The funny thing about living in these parts of the Midwest is that it can be 60 degrees one day, and 16 the next. We had one of those blue-skied, sun-filled days about a week ago and my husband and I both happened to have the day off; a rare event around here. I took him by the hand and nudged him down the trail. Where are we going he inquired? We’re hunting for antlers. We haven’t done that for a long time and I’m feeling lucky today, I responded with pleading eyes.
Late winter is when white-tailed deer drop their antlers. Only bucks, male deer grow antlers. That is the difference between antlers and horns; antlers shed annually, while horns stay on all the time (like on cattle and bison). Antlers begin growing as small buttons between the buck’s ears around April or May. As antlers continue to grow and develop, they are covered by a soft brown “velvet.” This velvet is actually a nourishing coat of blood vessels, skin and short hair that supplies nutrients and minerals to the growing bone.
By late August or September, antlers reach their full size and the velvet is no longer needed and begins to shed. It is believed that the velvet itches and that’s why bucks rub against trees and shrubs to remove the velvet from the antlers. Hunters often look for “deer rubs” in the forest to scout for bucks in the area. Accomplished scouts can gauge how many bucks and even how large the bucks may be from the deer rubs. To a person not used to looking for deer rubs, you can often walk right by them without noticing. Deer rubs often include a broken twig or small branch where the buck was rubbing against the trunk of a small tree.
Antler hunting is just that, hunting. They don’t call it finding because you do not always find one just because you are out looking for them. I always feel a bit guilty if I do find one, as rabbits, mice, voles, and other rodents chew on antlers for the minerals. That’s one reason they are so difficult to find. In a matter of weeks they are gone, back into the cycle of life.
Antler hunting is just one other excuse to get outside and enjoy the outdoors. Most hunters will tell you they do not hunt for the kill, they hunt for the outdoor experience and for the camaraderie with family, or friends. Same with antler hunting, my husband and I had a joyous walk. We saw many red-headed woodpeckers, as well as red-bellied, hairy, and downy woodpeckers, several woodland sparrows, and a host of others. The air was brisk, the sun was bright, the colors vibrant. I won’t tell you who won the antler – the mice, or me!
-- Lynn Youngblood is the Executive Director of the Blue River Watershed Association; a certified Residential Energy Client Service Coordinator by the National Energy Retrofit Institute; and a former nature center manager with the Missouri Department of Conservation.