The cold winds of winter have arrived. From our toasty warm homes, we gaze out our windows and feel sorry for the deer and other wild creatures foraging for their next meal. We want to help them. So we drive to the local feed store and get a few bags of deer corn.
We place the corn in backyard and watch the deer eagerly eat the corn and feel good thinking we have helped nature survive the winter. But have we?
Before I get into the science of feeding deer corn during the winter, I thought I should be upfront in my opinion on baiting wildlife and supplemental feeding mainly for hunting purposes. But before we go into my thoughts and then the science, let's define and outline the differences between baiting and supplemental feeding, as defined by The Wildlife Society.
Baiting is the act of intentional placing food attractants for the purpose of attracting wildlife to a specific location (single source) to enhance hunter harvest.
Supplemental feeding is the act of intentional placing any food source for use by wildlife on an annual, seasonal, or emergency basis with the intent of improving the condition of individual animals or attracting wildlife to alternate locations to reduce damage to agricultural crops, livestock and timber stands.
Shooting deer over a pile of corn placed in the woods is not my preferred means of deer hunting. Personally, I enjoy solving the puzzle of the woods and seeking out the deer on their terms. I'd rather hunt deer when they are living in a manner that is unaltered in such a way as drawing them in to be shot with the use of a corn pile.
Data from several studies indicate that baiting is not as productive as many hunters believe. Surveys from Wisconsin and Michigan showed that hunters not using bait were more successful than those who did use corn. With that said, In Maryland it is legal to hunt over bait piles and if another hunter wishes to hunt that way, he should feel to do so.
It's just not my thing.
Now with that out of the way, why should we not feed deer corn in the winter time?
One reason is the diseases and parasites associated with baiting and feeding. Feeding and baiting alter deer behavior and increase infectious disease risk by encouraging higher densities and repeated and prolonged animal presence at feeding sites. When an adequately infectious agent is introduced among susceptible animals at a particular threshold density, high contact rates facilitate disease transmission, according to a Technical Review by The Wildlife Society.
The biology of it — studies have shown that it takes two to four weeks of feeding on a new food source for deer to establish the microorganisms necessary to obtain nutrients from that food. The time and energy it takes to convert to new microorganisms uses precious fat reserves that could have been spared if the deer had fed continually on natural winter browse.
Studies, including some in Pennsylvania, have documented the death of wild ruminants (deer) from feeding on highly digestible, high energy, low fiber feed such as corn in winter. This rapid exposure to a concentrated grain diet can cause a fatal disruption of the animal's acid-base balance. Those that survive the immediate effects often die in the days or weeks that follow, due to secondary complications of the disease.
Basically when we set out corn for the deer to eat during the winter, we help foster the spread of disease through the increased contact between the deer and because the deer's stomachs are not able to handle the corn, they often die from eating the introduced the new food source.
But what about those deer that live in the Corn Belt and eat corn all the time, why don't they get sick and die. That is because the deer's stomachs in that region continue to have the microorganisms to handle the corn. It is the diet change from high-fiber woody browse to low-fiber, high-carbohydrate foods that initiates significant changes in rumen micro flora and reduces rumen mobility which, in turn, causes indigestion, dehydration, diarrhea, toxemia, ataxia, and death.
Winter deer mortality will never be eliminated. It is nature's way of ensuring that only the strongest of the species survive to reproduce. At the beginning of winter, deer instinctively reduce their food intake. During that time deer rely heavily on fat reserves and their ability to conserve energy. They travel less and seek protection in cover where snow is less deep, wind is less severe and temperatures are warmer.
Any activity that causes increased energy demands can harm deer by compelling them to waste essential fat reserves. Supplemental feeding can cause deer to expend more energy by coercing them to travel farther and more often, and can increase winter starvation by luring in more animals than the feed can support. In one study, feeding was found to increase the winter death rate from 25 to 42 percent.
According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Supplemental feeding can lower the quality of the herd by enabling less fit individuals to avoid selective, natural winter culling. High concentrations of wildlife at feeding sites also attract predators. Animals expending energy to avoid those predators burn fat reserves that would have otherwise enabled them to survive the winter.
If we want to help the deer survive winter, the best thing we can do is improve the habitat in which they live all year all. Next time we will look at the things we can do to improve the local deer habitat.