DNR biologist: Now isn’t the time to start feeding deer  

Northwoods Notebook

Though well suited to endure such conditions, even this male common redpoll looks tired of the lingering winter. (Betsy Bloom/Daily News photo)

The dire news from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources that the prolonged winter could take a heavy toll on the Upper Peninsula deer herd may tempt some to begin feeding the animals in earnest.

However well-meaning, that could doom the deer more than hunger and cold, DNR officials said.

Each winter, white-tailed deer have to rely on fat reserves built up during the fall, a slowed-down metabolism and a switch from green growth to being able to digest woody browse. That combination normally is enough to see most of them through a normal winter.

But now is the most vulnerable time, when the reserves are gone, much of the woody browse in their wintering yards consumed and the snow still too deep to move to new grazing sites without expending precious energy.

Last weekend’s storm likely will prove too much for a number of deer, especially fawns that had less reserves to draw on and are more taxed trying to struggle through snow. It’s a sad turn, as much of the deer in the region were judged in good to excellent condition only a month ago.

Yet dishing up corn is not a solution unless that has been a regular part of the deer’s diet through the winter — and even then, a belly full of corn still could be more than the deer’s digestive system can handle.

Most deer right now do not have the gut bacteria to break down the starch in corn, and it can cause acidity that kills other internal microorganisms deer need for digestion, DNR experts said.

“They’ll fill up their stomachs with corn … and they will die,” said Kristie Sitar, a Michigan DNR wildlife biologist from Newberry who was part of the “Ask the DNR” program Thursday on WNMU-TV.

Hay, too, can be difficult for deer in winter to digest. “Deer can have full stomachs of hay,” the Wisconsin DNR warned, “and still die from starvation.”

So what can be done? At this stage, probably little, Sitar said.

“They’re either going to make it,” she said, “or not make it.”

Grim, but that’s a hazard of deer trying to live this far north — winter tends to cull the herd every so often. Let’s hope most were able to hold on to this weekend’s warm-up.

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The spring snowstorm appears to have dealt a blow to a number of migrating songbirds in Wisconsin as well, with reports of robins, northern flickers, eastern bluebirds and woodcocks found dead or emaciated and chilled, wildlife rehabilitators said.

All those species rely heavily on having worms or insects to feed on, and aren’t capable of digging down through the nearly 2 feet or more of snow dumped on the region. Another round, with sleet, swept through mid-week.

While most of these species are able to endure a little spring snow, this has proven to be far too much for those birds unable to find a substitute food source, such as a backyard feeder that provides suet or, better, mealworms or fruit.

Some, such as the woodcocks, are not known for coming to feeders or even foraging underneath them. Others, like purple martins, feed on the wing.

But warmer temperatures should make for a new wave north, so stocking those feeders with a wide array of food — sunflower seeds, suet, peanut chunks, chopped raisins and other fruit, berries and live mealworms — would be beneficial to the new arrivals, said Ryan Brady, Wisconsin DNR conservation biologist in Ashland, Wis.

One small warning: bears are definitely back out in the U.P., so bringing feeders in or making sure they are otherwise out of reach would be advisable, Michigan DNR officials said.

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Local wildlife rehabilitator Phyllis Carlson said she received no calls about birds in distress in the area after the storm, though she was on vacation until early this week. Another rehabilitator who specializes in songbirds, though, received only a couple birds that had been injured, not starving.

What Carlson has gotten turned in are newborn cottontail rabbits — ones so young the eyes have not opened yet, she said. Baby rabbits are frustrating because they rarely survive, even though she has formula specific to them, Carlson said. Sure enough, of the four a woman found on her porch, one still partially in the birth sac, two died before they reached Carlson, another within a short time at her home and the final one overnight.

Still, the start of baby animals in such conditions is another sign our spring is overdue.

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Just a reminder, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan Natural Resources Commission will host a public meeting on chronic wasting disease in deer from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Bay College West, 2801 N. U.S. 2 in Iron Mountain.

The meeting is part of a series throughout the state in April and May on chronic wasting disease, better known as CWD, a fatal central nervous system disease found in deer, elk and moose.

Since May 2015, CWD-positive deer have been found in Clinton, Ingham, Ionia, Kent and Montcalm counties in lower Michigan, with confirmed cases in 57 free-ranging deer in those counties as of January. CWD has not been found in the Upper Peninsula; however, the disease has existed for years in Wisconsin, with one case turning up only about 40 miles from the western Upper Peninsula border.

The meetings will discuss specific CWD management objectives that include: slowing the spread of the disease, achieving a low prevalence rate, preventing the disease from reaching new areas and maintaining Michigan’s rich hunting traditions.

More information is available at michigan.gov/cwd.

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 40, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.

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