In winter, Moose prefer to use powder snow areas in mixed forests, under large conifers, as bedding sites. They can rest while standing or when bedding on the ground. When standing, a moose’s head and neck are relaxed but its ears are constantly moving in order to detect sound coming from any direction. When bedded on the ground, a moose’s legs can be tucked under its body or extended (when laying on their side).
A favored resting and sleeping position of antlered bulls is on one side of their body, with legs stretched and one antler touching the ground. Moose have the ability to nearly disappear if they bed down in snow. A bedded moose does not move and looks very much like a stump or rock. When they rise, they often leave shed hairs and scat in the depression they’ve made in the snow.
A large bed with one or two smaller ones indicates a cow and her calves have bedded down together. (Thanks to Kit Emery for photo op.)
If predictions for the future of our climate are accurate, and if no significant measures are taken to counter it, one of the hardest hit animals in North America will be the Moose. While well-adapted to winter conditions, Moose start experiencing heat stress when summer temperatures get above 57°F. Why this intolerance to heat? A highly insulative coat, thick skin and low surface to volume ratio. When faced with very warm summers, Moose start spending more time in the shade, in cool water and in locations with cooling winds. They also frequently move to higher elevations. When it gets really hot, they stop foraging for food during the one season they have to bulk up.
Not only will their chances of survival during the coming winter be compromised as a result of this, but successful reproduction is far less likely. In addition, heat stress can cause lowered immune response which leaves the affected animals more vulnerable to disease and parasites such as winter ticks and brainworm. Adding to these challenges, the make-up of woody plant species in boreal forests will also be affected by warmer temperatures, which in turn will affect both the browsing choices and the availability of shade for Moose.
It is theorized that within the next 100 years temperatures will rise on average 9 – 13°F. in winter and 6 – 14°F. in summer (New Hampshire Fish & Game). On top of that, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire are at the southernmost part of the Moose’s range. The future does not look bright for the largest member of the deer family in the Northeast.
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Moose are in their element during northern New England winters. Their bodies are built for snowy, cold conditions. Moose lose relatively little heat due to their large body which gives them a low surface area-to-volume ratio. Long legs enable them to travel through deep snow. However, when the snow gets to be more than 28 inches deep, the energy expended to find food is not worth it. Under deep snow or crust conditions, moose often seek shelter in stands of conifers where the snow is not as deep and where browse is available.
Conifers are beneficial to moose in yet another way. Moose are able to withstand very cold temperatures –in fact, they become uncomfortable (and have been known to pant) when winter temperatures are higher than 23°F. Their coat consists of long, hollow outer hairs and a dense soft undercoat. Our winter temperatures can be quite variable and moose depend on the shade of coniferous cover to keep them cool during our warmer winter days.
Antlers grow faster than any other mammal bone — a big bull moose can grow an 80-pound rack in a summer, adding a pound of bone a day. While genetics has an influence on antler growth and size, nutrition is by far the most important factor, and males in high quality habitats grow much larger antlers.
In the early stage of growth, antlers are covered with a fuzzy skin called velvet, which contains a tremendous concentration of nerves and as well as a supply of blood. The velvet nourishes the growing antler for about five months, during which time the antlers are extremely sensitive to touch, and if injured, may be permanently misshapen. Eventually, when the bone stops growing, the velvet is shed. Bull moose then use their antlers to attract and fight for mates, as well as to root plants from the pond floor. A month or two after they have served their purpose of securing a mate, antlers are shed.
In moose, antlers may act as large hearing aids. Moose with antlers have far more sensitive hearing than moose without, and a study of antlers (with an artificial ear) confirmed that the antler behaves like a parabolic reflector.
During the winter, white-tailed deer browse on the twigs, buds and bark of trees. Deer have incisors in the front of their bottom jaw, but none in the front of their top jaw, just a hard palate. They grip the bark with their bottom front incisors and scrape their jaw upwards, leaving behind grooves the width of their bottom incisors. Often there are frayed ends of bark at the top end of the groove, due to the deer having to use its hard palate and incisors, rather than two sets of incisors, to separate the bark from the tree. Favorite trees include red and striped maples, oaks, poplar, pines, hemlock, arborvitae and balsam fir.
Rising levels of testosterone circulating in a buck’s blood toward the end of summer results in the maturation of antlers and the drying up of the velvet that was providing nutrients to them. It used to be thought that bucks engaged in rubbing their antlers against saplings at this time of year in order to remove the velvet, but research has shown there is much more behind this behavior. Rubs are visual and olfactory sign posts that transmit important information to other bucks and does in the area prior to and during rut, such as individual buck identification, breeding readiness, age and hierarchy.
The positioning of the antlers against a tree is not random — a buck generally rubs the base of his antlers and his forehead skin against the tree. The skin between antlers contains a multitude of scent-producing skin glands called apocrine glands (humans have them and utilize them during emotional sweating). These glands typically are inactive during the summer months, but in response to rising testosterone levels, they become increasingly active in the fall. The most active glands are found in mature dominant bucks.
