How to ... observe the fascinating cycles of deer antlers

  • Article by: BILL MARCHEL SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Updated: August 29, 2013 - 10:20 AM
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This young buck is in the process of shedding his velvet. Note the bloody antlers and strips of velvet hanging below his left eye.

– As you read this, the whitetail bucks are about to shed the fuzzy velvet covering their antlers.

That means the blood-rich skin that has fed the budding antlers since they first sprouted back in April is about to dry, split and peel off. The process begins with the most mature bucks — usually during the first few days in September — and ends with the younger bucks. By mid-September most bucks in Minnesota, mature and immature, will bear antlers free of velvet. Usually a buck will hasten the velvet-shedding process by rubbing his crown on saplings and shrubs. Typically the antlers are clean within a day or so.

The annual process of deer-antler growth, shedding and regrowth is fascinating. Antlers have intrigued man since he first pursued deer using spearheads chiseled from stone. Centuries later, that fascination has not waned.

Antler growth on whitetail bucks begins in early spring and originates from a plate on the skull called a pedicel. During growth, a soft, blood-rich skin called velvet covers the antlers. Antlers continue to grow throughout the summer and are fully grown by about mid-August.

As a healthy buck ages, his antlers get larger. A typical buck will sport his largest rack when he is about five or six years old. Past that, as his health declines, so does the size of his antlers. A fully mature buck is rare in Minnesota since most are killed at 1½ years of age due to heavy hunting pressure.

During late August and early September, the antlers solidify and the velvet peels off, exposing the hardened bone beneath. The yearly process is complete with the shedding of the antlers during winter. Antler shedding progression — like velvet shedding — usually begins with the older bucks. Worn down from the rigors of the November rut, mature bucks sometimes shed their antlers as early as mid-December while the archery season is still open. Every now and then it happens: A jubilant December bowhunter prepares to drag his or her downed buck from the woods by grabbing an antler. Much to their dismay the antler breaks loose, leaving a distraught archer holding a solitary antler.

Usually, though, the primary antler shedding period is mid-January to mid-February. Healthy, well-fed bucks typically carry their antlers longer into the winter.

Biologists believe the purpose of antlers is for social ranking, not protection from predators, since antlers are shed during winter when predators pose the greatest threat.

The woods, one would assume, should be littered with dropped antlers. Why is that not so? Antlers are a source of minerals and are quickly consumed by forest creatures such as squirrels, mice and porcupines.

This fall, while you bide your time in a deer stand, think about the yearly antler growing process — and just how fascinating it is.

Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.

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  • This monster buck was photographed a few years ago on Aug. 29. His antlers were velvet-free three days later. Usually a buck aids the process by rubbing his crown on saplings and shrubs.

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