed deer and rabbits. Of the hundreds of branches and twigs on the ground, virtually all have been browsed by deer and roughly 20% have been browsed and stripped of their bark by cottontails. In some cases, deer have re-browsed the apple twigs well beyond the slender, nutritious twig ends. The rabbits will continue to feed on the twigs and bark for the remainder of the winter.
The remaining photos were taken in late February (23 and 24), 2007, soon after a 20 inch snowfall. Mindful of the need to avoid disturbing deer and turkeys at this time of year and adding to their stress, I stayed in my vehicle. I was over 120 feet away, partially concealed by the local community church and a nearby storage building. Wild animals tend to be tolerant of vehicles and I tried to use that to my advantage.
The following day, a small flock of turkeys joined the deer, searching the small patches of bare ground at the base of the crater-like holes dug out by the deer. It seems that the energy expended by deer to excavate these holes would far outweigh the food value at the bottom. The only apparent advantage to this behavior that I see is the exposure of the dark plants and soil to solar radiation, which would accelerate melting and increase the availability of food.