Deer were gathered at the ice’s edge.
Deer cross our lake in all seasons, moving back and forth from an island opposite our home. They swim until ice covers the water, and then they travel on foot. I often see them at dusk, lined up like kids headed for recess. But on this day, it was one p.m., an odd time to see deer in the open.
Two deer started the crossing. They walked for ten or fifteen seconds and then switched to a sprint. Another deer followed suit. My spotting scope was trained on that third deer when he abruptly halted. He slipped and skidded before coming to a full stop. I looked up from the scope for a wider view and saw what had spooked him.
The leaders had fallen through the ice.
The water is shallow where the two deer fell, and they were able to push—just barely—with their rear legs. The ice crumbled as they bobbed. I watched for a few seconds and then did my own sprint, a frantic search for our local Department of Natural Resources’ phone number. Would they—could they—help? I never found out. In the few minutes it took me to locate that number, both deer’s stamina gave out.
I wrestled with sharing this sad story. But as always, what I witnessed left me with questions. Most remain unanswered, so perhaps someone reading this will have insights to share.
Here’s what puzzles me: Do deer recognize the inherent peril of ice travel? I’ve seen them walk short distances and turn back, so some kind of judgment is in play. But it’s imperfect, as I saw.
I also wonder what a deer understands. Deer #3 stopped in his tracks the instant the leaders crashed through the ice. Then he turned back and disappeared into the shoreline woods. Did he understand the island trail would be treacherous for all? Or just that there were no more leaders to follow?
And how do deer survive our bitter winter weather? A few weeks ago, I saw another deer fall through the ice. That fortunate fellow escaped in less than a minute, but he was soaked in frigid water. The air was 19 degrees. Here he is as he frees himself.
Happily, these accidents are rare. Here’s a montage that will give you a sense of the many successful crossings I see each winter.
Before sitting down to write, I read about deer survival strategies. What I learned goes well beyond what I expected.
I imagined that deer step up their fall eating, consuming lots of high-energy acorns to build fat. I didn’t know that deer have what’s called an obligatory weight response—they convert food to fat before winter regardless of the quality of their nutrition.
I knew that deer put on winter overcoats. I didn’t know those hairs are hollow. They insulate, of course. But they also absorb solar heat and transmit it to the undercoat next to the skin.
One other winter survival strategy was definitely not new to me. Deer love hemlock, a tender and apparently tasty evergreen that’s available year-round. To be precise, the local deer love OUR hemlocks. Here’s the proof, from our trail cam.
Despite my hemlock resentment, I do admire these amazing animals. To reach those trees, they scale the steep bluff between our home and the lake (70 vertical steps for us humans). They cross our wooded lot, stroll down our driveway, and feast on the street-side buffet. In the trail-cam photo, you can see them inside the (non-electric) barrier wires Bert installed on the advice of evergreen growers.
Installed more than once, that is. Sometimes the deer get pushy, as they did here.
Here are some resources that helped me write this post.
An article from North American Whitetail magazine.
And from Tufts University.
Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.