It's hunting season for deer antlers
by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., April 2, 2005.)
Some hunters are so charmed by antlers that they spend hour after hour looking for sheds.Bones. That's all that antlers are. Those ornaments on the buck's head that he wears proudly, fights with, and (if he avoids hunters, cars and coyotes) sheds annually so that he can grow a larger, finer pair are mere bones. They are the only bones worn on the outside of an animal's body, the only bones that regenerate, and their function is unlike that of all other bones. Rather than providing structural support for the body's organs and systems, these bones are weapons, status symbols, and they play a role in regulating the social order. It's no wonder antlers are fascinating, and it's no wonder hunters have a mysterious attraction to them.
Many people don't realize that deer antlers are deciduous. Like leaves on an oak tree, they are a buck's annual project that ends up on the forest floor. The oak loses its leaves in the fall, and deer lose their antlers in the late winter or spring. Whitetails, mule deer, caribou, elk and moose all live in that annual cycle of growing, hardening and shedding antlers. By contrast, the headgear on goats, sheep, and antelope are horns -- permanent, continuous growths that are not bone but keratin, the same substance in your hair and fingernails.
As testosterone levels in the buck's body diminish, the bond between antler and pedicel (those bony knobs on the skull from which antlers grow) decays. At some point, the bond is unable to support the weight of the antler, and it drops or sheds. Some hunters are so charmed by antlers that they spend hour after hour looking for sheds.
For antler aficionados, early spring is the time to find dropped antlers. Here in northern Pennsylvania, finding an antler is a rarity mostly because the prime time to find them is the small window of opportunity between snow-melt and green-up. That time is now, and the way to find them is by scouring feeding areas, bedding areas, and the trails between.
By early May, the explosion of forest foliage hides antlers from human eyes while nature recycles them. Mice and porcupines find them and chew on them for the minerals that are locked up inside. Nothing goes to waste.
If you are to find them before some four-legged critter does, a few suggestions are in order. It pays to know that deer do certain things that make dropping more likely at certain times and places. Antlers are most likely to fall when the deer makes a sudden move, such as the head-bob that whitetails are famous for. Bumping against something can also cause an antler to fall.
In searching for sheds, consider bedding areas first. While the deer is at rest, the antler is less likely to shed. But when the deer lurches forward to get his feet under him, he'll move his head suddenly, possibly causing the weight of the antler to reach its tipping point. Also, any time a deer makes a quick jump, such as when climbing a bank or vaulting a fence, he may lose an antler that is ready to fall.
If a buck worms his way through a wire fence or ducks under low-hanging limbs, he may bump his antlers. The jerking movements of scissoring off and pulling grasses and browse can cause antlers, precariously tipped forward because the deer is in a feeding posture, to fall. And interactions with other deer -- playing, sparring, and maintaining social courtesy spacing between animals -- can provoke sudden movements that prompt antler dropping.
In my four decades of deer hunting, I've made several excursions to the woods in search of shed antlers, but never found any until last spring when I found 5, all in the space of 2 hours. That experience encouraged me to try more shed hunting. But one thing bothers me. I'm afraid I may have used up all of my shed hunting luck in those 2 short hours. I'm hoping I don't have to wait 40 years before I find any more.