The December woods can be a desolate place.

The trees are bare, save for a few beech leaves rattling in protest against the biting cold wind. The small forest mammals that scurried about furtively amid the leaf litter in November have gone to sleep for the winter, except for those few red squirrels hardy enough to continue taunting the orange-clad intruders.

The end of another deer season is near, but not yet here. A few bold men and women will take advantage of the one week remaining for bowhunters in the expanded archery zones and muzzle-loading hunters in wildlife management districts in southern and central Maine. If you’re among them, it helps to know what your quarry is up to this time of year.

Deer are ruminants. They feed actively for a relatively brief period to fill the first compartment of their complex four-chambered stomach, called the rumen. Eventually they’ll move off to bed, where they’ll regurgitate a cud of partially digested food and ruminate (re-chew it) to further break down the plant matter and stimulate digestion.

Time spent ruminating can vary with the type of food consumed, but often takes longer in late fall and winter when the deer’s diet consists largely of coarse, woody fiber, which is more difficult to digest. That means with colder weather, scarcer food and the breeding season over, deer will spend even less time on their feet. The trick then is to catch them during brief bouts of feeding, or traveling to and from feeding areas.

Now more than ever, finding food concentrations becomes important for both hunter and hunted. Both bucks and does will seek out the most nutritious foods – those that provide the highest caloric content. That means hard mast like acorns or beechnuts, remnant standing crops like unharvested corn or late-season food plots.

Where those aren’t abundant, deer will feed largely on woody browse, which is readily available in cut-overs. Fresh cuts may have downed tops, from which the deer will glean the terminal twigs and branches.

In slightly older cuts the hardwood stumps will produce stump sprouts, an abundant source of browse until they grow too tall for deer to reach.

Deer also may try to burn as few calories as possible – one way is by bedding in areas more protected from the elements. Increasingly they’ll seek the cover of dense softwoods, which break the wind and later will reduce snow cover on the ground. In hilly terrain they may also seek out south-facing slopes with the greatest exposure to the warm rays of the sun.

There they’ll stay and ruminate until the sun dips below the trees and their bellies are in need of refilling. Then they’ll rise to their feet and venture out again into the desolate woods. If you’ve done your homework, you’ll know where they’re going and maybe get one last crack before it’s time to hang up the gun or bow for another season.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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