It’s True – Deer Shed Their Antlers!
by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, April 16, 2011.)
It was a Saturday afternoon in the mid 1970s and I was in New Hampshire with a group that had finished climbing Mount Monadnock. At 3165 feet, it was a suitably unstrenuous ascent for our young adult Sunday school class, which had gathered in a nearby lodge for a snack.
Apparently, the antler growing
and shedding cycle stops when
a buck sheds his whole head!
Hanging on the wall of the great room over the fireplace was a mount of a moose head with a wide antler rack. It was impressive, and one young woman (from Kansas City, if I remember correctly) asked, innocently enough, “I wonder how long it takes to grow horns that big.”
Fair question, I thought. And I, in the midst of a bunch of metropolitans, was the one to answer it. “They begin growing those antlers sometime in April, and finish in August. Then they harden. So, it takes 4 to 5 months. The moose carries them through the fall and winter. Then they fall off and he grows a new set the following year.”
I spoke with confidence, but she scoffed, “No way! That’s ridiculous! They could never grow them that fast. And if they fell off, people would find them in the woods!” I was surprised and outnumbered – everyone agreed with her.
I’m not one who knows when I’m beaten, especially when I have the facts. So, I continued on. “People do find them, but not many of them. They’re really just bones, so they’re loaded with calcium, and rodents eat them for the nutritional benefit. That’s why people don’t find more of them.”
Now that I had painted the picture of bones sticking out of an animal’s head and mice devouring them, everyone was absolutely sure I was pulling their collective leg. I couldn’t persuade them otherwise. I’ve often wondered if that Kansas City-slicker – and the other urbanites who sided with her – ever learned that I was telling the truth.
Since then, I’ve found shed moose and caribou antlers in Alaska. Here in Pennsylvania I’ve found whitetail antlers, but not many. (A few times I’ve found a matched pair still attached to the skull. Apparently the antler growing and shedding cycle stops when a buck sheds his whole head!)
The healthier a buck is, generally, the longer he keeps his antlers. When they’re ready to shed, a layer of cells at the boney connection to the buck’s head dissolves and the antler loosens. Sometimes a low hanging limb knocks antlers off. Sometimes they get jarred when the deer jumps a fence or a ditch. Sometimes as the deer feeds it exerts enough stress to cause loosened antlers to fall.
For those interested in finding shed antlers, the window of opportunity is open only briefly. Prime time is after the melting snow reveals them and before the spring green-up hides them from view.
During that time, other critters are also hunting for shed antlers. Porcupines will often drag them back to their dens where their vigorous chewing quickly transforms a deer antler into a calcium supplement. Coyotes and foxes will also occasionally retrieve them and carry them back to a den site where they become playtoys for young pups.
Where to find sheds? They could be anywhere deer live, which makes hunting for them challenging, but not impossible. The likeliest vicinity is where deer have a food source that’s close to their bedding area. Chances are, bucks will shed antlers at the feeding site, or in the bedding area, or along a trail between them.
The real trick is finding the time to look for shed antlers. Springtime hours are precious, with trout season underway and turkey scouting to be done. Plus yard work beckons, and youth baseball and other activities take up most people’s time in the spring. You may not beat the animals to the antlers, but at least the busyness of springtime reduces your human competition.
If you can find the time to go shed hunting and you’re lucky enough to discover a shed antler, you’ve found a great woodland souvenir. You’ll know the buck that shed it has likely made it through the winter, and you might find that buck in your sights next season. But don't bother to tell your city friends -- they'll just think you're pulling their legs.