Why and when do whitetail bucks shed their antlers?
I was walking in the woods early last month, just breathing in the crisp air and enjoying the crunch of crusted snow under my leather hunting boots, when something caught my eye – something out of place.
A beautifully-curved shed antler was lying on top of the rigid blanket of white.
Since I had walked this same deer trail the morning before, I knew that the antler was a fresh drop. A little blood, still red, was visible where the antler had become detached from its pedicle — further validating its freshness.
It was modest as antlers go — a 14-inch main beam, half of a six-point, that would have crested about 8 inches above the buck’s ears. Nonetheless, it was my largest shed find thus far. I picked up the trophy, smiling at my good fortune.
The antler rests on my desk as I write this. Hunters might understand this, but I just can’t resist reaching out and touching that polished piece of bone. What is the attraction? I’m not sure, but I just enjoy the feel of the smooth antler in my fingers.
Knowing that the buck that dropped the antler is still alive and will likely have a bigger set of antlers next fall is certainly part of my attraction.
This shed is seriously a trophy to me, but vendors at the Great American Outdoor Show in Harrisburg, Pa., valued my find at about $12. It is worth a lot more to me.
I posted a photo of the antler on my Facebook page and was surprised to learn that there were still a good number of people out there who don’t know that deer shed their antlers and grow new ones every year. I am pretty sure that the hunters reading this know all about antler drop, but then again, some hunters insist on incorrectly calling antlers “horns,” so I’m not sure.
I have seen bucks that have shed their antlers in early December, and at the other extreme, I once observed a large 9-point still holding his antlers in early April. A few years ago, I had a discussion with a Michigan naturalist, who claimed that most whitetail bucks lose their antlers by mid- January. That has not been my observation here in Pennsylvania.
When I found my shed, I figured that the process was beginning locally, but a week later, my daughter saw six antlered bucks all together.
So why and when do bucks shed their antlers?
If I had 10 dollars for every time that I have heard, “It’s a cold winter, so them bucks will shed their horns early,” I might be rich. Antler growth and development is dependent on the photoperiod (hours of daylight per day) and testosterone levels, not temperature. So is antler drop.
High levels of testosterone are necessary to keep a buck’s antlers firmly attached to his skull. When testosterone levels drop, antlers loosen and fall off.
According to Kip Adams, wildlife biologist and director of conservation for the Quality Deer Management Association, testosterone levels are affected by photoperiod, nutrition, injuries and dominance. Poor nutrition or injuries lead to early shedding.
Well-known antler expert Dr. George Bubenik, with the University of Guelph in Ontario, noted that testosterone levels are also affected by the presence of does that are in estrus. Here in Pennsylvania, most does are bred in mid-November, but if un-bred does are present, bucks will keep their antlers longer.
Again, according to Bubenik, another factor is continued fighting between bucks, which could be related to additional does in estrus. If bucks continue to spar, testosterone levels stay up and their antlers will stay on longer.
Conditions this winter are vastly different all across Pennsylvania, but in my area, just when I think that it would be a good time to look for shed antlers, it snows another 4 inches or so.
I treasure my antler find, and as soon as this snow melts, I will be out hoping to locate another one. An expert at finding sheds, I am not. Searching online will lead you to expert tips on how and where to locate sheds. I will just share the most obvious advice.
If there is still a little snow on the ground, follow well-used deer trails. Check feeding and bedding areas. Anywhere that a buck spends a good percentage of his time increases the odds that a shed will be there. Above all else, look down — that is where the antlers will be.
Keep searching — I will be looking, too.