All bowhunters get excited when seeing a deer, but spotting a buck with impressive antlers triggers adrenaline jolts that rattle the entire mind and body.
We shake at the thought of releasing an arrow at a big buck. If we make the shot, bowhunters come from miles around to admire the rack’s tall tines, sweeping main beams and unique “character” traits.
With all the excitement antlers generate, it’s natural to ask what exactly are antlers, and why are they so special?
Antlers are actually bone, but they regrow each summer in various shapes and sizes, and then fall off each winter. In most cases, antlers reach their maximum size when a buck reaches maturity. Hunters differentiate antlers by counting the number of points protruding from the main beams, and estimating the spread between the two antlers. Antler points must measure at least 1 inch to count. The number of points and the spread helps explain the rack’s size.
Antlers grow in infinite sizes, widths, points, tine heights and abnormal points. In contrast, the horns on sheep and pronghorn antelope follow the same basic configuration from one animal to the next. For example, when watching two bighorn rams of the same age and size, it’s often difficult to differentiate them solely on their horns’ characteristics.
Deer antlers, however, display unique traits that vary by shape, width, length, mass, number of points and more. Even two sets of antlers grown by the same buck in different years are unique. No two sets are ever identical.
Bucks drop their antlers each winter in a process called shedding. Horns, however, begin growing at birth and never get shed. Bucks start shedding their antlers as daylight decreases and testosterone levels decline, which causes antlers to drop from late December through March in most areas. By mid-March, shed antlers can be found scattered across woods and fields in the bucks’ home areas, creating the ultimate “Easter egg hunt” for bowhunters who treasure these beautiful bones.
“Shed hunters” scour their favorite hunting grounds until spring’s green-up makes it difficult to spot them. By that time, bucks begin growing a new rack. In fact, soon after the previous antlers drop, the new antlers start developing. By late spring, the antlers emerge from their pedicel — the connection points atop the buck’s skull — encased in a soft, fuzzy coating called “velvet,” which carries blood to the growing bone. The velvet also helps protect the soft bone from breaking and getting infected. The regrowth reaches full speed in June. Throughout summer, the velvet-wrapped antlers continue to grow about a quarter-inch daily.
Antlers continue growing until mid-August, which is when they reach their potential. By late August to early September, the velvet begins drying and cracking. Bucks usually strip their velvet by the first week of September, revealing their new headgear. Meanwhile, their testosterone starts climbing, which spurs them to use their antlers to spar with other bucks, and rub and gouge trees. These aggressive displays escalate in the weeks leading up to the rut as bucks establish their hierarchy.
The lifecycle of antlers is incredible, even magical. If you’re fortunate enough to find a shed antler this spring, reflect on what it went through the previous year. The bone you hold was part of a velvet-covered crown less than a year ago.
Now, it’s likely worn a bit, missing a tine or three, and still has bark mashed into its base. But no matter its size or condition, each antler has unique characteristics that make it one of a kind. You’ll never find another to perfectly match it.