Even if you’re not a hunter, it’s fun to check out the local deer herds in the fall. If there’s good habitat around, you’ll probably see a nice variety of yearlings, does, and bucks. And, when you see a buck this time of year, it’s always fun to notice his antlers, because antlers are truly some of Mother Nature’s most amazing creations.
First of all, we must realize that antlers are different than horns. Antlers are found on mammals in the family Cervidae, which include deer, moose, and elk. Horns are found on mammals in the family Bovidae, which include bison, mountain goats, sheep, and cattle. Antlers are usually branched, while horns are not. And antlers are also shed each year, while horns are part of the animal’s skull and continue to grow throughout the animal’s life.
Since antlers regrow each year, they have to grow very fast! In fact, in just a matter of months, an antler can grow from literally nothing in early spring to a large, branching work of art late in the fall. Since they are shed after the mating season each year, antlers cannot be used to accurately tell the age of an animal, contrary to what many people think.
The quality and quantity of available food contribute to antler growth, so quality habitat tends to produce the largest antlers. It is true that mature deer typically have larger antlers than younger deer, but that’s because a young deer’s body puts so much energy into growing that there isn’t much energy left for antler growth. Likewise, once a buck is past its prime, antler growth slows down again as his body devotes more energy into just keeping him alive. So, since it is the deer’s overall health that determines antler size, a deer’s antlers will usually be their biggest from 4-6 years of age, the age at which the deer is generally the healthiest.
And, just like human fingerprints, no two deer antlers are exactly alike. Obviously, the deer’s health has an effect on the size, shape, and complexity of his antlers. But, genetics also play an important role in antler development, especially in the shape of the rack or any irregularities that may be present.
By late winter, deer no longer need their antlers to compete for mates, so the antlers fall off. But, unfortunately, shed deer antlers are often difficult to find. That’s because as soon as they are shed, small rodents such as mice and squirrels begin feeding upon them. Although that sounds distasteful to us, antlers are made of bone and, as such, have large amounts of calcium and other important minerals in them. As a result, they are a very nutritious source of food for those little animals!
So, this fall and winter, as you watch deer feed in open fields, check out the amazing variety of antlers that can be seen! Observing deer, including their antlers and their behavior, can be a fun way to enjoy fall and winter days. And, after the holidays, maybe take a short walk outside and look for a shed antler or two. You never know what you might find!