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Vinnie and the Polar Vortex … whitetail deer make the best backyard barometers

Groundhogs are cute and, if you believe the  folklore, they’re clever about forecasting our weather. Two weeks ago, three fan favourite groundhogs gave their annual predictions.

Stormfax Almanac says that Pennsylvania’s (pessimist) Punxsutawney Phil has a predict success rate of 39 per cent, over 10 years. On Feb. 2, 2021, Phil was again called upon to perform his duties. He saw his own shadow.

That means six more weeks of winter.

Here in Canada, we’re more optimistic. Nova Scotia’s mascot meteorologist, Shubenacadie Sam, an albino groundhog, and woodchuck Wiarton Willie of Ontario, saw no sign of their own shadows when they emerged.

That tells followers of the century old tradition, there will be an early spring. That’s two vermin votes for early spring, and one against. Rocker Meatloaf would tell us, “Two out of three ain’t bad.”


When it comes to wily wildlife, though, the Whitetail deer that frequent my yard are very reliable weather forecasters. Last week, caught in the grips of a polar vortex, it was bitterly cold.

But I was prepared. I knew what was coming.

Environment Canada did issue a cold weather advisory for our area but that was long after an old and wise Whitetail buck, who’s seen many seasons come and go, gave me the heads up.

Nicknamed “Vinnie,” this male deer — like Phil, Sam and Willie — is somewhat of a celebrity in my neighbourhood. He’s a battle-scarred, long past-his-prime patriarch of a local herd of deer.

In winter, he usually eats out and dines alone.

He has dibs on the best vegetable gardens, fruit trees, buried tulip bulbs, and occasional human handouts (not advised) and seems content to forage when and where the pickings are easier.

In the days leading up to this recent cold snap, Vinnie was busy stocking up on groceries. He feasted first on any visible grass, plants, twigs, leaves and acorns under my trees.

Then, he’d carry on down the road, checking on likely food sources, (roots and bulbs in gardens,) unfazed by passing cars, people out walking and talking, and dogs barking.

Vinnie became so brazen on his daily foraging visits, that one day, he came up to my front door when I let the cats out. I was eating an apple. He looked at me with big, soulful, brown eyes, and actually licked the outside of his mouth.

His trust, his eyes, they just got to me. I felt bad, tossed the apple, with one bite out of it, into the snow at his feet. He lowered his head, picked it up in his teeth and began chomping on it.

It was then that I noticed Vinnie had put on considerable weight in his girth area. And that’s when I knew, that he knew, it was time to batten down the hatches in his wooded fortress.

Thanks for the early warning, Vinnie.

It’s not uncommon, in spring and summer to see deer grazing or lounging in my backyard. I think because it borders a wooded area and backs onto the Fraser River, the deer feel safe there.

They have lunch and leave behind droppings which fertilize the lawn. We have a symbiotic relationship. I enjoy watching and taking photos of them; they enjoy snacking (tips only) on my “deer resistant variety”  tulips.

Male Whitetail deer, according to Wikipedia, get  depleted of calories and body fat in winter, after the rut, because they use up energy chasing the females. I think Vinnie is probably too old. But it must be physically exhausting for young bucks.

But then, their focus is on surviving the winter. This can be hard because each snowfall covers their food sources. They conserve energy, lower their metabolism and stay home more. Like us.

Now I know we absolutely should not encourage deer or other wildlife by feeding them, especially in winter, because it upsets the balance of nature and they could come to depend on us for a food source. That would be wrong.

However, I think since man has encroached on their traditional woodland turf, it’s not surprising that Vinnie and his herd do still forage for their food along the pathways of their ancestors.

So I respect their right to roam. (Now, If only deer could learn to stay out of humans’ gardens during growing season.) But old Vinnie reminds me that  survival is not just about being fit. It is also about learning to coexist with our neighbours.

Teresa Mallam is an award winning writer. Her credits include a Jack Webster Award of Distinction, BC Law Society Award for Excellence in Legal Reporting and Canadian Authors Association (CAA) award for Best Investigative Journalism, as well as several Black Press media  awards for her columns, court coverage and news features.

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