And now more on why winter sucks for animals, because I pride myself in being relevant, give or take two weeks and ignoring the actual definition of “relevance.”
Conventionally, we say that animals evolve to adapt to their environments, but that’s not always entirely true. What matters is that animals adapt to the worst of their environments. Imagine a verdant field somewhere in the deepest part of the forest. Now, this place is deer-Eden most of the year. There are no natural predators. The ground is littered with buffets of fruits and flowers. There is a parking lot, packed with cars that only deer can operate, and stupid little humans run about waiting to be crushed under deer-fenders.
Imagine you are a deer and you stumble upon this place. “Finally,” you think to yourself, “here is a place I can settle down and raise my family. At last, Martha will be able to quit her job at the textile factory and focus on painting, like she’s always wanted to. Little Timothy won’t have to worry anymore about those bullies taking his lunch on the way to school. Also, I can go around rubbing my head on branches and stuff, because I am a deer, and that is what we do.”
But then, suddenly, something changes. For one week, the field is transformed into a pitiless hellscape. Flowers turn into bear traps when you touch them. Hunters assault you at every turn. Armies of wolves drive in on Humvees to play shuffleboard with your corpses. Martha is killed; little Timothy dies of starvation. You are left wounded and alone by the time the chaos ends.
The point of all this is to say: it does not matter if you can survive through the 51 weeks of paradise. Anyone can. What makes a difference, in terms of adaptation, is the deer who can make it through that final, brutal week. That’s why, after a few generations, the deer in this imaginary field aren’t going to be your average, frozen-in-the-headlights breed; they’re going to be Rambo-Terminator-deer with titanium antlers and steel hooves who don’t take none of your headlights’ sass.
Winter—yes, I was going to get back to it eventually—is the hellscape which molds most deerboys into deermen. It’s a bottleneck that keeps the weak from surviving. As I mentioned last week, the greatest challenge for deer is not the cold but the scarcity of food. They go in with well-stocked fat reserves, but they can expect to lose most of it in the following months. If those months are hard enough, many will die, especially the fawns. In fact, according to the Maine government, “Consecutive severe winters can reduce recruitment by 90 percent.” Presumably, they’re talking about general additions to the deer population, and not an underground militia that we need to start worrying about.
There’s nothing we can do about it. Okay, it might seem like there is something we can do about it (“feed the deer”), but I’m here to tell you that like most human efforts to help the environment, that’s an idea that almost definitely will go terribly, terribly wrong.
First of all, whatever you intend to feed the deer, it probably isn’t “aspen or willows.” That matters. Deer don’t digest food on their own; they have micro-organisms in their stomachs that do the work for them for certain types of vegetation. If you’re giving them hay, chances are those micro-organisms are going to react the same way you would if someone dumped hay on your plate.
Okay, say those bacteria do adjust. Now you’ve got a lot of deer coming to one place, all going after the same food source. This is the deer equivalent of a middle school boys’ locker room, in that it’s chock-full of competitive, vicious creatures and simmering with disease. The stronger deer are going to make sure the others don’t get enough—even if those others would have stood a chance on their own, in the wild—and the mass gathering of animals means disease spreads much more quickly. Soon your backyard is going to look like that scene in Monty Python where they collect the dead, except nobody’s picking up your deer carcasses.
If you do somehow manage to give the deer edible food, prevent all disease, and convince them to share, congratulations. You are going to have an overpopulation problem, and I hope you enjoy deer feeding enough to quit your day job and satisfy the droves that will show up at your doorstep next winter.
Let this be a lesson to you: usually, natural selection is the best kind of selection. So just let nature do its work.