Whitetail deer, bucks specifically, shed their antlers each year as part of their natural biology and behavior. The process of shedding and re-growing antlers is known as the antler growth cycle. Not all bucks will shed their antlers, but most will. Usually, only deer in captivity receive the level of nutrition required to maintain their antlers year-round. The shedding process normally occurs between January and March each year, and this post is going to tell you why.
It doesn’t matter if you are a deer hunter or just interested in deer, the cycle of growth for each buck can be very unique and interesting to watch over the course of a year. If you are a shed hunter or like to get out in the woods scouting year-round, understanding antler growth and shedding will help you understand what you see at different times of the year.
Why Do Deer Shed Their Antlers?
The main reason why bucks shed their antlers is due to changes in hormones and the decrease of sunlight, which signals the end of the breeding season, also known as the rut. As the rut comes to a close, the levels of testosterone in the buck’s body decrease and this causes the pedicles, which are the bony protuberances on the buck’s skull from which the antlers grow, to absorb the antlers. This process is called “antler regression or casting.” Otherwise known as the shedding process.
When Do Deer Shed Their Antlers?
During the casting process, the antlers will become loose and will eventually fall off. This process typically begins in late December or early January and is usually completed by late February or early March. The bucks will rub their antlers against trees or other objects to help the process along, and once the antlers have been shed, the pedicles will begin to heal and prepare for the next year’s growth. It’s an annual process that happens to all bucks, but not all bucks shed their antlers at the same time, it can vary depending on the deer’s age, health, genetics, and other factors.
Shedding of antlers is a natural process and it is not harmful to the deer. It’s also the reason why shed hunting is a popular activity among deer hunters, as it allows them to gain valuable information about the size and health of the local deer population, as well as scout the areas where deer are likely to be found.
The shedding of antlers also allows bucks to conserve energy during the winter months when food is hard to find and the weather is harsh. The energy that is normally used to maintain the antlers is redirected to other areas of the body, such as the muscles and internal organs, to help the buck survive the winter.
As mentioned before, not all bucks will shed their antlers at the same time (or shed both antlers at the same time), it can vary depending on the deer’s age, health, genetics, and other factors. Typically, young bucks (yearlings) will shed their antlers earlier than older bucks. Yearling bucks will shed their first set of antlers in late December or early January, while older bucks will shed their antlers later, usually in January or February. This is the norm, yet the exact opposite can happen depending on the region or specific situation.
Also, bucks in bad physical condition or have experienced a hard winter will typically shed their antlers earlier than bucks that are in good health. This is because antlers are a costly tissue to maintain and the deer will shed them when they are not required anymore.
The re-growth of antlers is then triggered by the increase of daylight and the buck’s hormonal levels. As the days get longer in the spring, the buck’s body begins to produce more testosterone, which stimulates the pedicles to begin growing new antlers. This process is called “antler growth” and it can take several months for the antlers to reach their full size.
The Antler Growth Cycle
We talked about shedding, but that is just one part of what a deer goes through with the antler growth cycle. The antler growth cycle is the process of a buck growing, shedding, and then regrowing its antlers each year. Understanding this cycle is important for hunters, wildlife managers, and anyone interested in deer biology.
The antler growth cycle begins in the spring when the days start getting longer and the buck’s body begins to produce more testosterone. This increased testosterone triggers the pedicles, which are the bony protuberances on the skull from which the antlers grow, to begin growing new antlers. Ultimately, it takes several months for the antlers to reach their full size. More on this is below.
During the summer months, the antlers continue to grow, and by the time fall arrives, the antlers will be fully developed and hardened, ready for the rut. The buck will use their antlers to compete for does to mate with and to defend their territory from other bucks.
Once the rut is over, usually in late December or early January, the antler growth cycle enters the next phase, which is called antler regression or casting (as we discussed above). The levels of testosterone in the buck’s body decrease, and this causes the pedicles to absorb the antlers; thus completing the shedding portion of the cycle.
Once the antlers are shed, the pedicles begin to heal and prepare for the next year’s growth. This cycle continues year after year.
Antler Growth Factors
Antlers grow at different rates depending on various factors, such as age, genetics, nutrition, and the health of the buck. In general, younger bucks tend to have faster antler growth than older bucks. Antlers can grow at a rate of about one inch per day during the peak of the growth phase (normally July into mid-August).
This period is known as the “velvet stage” when the antler is covered in a soft and fuzzy tissue called velvet, which provides blood flow and nourishment to the antler as it grows. As the antler hardens, the velvet dries up and falls off, or is rubbed off by the deer; revealing the hard bone structure underneath. This usually happens in late August or early September.
Bucks that have access to high-quality food and are in good health will typically have faster antler growth than bucks that are malnourished or in poor health. Nutrition plays a large role in antler growth.
Bucks maximize the growth of their antlers around the age of 6 1/2 years old. This varies from region to region, but from this age on you can expect to see the size of the antlers on a mature buck stagnate and slow their growth.
Bucks shed their antlers as a part of the normal antler growth cycle and it is a part of a bucks growth and maturation process. Bucks will lose their antlers at different times too. It is very common to see deer with antlers on one side for days or even weeks after shedding one of their antlers. This cycle continues year after year through a mature bucks life. Not all deer shed their antlers. Most will go through this process, but some do not and this is perfectly normal too. The region a deer lives in, their level of nutrition, and other factors play a role. This is why bucks shed their antlers.
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