How to Hunt for Deer Antlers

Part 1: What are Antlers and
When Do You Look for Them?

by Steve Sorensen

Will shed antlers lead you to your next buck?
They might – here’s the what, when, where, and why of finding shed antlers!   

Bones. That’s all that antlers are. A buck proudly wears those ornaments on his head. He fights with them, and (if he avoids hunters, cars and coyotes) sheds them annually so that he can grow a larger, finer pair of bones. But they’re not just bones. They’re special.

What Are Antlers?

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This is a Sitka Blacktail skull found in Alaska. Notice the thin dark line between the antler and the skull – a layer of bone cells is deteriorating there, which causes the antler to separate from the bony protrusion called the pedicel (pronounced ped’-ē-kul). This buck died a day or two before shedding his antlers. (Steve Sorensen photo)

They are the only bones worn on the outside of an animal’s body, and the only bones that regenerate each year. Their function is unlike that of all other bones. They’re not part of the deer’s skeletal system, so they don’t provide 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 an enigmatic attraction to them.

Many non-hunters 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. Oaks lose their leaves in the fall, and deer lose their antlers in the winter or early spring. Whitetails, mule deer, caribou, elk and moose all go through that annual cycle of growing, hardening and shedding antlers. By contrast, the headgear on goats, sheep, and antelope are horns – permanent, continuous growths they add to every year. Horns not bone. They’re keratin, the same substance in your hair and fingernails.

When to Find Shed Antlers?

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Shed antler hunters may not be interested in this world record, but this might be the smallest shed antler ever found. It was found lying on an anthill in Warren County, Pennsylvania, by Wildlife Conservation Officer David Titus prior to his retirement
in 1972. (Steve Sorensen photo)

As testosterone levels in the buck’s body diminish, the bond between antler and pedicel (the bony knobs on the skull from which antlers grow) decays until the bond is unable to support the weight of the antler, and it falls off. Some hunters are so charmed by antlers that they spend hour after hour looking for the antlers bucks have shed.

For antler addicts, early spring is the time to find dropped antlers, but they’re not always easy to find. The shed antler is competing with other shed hunters, but more than that – he’s competing with four-legged critters because porcupines and other rodents eat them, gnawing them until there is virtually nothing left. They consume them for the calcium and minerals locked up in them. Coyotes and foxes have been known to take them back to den sites for their young to use as playtoys.

Another reason they’re hard to find is that the prime time for finding them is the small window of opportunity between snow-melt and green-up. Antlers get much harder to find after underbrush has sprouted leaves. By early May, the explosion of forest foliage hides antlers from human eyes while nature quietly recycles them. Nothing in nature goes to waste.

Across most of the whitetails range, March is the time to start antler hunting.

Next time I’ll talk about the where and the why.

***

About Steve Sorensen

steve-sorensen-head-shotOutdoor writer and speaker Steve Sorensen writes an award-winning newspaper column called “The Everyday Hunter®,” and he is the editor of the Havalon Sportsman’s Post. He has also published articles in Deer & Deer Hunting, North American Whitetail, and many other top magazines across the USA. Invite Steve to speak at your next sportsman’s event, and follow him at www.EverydayHunter.com.

For more articles by Steve Sorensen, click here.

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