Why do bucks shed their antlers?
We’ve talked a lot this winter and spring about shed hunting, and for good reason: even though most game hunting pursuits are out of season at the moment, it’s still the perfect time to go scout your property and perhaps find a few sheds along the way.
But have you ever thought about why bucks shed their antlers? If so, keep reading, because we’ve compiled a list of the six primary reasons behind the antlers you find scattered about your deer property.
View the slideshow to see why bucks shed their antlers.
1. The length of the day
Everyone knows that the days during the winter are considerably shorter than the ones in the summer, fall, or spring. But did you know that the length of the day actually plays a pivotal role in determining when a buck will shed his antlers?
Indeed, as the rut passes and the winter arrives, and as the days become shorter and daylight drifts away, the likelihood of a buck shedding his antlers increases. This is why, for example, bucks further north – especially throughout the Midwest – often shed their antlers sooner than bucks in the southern United States. It’s also part of the reason that shedding season can run such a range, with some bucks losing their antlers in December right after the rut and others holding onto them until mid to late spring.
2. Testosterone levels
The question, of course, is about why daylight levels have any sort of impact on a buck’s antlers.
The answer is provided by testosterone levels, which begin to drop as daylight decreases. In one of nature’s most remarkable phenomena, a buck’s declining testosterone levels ignite a cellular process between a buck’s skull and antlers. The bone at the base of the antler essentially begins to deteriorate, eventually leaving little to no calcium at the binding spot between the antler burr and the skull.
At this point, the antler will either be knocked and jarred loose or will fall off of its own accord, because there is no bone layer left to support the weight of the rack.
3. Stress levels
Of course, daylight levels and corresponding testosterone levels aren’t the only factors at play in deciding when a buck will shed his antlers. On the contrary, there are several other forces that can contribute to the process, and stress is one of them. If you’ve been managing a deer property for long enough, you know how many different stress factors can impact a deer herd, and nearly all of them can have an impact on antler shedding.
Perhaps the biggest stress factor to watch out for is an injury, as a buck who has been seriously hurt – whether in a close shave with a hunter’s bullet or in a territorial clash with another buck – will be channeling much of his strength into healing the wound. Similarly, a buck with an inadequate food supply will need to jettison his antlers earlier than a healthy and well-fed buck. Consistent predatory threats or severe winter weather conditions can also play a role in boosting a buck’s stress levels and initiating early antler casting.
4. Genetic make-up
While it seems as if bucks should all shed their antlers at the same general time, that isn’t always the case. Instead of being on the same biological clock across the board, buck antler casting is governed more by specific genetic factors than by an overall species lifecycle.
In fact, when born, it seems that each buck has a specific and unique biological clock that governs when he will shed his antlers each year. As long as a buck is healthy, he will then shed his antlers around the same general two-week period each year.
This timing can change slightly as the buck ages, getting notably earlier in the season in his eighth and ninth years. However, until then, shedding that falls outside the normal and expect time period should be taken as a sign that the buck in question has faced some type of ordeal that has caused him to shed his antlers off schedule.
5. Nutritional factors
It’s no secret that the rut is an incredibly physically draining time for a buck. As he travels all over your property, searching for does and breeding almost constantly, a buck can burn through a fifth of his body weight. This is especially true if you’ve neglected to cull the does on your property, and have left your bucks to do double or triple duty on the breeding front. If you are lucky, the rut will end before the winter descends on your property, giving your bucks a chance to chow down on the remains of summer crops and rebuild their body weight and fat reserves.
However, if winter strikes early in your area and kills the crops, it will leave your bucks struggling to recover from the rut because they do not have access to adequate food sources. Sometimes, this misfortune can pose a real danger to the mortality of the bucks on your property. If they don’t have time to build up fat reserves and revitalize themselves after the exhaustion of the rut, how can the male deer on your property possibly make it to spring?
Even if bucks survive, they will probably show the stress of poor nutrition by shedding their antlers early.
This one ultimately connects to all of the above, as terrain isn’t enough to separate fully calcified antlers from a buck’s skull.
However, rough terrain can play a role in where a buck sheds his antlers, and can even make the event happen earlier than it would on a property more easy to traverse. If a buck is crossing streams, struggling over uneven ground, leaping over fallen branches and fences, or pushing through a crowded forest, there’s a good chance that jarring movement or actual collisions (e.g. a low-hanging branch hitting an antler) could knock the antlers off of a buck’s head.
For all of these reasons, you should pay close attention to rough terrain spots when looking for sheds this spring.