Fresh tracks frozen in the November snowpack reveal where, earlier this morning, a doe and two fawns browsed on raspberry canes, red maple stump suckers, and selected mushrooms. Following their meandering trail, I also observed where the deer dug through the snow in order to find some ferns, pawed away the leafy tops with their hooves, and ate the carbohydrate-rich rhizomes.
When their brief feeding bout was over, the doe led her offspring up-slope several hundred yards to a hemlock knoll thick with thermal and concealment cover. Three oval-shaped bed sites pockmarked the snow where the deer lay for several hours while they rested and digested their food. The adaptive advantage of foraging and resting in this way is brilliant. At opportune times, day and night, a deer can feed and then retire to a secluded bed in order to minimize exposure to energy-draining weather conditions and lessen its vulnerability to predators.
The digestion of the morning’s food may take as much as 30 hours and largely occurs while the deer are lying down, resting, chewing their regurgitated cud, then resting some more. A deer’s four-chambered stomach works upon the plant’s otherwise indigestible cellulose and lignin. Billions of microfauna break down and ferment the contents of the rumen, making nutrients available from the fibrous plant material. During winter, while curled within an insulating snow bed, a deer’s digestive activities ameliorate the deepest cold; inside its body core a microbial furnace warms the animal from within.
Finding and studying deer beds is great fun, providing, of course, that we don’t disturb the occupants. On dry ground, look for compressed leaves, vegetation, grasses, or soil. Circle the bed site to backlight the spot you are examining. The angled sun will enhance the visibility of the bed because the flattened surface reflects the light differently than the surrounding area. Look closely: sometimes telltale deer hairs can be found within the bed. In snow, a bed or cluster of beds will offer legible stories for interpretation and appreciation. First, notice that roughly one-third of the bed’s sidewall will be smooth and concave. This corresponds to where the deer’s rump and lower back were pressed. Feel this smooth area and knock on it with your fist. If the bed was vacated hours or even days before, and temperatures were below freezing, the sidewall will become frozen solid. The warm body of the cervid releases moisture from the snow, which subsequently becomes as hard as ice.
Now that you can discern where the rump and back were, look for the imprint of forelegs that were bent at the knees and folded under the body. Knee and leg impressions help us visualize the position of the deer while bedded. Sometimes hind leg impressions will show as well. If the deer was a rutting buck, we may find dark stains on the snow from the tarsal glands, located on the insides of the hind legs at the hocks. Finally, we teach our Keeping Track students to feel the base of the bed for the “standup tracks.” If fresh snow has covered the bed-site details, use your fingers to probe though to the bed’s hard base until you find the frozen tracks made when the deer stood up to exit the bed.
Multiple beds show where a number of deer lay down and rested near one another, but that’s not all. If you inspect each bed, and determine the direction each occupant faced, you’ll find that the deer faced in different directions, maximizing their collective coverage of forest surroundings with their eyes, ears, and legendary noses.
Susan C. Morse is founder and program director of Keeping Track in Huntington, Vermont.