Antlers are the defining feature of whitetail deer, symbols of power and virility that have attracted hunters for millennia. For the deer, though, antlers are more than just decorations. They have practical purposes and are deeply integrated into the animals’ anatomy.
If you’re managing a herd, it’s important to understand why deer shed their antlers and how the cycle affects them. This will help you gauge the health of the herd and produce stronger, thriving bucks that grow great racks. And even if you’re not managing a herd, a good grasp of antler shedding will help you hunt your trophy buck.
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Why Do Deer Grow Antlers
In the vast majority of deer species, including whitetail deer, only the males, or bucks, grow antlers. The fundamental reason for this is combat. Bucks fight for territory and does by ramming their antlers together.
Presumably, eons ago, the males of the deer’s ancestors started fighting by butting heads. Those with growths of bone on their head had an advantage, and these growths slowly evolved into the majestic antlers we know today.
Of course, they also serve a decorative purpose. Because the bucks grow antlers as a response to male hormones like testosterone, they also represent virility and are attractive to the does.
Additionally, they show that the buck is healthy and has access to excess resources. The bigger the antlers, the more successful the buck has been in finding food and avoiding disease. For the does, this makes him a prime candidate for mating.
Finally, the antlers represent age and maturity. Young bucks’ bodies need more energy and nutrients to grow and get bigger. However, older bucks are done growing and direct these resources to their antlers. A buck will usually produce the biggest antlers between age four and seven.
Why Do Deer Shed Their Antlers?
Antlers require a lot of nutrients like calcium and phosphorus to grow in addition to plenty of energy. This takes nutrients and energy away from the buck’s body, which could be a matter of life and death in the wild. As a result, a buck’s body only grows the antlers when he needs them: during the rut, when he’ll have to fight for does and territory. When it’s no longer mating season, his body sheds the antlers to save nutrients and energy.
This shed is specifically triggered by a drop in the buck’s testosterone levels. The buck’s testosterone cycle is based on the amount of sunlight with increased daylight after the winter solstice at the end of December prompting a drop in testosterone.
However, other factors may keep their testosterone up, like continued sparring with other bucks. This may delay the antler shed.
How Do Deer Shed Their Antlers?
When a buck’s testosterone levels drop, it activates osteoclasts. These are cells that basically start weakening and destroying the roots of the antlers. This sounds like it would be painful, but it isn’t. Instead it’s a lot like little kids losing their teeth.
As the roots deteriorate, the antlers get looser and looser until they fall off when the buck moves his head or bumps the antlers against a tree. They may fall out together or one by one.
It’s common to find these antlers lying around the woods, and many hunters or just nature lovers in general go looking for shed antlers when that time of year comes around.
When Do Deer Shed Their Antlers?
Bucks shed their antlers once a year after the end of the rut. This usually means sometime between January and March.
For reference, the rut, or the period in which the does go into estrus and can get pregnant, can differ based on geographic location, but it’s usually in November just before the cold really sets in. When the rut is over, a buck no longer needs his antlers and can shed them to conserve energy for the sparse winter.
A bit counterintuitively, young bucks usually keep their antlers for longer. This is because they have less pronounced hormone levels, and their bodies aren’t as efficient at regulating them. As a result, most mature bucks lose their antlers by the end of February at the absolute latest with many shedding them in January. Young bucks, on the other hand, may have antlers through March.
Where Do Deer Shed Their Antlers?
You can take advantage of the antler shedding process to get great decorations even if you weren’t successful at taking down your trophy buck this year. However, you need to know where to look.
Since bucks usually shed their antlers in the winter, a great way to find them is by following a buck’s tracks in the snow. These will inevitably lead you to feeding or bedding areas where the buck spends most of his time. This is where you’re most likely to find shed antlers.