To answer that, let’s start with another question: Why do deer have antlers? Males (bucks) of our native whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) rely on antlers to help establish their dominance over other bucks. Adult bucks sometimes battle over does (female deer), using their antlers as weapons as they crash headfirst into one another. On rare occasions their antlers can get tangled together, and if the bucks can’t separate themselves, they’ll die of starvation. Antlers also function as a signal to does of how strong and healthy a buck is. This is because antler growth is reliant on good genes, good diet and age. Antler growth can be inhibited by disease or injury. Only a strong, mature buck will grow the heavy rack with lots of points that is so coveted by trophy-hunters.
Antler growth typically takes off in early spring as days lengthen and temperatures warm. Antlers are actually bone tissue, and while they are growing, they are covered with a soft, hairy layer of skin called velvet. This velvet supplies blood and nutrients to the fast-growing antler bone tissue. In early fall, the buck’s testosterone levels rise, and this causes his antlers to harden and the velvet to dry out and strip off. Now his antlers are tough, hardened weapons, and they won’t grow any bigger this year. Mating season (or “rut”) begins, and if he’s successful, his antlers will help him find a mate and pass on his genes to future generations.
In early winter, rutting season ends, and his antlers have done their job. Another change in hormones causes the antlers to drop off one at a time. This can happen as early as December or as late as March, but in our area, it typically occurs around January or February. The buck’s neck, which became swollen during the rut in order to help support the weight of his antlers and cushion the force of ramming his weapons into others, shrinks back down to its pre-rut size. Now the buck’s main concerns are finding enough food to survive the winter, and avoiding predators who are trying to do the same thing. If he’s lucky, he’ll make it to spring, at which point the whole process starts all over.
Antler growth is energetically expensive. This helps explain why only mature bucks sport huge trophy racks. For young deer, it’s more important to prioritize body size over antler size, as even the largest rack won’t help a scrawny buck survive, much less mate. Once a buck has reached his full size, his body can afford to expend more energy on antler growth. Because antlers are bone, they require a lot of calcium, and this is a precious nutrient in nature. When these calcium-rich antlers drop off, they don’t just go to waste there on the forest floor. They get recycled by other animals, including mice, chipmunks, squirrels or even foxes and coyotes, who gnaw and ingest the nutrients they contain.
Want to look for deer sheds next time you’re out in the woods? They’re hard to find, but it’s quite a treat when you do get lucky. Look from January through April for the best chance of finding them. Try to focus on areas where you know deer spend a lot of time, especially places where they bed down. It will be easier to find sheds in areas without a lot of thick cover, so start with easy terrain like fields and meadows before heading into the woods. Even if you don’t find antlers, you can enjoy the fresh air and the pleasure that comes with being out in nature!
– Elizabeth Long
Director of Conservation Science