Craig’s deer neighbors: How do they stay warm? |

Craig’s deer neighbors: How do they stay warm?

Three deer pause in the snowy prairie.
Billy Schuerman / For the Craig Press

For most of the Mountain West, heavy snow squalls and frigid winds mean staying inside, cuddling up under a blanket and possibly lighting the home’s fireplace in order to escape the cold. However, some of our furry friends outdoors may not be so lucky.

It’s not uncommon to see deer casually grazing in front yards throughout Craig no matter what time of the year it is. So how do they keep warm — even in subzero temperatures?

According to the Colorado Department of Education’s state library, larger mammals like deer and big game still live in mountain regions, but they often migrate to south-facing slopes. During colder months, the animals move to lower elevations, often along south-facing slopes that provide more sunlight, shallower snow depths and more food sources. With fresh grasses unavailable, big game animals change their diets during winter to feed on woody shrubs.

“Deer also typically seek areas that are more sheltered in which to rest and eat, such as stands of coniferous trees that maintain their needles during the winter and allow snow to build up, both of which help provide some wind resistance and possibly cover,” Tufts wildlife and conservation researcher Chris Whittier wrote. “These areas, sometimes known as ‘deer yards,’ may encompass many — if not hundreds — of acres, providing shelter for lots of deer.”

A pair of real deer, left, look in the direction of a statuesque antlered friend — or foe perhaps? — in Craig.
Billy Schuerman / For the Craig Press

Usually deer can comfortably survive the winter by eating their usual diet of twigs, stems, grasses and other plants wherever they typically would find them, as well as by supplementing with high-calorie foods such as nuts, fruits and even mushrooms.

“Because deer are generally browsers, like goats, and not grazers, like cows or sheep, they do not need to get under the snow to eat, though they can and sometimes will,” Whittier wrote.

Deer’s hair is hollow, which allows their fur to trap air and retain heat. Gaps between window panes or a quilt sewn together can keep someone warm in the winter, and deer fur works in the same way. Heat stays trapped in while cold air is kept out. In addition to trapping more body heat in hollow hairs, a deer’s winter coat absorbs more sunlight. Their skin also produces an oil that makes their fur water repellent, providing protection against cold, wet snow.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, it’s common for certain types of deer to modify behavior, as well.

“​​When the weather is particularly harsh, deer act just like we do: They hunker down, sometimes staying in place for days,” a report from the NWF reads. “But unlike us, deer don’t have a steady supply of food while hunkered down, so they instead rely on their fat stores to help them survive.”

For elk, the large animals’ winter coat consists of two layers: thick, long guard hairs and a dense undercoat. On the inside, guard hairs look like a honeycomb. Thousands of tiny air pockets fill each hair, making them waterproof and warm. This warm winter coat is so thick it can keep snow from melting on an elk’s back.

“Elk can make their hair stand on end, trapping more air and creating an even thicker coat,” a report from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation reads. “They also tuck their legs beneath them when they lie down so they lose less heat through their legs, chest and belly.”

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