The antler cycle of a white-tail deer is a fascinating part of nature. Deer antlers are one of the fastest-growing tissues known to man and the sight of them rapidly increases the heart rate of any hunter.
About September the velvet covering of antlers comes off, leaving very hard bone that is used during the mating season to fight other bucks for breeding rights. Of course deer hunters are always looking to get a nice rack to hang on the wall, but if they haven't they can still come into possession of one after hunting season because the antlers fall off in winter. If a hunter looks in the right places, starting about now, he may find a few nice sheds.
So what makes the antlers fall off the head of a buck? The antlers are very strong and sometimes in fighting other bucks the antler or part of it may break off, but never at the base like it does when bucks shed them. The shedding relates to the testosterone level of the buck. After breeding season the level of this male hormone decreases and a layer of specialized cells at the base of the antlers begins to reabsorb the calcium from the antler. Eventually this area becomes grainy and weak. This causes the antler to just fall away.
Some bucks shed their antlers earlier than others. The largest and strongest bucks generally do most of the breeding in a well balanced herd and thus will drop their racks earlier than the subordinate bucks which have lower testosterone levels. Captive bucks that don't have a chance to breed usually don't shed their antlers until a month or two after wild deer in the same area.
Yes a few large-rack bucks are sometimes seen as late as the end of March with their racks still on, so how can this be true? Well, bucks are individuals just like us guys. Some fellows are always chasing women, while most are normal; and some guys are just not interested in women much at all. Studies have showed that some bucks, even through they have big racks and bodies, just don't get that involved in the rut for one reason or another. Thus their testosterone level would still be high late into winter and thus their racks are retained.
The buck that has been doing a lot of breeding may even cast his antlers during hunting season. I have seen this on several occasions and a friend of mine who shot a nice buck near the end of the season found only one antler on its head. When he rolled the buck over, he found the other antler laying underneath; it had come off when the deer went down. Then, as the buck was picked up to be put in my friend's truck bed, the other antler came off.
Shed antlers are not often found because there just are not a lot of bucks in one area and a large amount of ground would have to be searched to find one. They could be dropped in a big, open field that is not often searched, or way back in some thicket where the buck beds. However, the main reason we don't stumble onto them is it doesn't take long for mice, squirrels, rabbits, porcupines and chipmunks to find and eat them. They gnaw on antlers for the calcium and phosphorus they contain, just like your dog does with a bone.
So if you didn't get your buck this year, you still have a chance to put a “horn” on the wall. You just have to spend a lot of time searching in the woods and fields in areas where you know deer concentrate in winter after deer hunting season. Early spring is a good time, right after the snow is gone and before the other critters find them and start eating them.
You can even train a dog to sniff them out for you. I once had a great lab that I taught to search for antlers. On more than one occasion she brought me an antler while we were out walking around in the woods or a field in early spring. Finding a shed is exciting to me, and even more so when she brought it to me.
Along with this antler hunting you will learn more about deer and nature in general and that is always a good deal. You have plenty of time to sit on the couch and watch TV when you get old!
Doug Domedion, outdoorsman and nature photographer, resides in Medina. Contact him at (585) 798-4022 or firstname.lastname@example.org .