The dead of winter finds many outdoors enthusiasts with cabin fever, one activity that will peak in the next month offers a way to fight that cabin fever. That activity is hunting shed antlers.

The dead of winter finds many outdoors enthusiasts with cabin fever, one activity that will peak in the next month offers a way to fight that cabin fever. That activity is hunting shed antlers.
With hunting seasons all but closed, and with weather that is less than inviting, hunting shed antlers is an incentive to venture outdoors.
Starting around the first of the year, whitetail bucks begin dropping the antlers they grew for the fall rut. The exact timing varies from place to place and from year to year, but right now you can be sure there are antlers on the ground throughout the area.
Looking for them puts you in much closer touch with nature. If you are a deer hunter, it also provides clues to the location and habits of the bucks that survived the deer seasons.
Why deer have antlers and how they grow are subjects that have intrigued people for centuries. Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, wrote about the phenomenon of antler growth more than 2,000 years ago. The fascination with antlers has continued today.
Naturally, much of the interest has had to do with trying to produce the bucks as a hunting trophy. But for the past 20 years or so, antler growth also has been studied as a biomedical model for human diseases like osteoporosis and bone cancer.
Much of the confusion about antlers has to do with the anomalies of antler growth. It is not universal with all bucks.
These anomalies lead to some obvious questions. Why do deer have antlers in the first place? Why are the antlers of different animals shaped differently? Why don’t all female deer have antlers? What makes antlers grow? What makes the timing of the antler? And, why are antlers shed each year instead of being permanent?
Biologists like to assume there is a reason for everything. They assume there is a reason for antlers and that they have evolved differently in the various animals for a reason. Finding the answers to these reasons is not so easy, however.
Since antlers are found mainly in males, they are called “secondary sex characteristics” like the colorful plumage in birds. Deer tend to be herd animals, with one male servicing a group of females. The antlers seem to be show items to attract females, and they allow the bucks to fight off other males to protect his harem.
Fighting among bucks is generally never in a buck’s best interest, so there is a lot of posturing, display behaviors and non-lethal sparring that occurs rather than all-out fighting. Often, just the display of a large rack is enough to scare off a potential challenger. Bucks seem to know the shape of their rack during the rut, when they rub off the velvet against a tree.
It’s amazing to see a big buck run through the timber without getting caught up in branches or vines. Dave Hall of Columbia said that he watched a 10-point buck run through heavy woods while he was hunting this fall and couldn’t believe it made it through the thick timber without hitting a tree.
“It was amazing to watch it speed through the woods and was followed by another buck with a larger rack,” Hall said. “I would have liked to had a video camera with me.”
As the seasons move along, it’s interesting to see how the antlers progress. Once the antlers start growing in the spring or early summer, they grow fast. At this point, the antler is “in velvet” and covered with a skin that is highly vascularized.
Interestingly, if a deer is castrated while it is in velvet, it will remain in velvet the rest of its life. The antlers will keep growing every year.
Also, if the antler is injured during this time, the resulting antlers, when rubbed out, may be odd shaped. If the injury is really severe, the nerves of the pedicle will “remember” the injury, and subsequent sets of antlers will also be misshapen year after year.
Around mid-summer, the antler begins to mineralize, as calcium and phosphorus are deposited. Unlike most other bones, the antler has no marrow, but becomes solid all the way through. As the testosterone levels in the buck begin to rise, the antlers start to dry up and itch, and the deer rubs out its velvet against trees.
Once they are rubbed out and hardened, the buck enters the rut. Once the rut is over, the bucks become more docile. Although a buck’s blood testosterone levels rose over the summer and fall, when the rut is over, they fall – often to the level of a doe in just a day or two.
Usually, the two antlers will fall off within a day of each other. Unless antler hunters find them, the antlers become a source of minerals for forest rodents.
In mid-winter, bucks spend most of their time looking for food, so smart shed antler hunters focus their attention on places where food is available. Travel corridors between feeding and bedding areas are worth checking.
Promising spots also include harvested crop fields, corn cribs, food plots on conservation areas and fields where large hay bales are stored.
Although you still need permission to trespass on private land, shed antler hunting doesn’t have to be confined to areas where hunting is allowed. Public wildlife refuges are excellent places to look for antlers as are golf courses, orchards and even subdivisions near wooded areas.
Bob Thomas of Sedalia is an archer who finds shed antlers in the winter and has obtained permission to hunt these areas when the bow season opens.
Game trails, logging roads, wooded fence rows and stream corridors are natural travel lanes for deer and should be checked while hunting for shed antlers. South-facing slopes are favorite bedding areas for deer because they offer maximum exposure to warm sunshine on clear days.
Hunting shed antlers is like any other kind of hunting. The more you do it, the better you become. Veteran shed antler hunters are productive and can bring home dozens of trophy antlers each winter. Don’t be discouraged if you find just one or two antlers or even come home empty the first year. You’ll probably find other rewards that will keep you coming to the woods at this time of year when just a few other hunters take the time to experience this kind of event.
You may find shed antlers throughout the year, but the best specimens are available now through March. Mice, squirrels and even deer gnaw on shed antlers to get the nutrients they contain, so whole antlers don’t last long in the wild.
There are many uses for shed antlers, including making knife handles and even chandeliers. If you notice in some of the adds in magazines, these type of lighting fixtures go for big bucks (no pun intended).
With all the bucks roaming around the woods today, there are bound to be some antlers lying around for the taking.