Looking for something to do on a slow winter day? An adventure is as close as the nearest wooded lot or field.
Hunting shed antlers is fun and a great source of outdoor exercise. The hobby requires no expensive equipment, no special skills, and can yield a bit of nature which can become a lamp, candle holder, shelf decoration of simply an interesting conversation piece.
A fact unknown to many people is that deer, elk and other antler-bearing animals shed their antlers each year.
Antlers are not horns, although some people confuse the two headgear. Horns remain in place throughout an animal’s life span, and contain active flowing blood vessels and “live” marrow. They are hard on the outside, similar to a fingernail or toenail on a human. Constant wear and genetics determines the ultimate size of an animal’s horns.
Antlers grow new each spring, shielded in a covering of felt. Come late summer or early fall the exterior covering begins to die as the antler beneath hardens and ceases growing. The animal will rub the felt covering from the antlers to reveal the bone-like structures. The males, also known as bucks, and an occasional female which is genetically predisposed to grow antlers, will often rub the felt off his (or her) antlers against a small tree — often a cedar or pine, but sometimes a hardwood sapling. The process can even become bloody as the still-living felt is torn away from the antler beneath. The damage caused to the tree is called a “rub”, while the process is often called “polishing.”
Bucks will continue to rub trees with their antlers into the fall and early winter as part of the mating process, also know as the “rut”. But this time the deer will use the already polished antlers to scuff the surface of a small tree and then rub scent from his forehead onto the damaged tree to leave his “sign” marking the area as his territory. Rubs can be found spaced along travel paths of bucks, and several along the same path are referred to as a “rub line.” Hunters look for rubs as part of determining how many bucks are using an area. Hunting along rub lines is not a guarantee of success, as many rubs are “freshened” by active bucks during nighttime hours ... when it is illegal to hunt.
But rub lines and obvious deer travel paths are great indicators when hunting shed antlers. Unless completely driven from an area, a Midwest buck will remain within a couple mile range his entire lifetime. During the fall rut the animals are often driven to travel irregular paths in search of mating females, but once the rut has subsided the mature deer will return to usual paths between bedding and feeding areas.
So the best places to look for shed antlers is along travel paths of deer. A keen eye can be trained to spot rubs and animal paths in the woods or edges of fields. Following the path for a short distance can reveal fresh tracks or droppings. While all deer, does and bucks, leave tracks and droppings, only antlered bucks (or the rare antlered doe) will leave rubs on saplings along a trail. And finding any deer trail is a likely sign of buck activity since both male and female animals will often use the same travel paths.
Once the rut is complete a buck will be exhausted and suffering from weight loss and general fatigue from weeks of mating. About that time a chemical change begins taking place in the animal. One result of that change is the loosening of the previous year’s antlers. Biologists say that a deer’s antlers will begin to itch as they start to release from the skull cap. Sometimes the animal will appear to be fighting with a sapling or woody brush as he works to rid himself of the now-detaching headgear. At some point the antler will tear loose from the small amount of skin attached at the base — a wide area of the antler also known as a “rosette”, “bud” or “button.” A close look at a shed antler will reveal a rough patch at its base just behind the rosette, while an antler physically removed from a dead deer following a successful hunt will have a smooth cut or saw marks visible just past the rosette.
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Antlers rarely tear loose at the same time, leaving a buck to lose his antlers at two different locations along his travel paths and wander for a time as a one-antlered deer. While nature allows the antlers to separate from the skull, doing so will often leave a small quarter- to silver dollar-sized raw area which will eventually scab over and heal before the next year’s antlers begin to sprout.
While it’s not an exact science, a healthy, growing deer will often add two new points to its antlers with each additional year until it fully matures and eventually begins waning. So a one-year-old buck will often have skin-covered nubs of antlers called “buttons.” The next year the deer might have two one-pronged antlers, and be considered a “spike buck.” The next year the new antlers might have forks making it a “four-point rack.” The next year the new antlers might have two additional points besides the main beam, making it a “six point” buck, and so on. But there are genetic oddities and other factors which can accelerate or slow antler point and size growth.
Less healthy bucks, or those with bad genetics, can have very small racks which curve in close together and do not grow thick. These are often called “basket” racks. Very healthy bucks, or those who benefit from conservation methods such as food plots, mineral licks and such or have exceptional genetics, can have very large racks with thick tines, a wide spread and many points. Racks with unique shapes, uneven number of points from side to side, or oddities such as dozens of small points or tines growing in unusual directions (a tine growing downward is called a “drop tine”), are lumped into the category of “non-typical” racks.
Hunting shed antlers can be as simple as spending an hour or so walking in the woods and happening upon a dropped antler on occasion, or as involved as setting out to search a particular area for the antlers of a deer seen in the area in the weeks or months earlier. It can be a great accomplishment to find a three-point antler one year and then find a four-point antler on the same trail the following year — leaving you with the question of whether the sheds came from the same animal in subsequent years. And finding a “non-typical” or exceptionally large shed antler can be a real trophy.
Antlers can be put on a shelf for decoration with other outdoor memorabilia, be made into a candle holder or paperweight as a craft project, or added to other antlers to create a lamp or chandelier. Antler portions can be made into buttons, broaches, keychains, or knife or letter opener handles. A matching set of sheds, both the left and right, can be mounted on a display kit available from hunting or taxidermy stores.
So if it’s such a fun and rewarding hobby, why only hunt sheds in the dead of winter? Because they might not be around come spring, that’s why. Antlers are a form of bone and contain calcium. Many animals, both wild and domestic, require an amount of calcium in their diet. While domestic animals can get the allotted amount through additives in store-bought food, wild animals must forage for their necessary minerals and nutrients. So everything from squirrels to field mice will feed on shed antlers as a calcium source. It’s not uncommon to find a shed antler as early as late January or early February that already has gnaw marks showing. As time progresses discarded antlers will become more bleached by the sun and elements and become easier to spot in the woods. But by then it’s rare to find a fully intact antler. Pieces can often be found along small animal game trails.
Here’s one last shed antler hunting trick. Look for the antlers where deer trails — paths with hoofprints, droppings and nearby rubs — pass either close to or through thick brush or briars. It’s here that post-rut bucks often accidentally hook their loosed antlers on foliage and leave them behind.
Remember that finding a shed antler means the buck that left it behind was still alive after the last rifle season. That means he’ll likely still be in the area come next winter ... and may just leave behind another gift.