Thanks to recent studies we know that more rubs are made in years of good acorn production than in poor mast years. Young bucks appear to make fewer rubs than mature bucks, and they tend to start rubbing much later in the fall (so rubs you find now were most likely made by mature bucks). Research suggests that older bucks may be making more than 1200 rubs during the roughly 90-day rubbing period, which comes to about 15 rubs per day.
Moose spend a great deal of time in and near bodies of water, feeding, cooling themselves and avoiding insects. They are powerful swimmers, exhibiting great speed and endurance. Moose have been observed swimming distances up to 12 miles, and are known to occasionally swim from one point of land to another when the distance is shorter by water than by land. (Adult moose usually swim with only their head out of water, whereas yearlings have most of their back exposed.) Moose can spread their hooves, and this is ability is thought to enhance their paddling skills.
Much of a moose’s summer diet is semi-aquatic and aquatic vegetation, thus they feed near shore as well as in deeper water. Studies have shown that moose will dive as deep as 18 feet to obtain submerged plants. It is slightly unsettling to see them totally disappear for up to nearly a minute while foraging under water!
Animals communicate with their own species through strongly scented chemicals known as pheromones. Many mammals have glands that generate pheromones. The messages the scents convey vary according to the pheromone that is used – they can indicate alarm, territorial boundaries, the age of an animal and/or its sex, hierarchy and the receptiveness of an animal during the breeding season, among other things. White-tailed deer have scent glands where you might not expect them – their heads, legs and feet. Their primary glands and their functions are: forehead (scent left on antler rubs and overhanging branches), preorbital (near eye, doe uses it to communicate with fawns), interdigital (between the two toes of each hoof, foul-smelling yellow substance left on the ground with every step a deer takes), nasal (inside nose, may produce a scent, or may just lubricate the nose), preputial (on inside of buck’s penal sheath, function unknown), tarsal (inside of hind legs near middle joint, urinated on to spread scent, used intensely by bucks during rut) and metatarsal (outside of hind legs between ankle and hoof, function, if any, unknown).
As the moose rutting season comes to a close, signs of their breeding behavior are fewer and not as fresh. The pictured moose wallow, or rutting pit, was most likely created by a bull moose as a means of spreading his pheromones to receptive cows (although cow moose have been known to make them). After scraping the ground, the bull then urinates in the depression and stamps in it to splash the urine on his antlers (“antler perfuming”) and/or lies down in it, soaking the under side of his body, including the dewlap, or bell, that dangles beneath his neck. Every soaked surface serves to advertise his presence to cows in the area. Often the sound that the bull makes splashing the urine attracts cows, who run toward the bull and, by head bobbing and attempting to drink the urine (the sipping sound is attractive to both cows and bulls), encourage him to urinate more. (Thanks to Alfred Balch for photo op.)
During their breeding season, or rut, bull moose display a number of behaviors that are not commonly seen any other time of year, and many of these behaviors leave obvious signs, including broken branches, scraped bark, wallows and tracks. Bulls roam their home ranges, thrashing their antlers back and forth against shrubbery and saplings while leaving their scent. The sound of their antlers beating against vegetation is thought to signal the bull’s dominance to other males, as well as serve to attract females. The pictured broken balsam fir sapling and its frayed bark are evidence of this behavior.
The highlight of a recent trip to Maine was watching a bull moose feed on submerged aquatic vegetation. It would swim a short distance, and then sink, much like a submarine, until only the top of its back was visible, and then it, too, completely disappeared, leaving no sign of a moose. Seconds later the moose’s head would reappear, with its mouth full of green plants. When these plants were consumed, the moose would submerge underwater again and come up with another mouthful. It proceeded to do this at least a dozen times before eventually swimming to shore. When moose are feeding on submerged vegetation they are capable of reaching plants in water over 18 feet deep, and they can remain under water for up to 50 seconds or longer before resurfacing. It’s thought that they remain submerged by paddling and perhaps by releasing air from their lungs.
If you walk in many of New England’s woods, it is likely that you will come upon deer tracks. If the snow isn’t deep enough to keep the deer confined to one area, or “yard,” such as this year, then tracks can often be found throughout the woods. Where there are tracks, there are also beds – spots, often on higher ground, where deer bed down for the night. By looking at the edges of the indentation left when a deer lies down, you can usually determine which direction the deer was facing. (It’s back leaves a fairly symmetrical curve in the snow, and its knees often make impressions.) Deer frequently travel in herds and bed down together. Because they are prey for numerous animals, it should come as no surprise that their actions, even ones as simple as in which direction to lie down, are intentional. If you look at an area where several deer bedded down, you will usually find that each deer is facing a different direction. This is so that, together, they have as much of a 360 degree view as possible, in order to spot an approaching predator. The deer that occupied the closest bed in this photograph was facing right, while the further deer was facing left.
A doe giving birth for the first time usually has one fawn. The following year, and until she is quite old, twins are the norm. Triplets are fairly common, quadruplets are known, and there are at least two records of quintuplets. Fawns nurse for eight to ten weeks before being weaned. It’s apparent from this doe’s udder that her young are still nursing in late July.