Bucks hanging onto their antlers in early spring
Veteran hunters of white-tailed deer “know” that bucks shed their antlers in Ohio latitudes in December or January, sometimes even into February.
They also “know” that bucks usually shed or “cast” their racks about the same time every year. Only rarely is an individual buck seen still wearing antlers later into the new year, perhaps even spring.
But my trailcam is not lying and this year, among six different bucks that I can positively identify that are using a mineral lick by the trailcam, five of them still were wearing antlers the first week of April. The only shed buck among them, the largest of the bunch, dropped his rack back in the “normal” period.
Having such a high percentage of bucks retaining antlers raised my eyebrows. What the heck?
So I went to Ohio’s go-to guy, Mike Tonkovich, with the question. Tonk is the deer program administrator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
He said that in general, antler retention at “this time of year is possible, but rare.” He observed that he had recently received a similar inquiry from an Athens veterinarian who had just seen a 2-year-old buck with a full set of antlers.
“I could reword my good friend Kip Adams’ well-written remarks about the causes of delayed antler casting, but it seems silly,” said Tonkovich.
Adams, of Knoxville, Pa., is a certified wildlife biologist and director of conservation at the Quality Deer Management Association.
Adams has written that the “overriding factor (in much-delayed shedding) is the presence of estrus does, as they can influence testosterone levels. Dr. Bubenik said an unbred doe’s pheromones can keep bucks’ testosterone levels elevated. This factor doesn’t relate to early antler casting, but it can explain late casting in some herds, especially those with highly skewed sex ratios during the rut.”
The reference to “Dr. Bubenink” is to G. A. Bubenik, Department of Zoology, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario. He is the guru of antler research among members of the deer family, or cervids.
Other suppositions also may be worth investigating, such as whether there is any connection at all with last year’s record-wet spring and summer, and delayed or prevented planting of crops. But for whatever the reasons, it seems that there were lots of unbred does.
It will take another year of watching to see whether most of the bucks in my neighborhood hang onto the racks for so late into spring again, or whether this year was just a one-off anomaly.
To sum up, in general, antler growth and development is related to photoperiod, the hours of daylight per day, and to testosterone levels. It is not related to temperature. The same goes for antler shedding. It is a high level of testosterone that keeps a buck’s antlers attached. When testosterone levels fall, antlers loosen and drop off. Nutrition, injuries, and dominance also are scientifically reported factors, such that poor nutrition or injuries cause early shedding. And if bucks keep sparring over does in estrus, testosterone levels can stay up and their antlers will stay on longer.