The Heart of New England
"Wild" Ideas for Surviving New England Winters
By Margaret Gillespie

We live in New England so we have winter all figured out, right?  

Deep down, I think many of us would admit that we have a least a few things to learn about our coldest
season, and from what better source than some of the wild creatures that have been New Englanders long
before this place got its name?  At the very least, wildlife can remind us of the things we should be doing
to better benefit from these snowy months.

Our primary focus here is on the ungulates or hoofed mammals, specifically the even-toed ungulates that
inhabit New Hampshire, and what they can show us about winter survival.  

Yes, we will explore the winter habits of moose and white-tailed deer. Here are some "wild" thoughts!


The coats of moose and deer change dramatically with the onset of fall.  With deer we notice the color
change from rusty red of summer to thick grays, but more important things are happening with this
pelage difference.  Thick dense undercoats grow, hidden by long guard hairs that incorporate a special
ingredient -- air.  Air is a good insulator and, of course, there is more room for it if the hair is raised.  
Moose guard hairs, hollow and air-filled, may be 10 inches long, resulting in excellent insulation, while
those of deer average two inches in length.  People can benefit from insulation too, in our homes, our
jackets and, so easily forgotten, our hats.  Hats slow heat from radiating from our heads where a rich
supply of warm blood circulates in our scalps.  Up to 50 percent of our radiant heat loss can be from an
uncovered head!

Reduce and recycle!

Why have excess baggage at any time of the year? Antlers in male deer and moose emerge in April, grow
rapidly over the summer covered by velvet, and are transformed when the velvet is scraped off into
magnificent displays of strength during the fall rutting season.  Moose antlers in particular are especially
impressive with some spanning five feet from tip to tip and weighing up to 70 pounds.  In deer, we
cannot tell the age by the number of points on the antlers; in general, healthy adult bucks have the most
developed antlers.  After the rut, the level of testosterone declines significantly and the antlers, now
unneeded, fall or are rubbed off, often in early winter, leaving the small pedicle where the new antler will
grow next spring.  

Recycling?  Porcupines, deer mice and other forest rodents eagerly chew the antlers to get the calcium
and other minerals they hold.  On a different reduction topic, moose in particular can be infested with
many thousands of winter ticks, sapping energy through blood loss and through extra grooming which
removes fur as well as ticks.  A recycling market may be difficult in this case.

Eat locally!

Moose and deer do not have the choice between Spanish oranges and Chilean grapes or foods grown in
New England.  However they do conserve energy by finding food within their natural communities even
though this means switching to different and often less palatable food sources.  In summer deer may be
seen snipping green shoots of grass and moose may be observed diving for aquatic plants, but in winter
they become browsers or eaters of twigs and buds.  Preferred deer foods include white cedar, hemlock
and maple and deer need about 5 to 9 pounds of food per day.  

In contrast, moose consume about 40 pounds of food each day in winter and often feed on willows,
balsam fir and aspen.  Moose will readily eat bark and, in fact, get their name from a Native American
word meaning, “animal that strips bark off trees.”

Conserve energy!

Deer regularly gather in “deer yards” in the winter -- areas often with coniferous cover where the snow is
less deep and there is protection from wind, but where browse may be limited.  As with us, energy is
saved by traveling on packed trails. Moose “yards” are much less common and usually the result of
deep, crusty snow.  Both deer and moose respond to winter by maintaining a lower metabolism than in
summer; thus they require less food.  The ungulates’ four-chambered stomach with its special microbes
and these animals’ ability to chew their regurgitated cud enable them to get the most out of their food.  
More time is spent lying down to prevent heat loss and solar heat is used especially in late winter.

Some wild suggestions may be more popular than others, but a good way to keep warm in winter is an
energetic walk, snowshoe or cross-country ski, especially enjoyable under the brilliant blue skies of
winter.  Be sure to keep a look out for those characteristic tracks made by split hooves that tell you a deer
or moose found this a good path to follow too.

About the author: Margaret Gillespie is a naturalist at the
Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, Holderness, New Hampshire,  
a private, nonprofit organization opening a window to the natural world.
The Heart of New England
Celebrating the unique character & culture of Maine ~ New Hampshire ~ Vermont
©The Heart of New England online magazine
...celebrating the unique character & culture of Maine, New Hampshire & Vermont!
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