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Antler hunting one month away

PHOTOS BY GARRY BRANDENBURG — All North American male members of the deer family grow antlers, and each late winter, usually in late February through March, those headgear adornments will fall to the ground. When growing, antlers become an advertisement in some respects to indicate to others in the herd their status and hierarchical position. Females of the species recognize antlers as part of mate selection. It is a natural process for males of the deer family to drop antlers, or another human term used is shed, meaning to drop or lose. A sample of the display collection from the North American Shed Hunters Club is available each year at the Iowa Deer Classic, and this author holds two samples of shed antlers he came across while hiking or working outdoors. Each antler single find, or if lucky, a matched set, is a unique signature for the deer that grew them.

Antlers from Iowa whitetailed deer bucks are always treasured, no matter how big or small, when a person is out and about in natural settings and happens to look down at just the right time to see the antler or a portion of it protruding through leaf litter. So they reach down and pull the antler up close for an inspection of this artifact of nature.

For some folks, antler collection is just an occasional right time, right place happenstance. For others, it is a serious hobby to try and locate any antler, or perhaps a matched set that fell off at the same time, so they can be added to a growing collection. This author is in the former category.

However, I also know a few folks who take great delight in trekking along and through deer habitat during late February and March to see how many antlers may be waiting to be discovered. Serious collectors may also be members of the North American Shed Hunters Club, an organization founded in 1991 to add some organization and structure to the process of collecting and scoring those finds. A single antler find can be scored to help put in context what the missing side might have looked like. To grasp what the living deer actually possessed the previous fall, just hold one side up to a mirror to contemplate what it once was.

In today’s photograph from last year’s Iowa Deer Classic show held in Des Moines, the Shed Hunters Club always has a remarkable display board exhibit of antler singles or pairs. Table after table has antlers to view and a brief write-up of the who, what and where of that collector. Each antler single or set is a record of large male deer that grew them, lived through all archery and gun seasons and is still out there somewhere ready to grow a new antler set the following year.

As for the two samples I am holding, the larger one was a chance find at the Arney Bend Wildlife Area in December of 1994. I looked but did not find its other side. The smaller antler was found while mowing a lawn for a friend. I looked ahead just in time to stop the mower and pick up this natural artifact. The date of this find was May 7, 2019.

Some folks have trained dogs to assist in sniffing out antlers. By walking through last winter’s deer bedding areas or feeding sites, the dog, if properly trained, can smell antlers and increase the ability to find more shed antlers.

Deer family members go by the biological name cervidae. Usually, only male cervids grow antlers, a new set every year. Females typically do not. However, I have seen a very few female whitetails with antlers, and another exception are caribou females that grow a small set of antlers compared to larger arrays by male caribou. Other deer family members include mule deer, elk and moose. All have antlers, and antlers are not horns. They are true bone growths out of the skull plate pedicle.

Horns are grown by bovine animals, and their horns are made of keratin covering over a bony core. Bison fit this category as do domestic cattle and sheep. Wild sheep have horns. Horns do not fall off but continue to grow and add length and girth over the lifespan of the animal.

Male and female bovines have horns, just smaller versions than those of males. Mother Nature has an ace up her sleeve with pronghorns, a native American antelope species of western grasslands. Pronghorn horns are shed annually but not from the base of the skull. Rather, the horn sheath slips off of its bony core each late winter. A new sheath of keratin material grows over that core.

Antler casting is controlled by day length and hormone levels of testosterone dropping significantly each winter. Now as winter and late winter sunshine begins to change to longer and longer amounts, this photo period causes hormone levels to decrease. Some of that chemical mix causes the bony structure at the skull plate called osteoclasts to soften and be reabsorbed. Eventually, the antler base becomes so weak that the antler just falls off. Within a few days, the scar on the head will scab over and in fact the beginning of new antler growth will slowly take place during the spring and summer to follow.

Within a controlled environment of a captive deer herd in England, the owner kept good records of antler drop times. His findings told of the first week of March being prime time for bucks to lose antlers. That first week of March was accurate for seven years of his study. In nature, this time frame will likely remain accurate for most of the bucks.

According to the recent Iowa deer harvest report data, Iowa hunters have taken 102,155 white-tailed deer. Forty-seven percent were doe deer, and 53 percent were male deer. There is a category of reporting that keeps track of male deer that have lost their antlers at the time a hunter shot the animal. This number was 709 out of 12,155, or about 1.3 percent. This is a typical and predictable anomaly from year-to-year. For reasons unknown, those animals had hormone levels out of sequence that caused their antlers to fall off early. The other side of this coin are a select few bucks with full antlers still on their heads into early April.

Testosterone levels begin to ramp up in July and peak in early October. Antlers have grown by mineralization additions from both the foods the males eat and partially from a temporary pulling of additional calcium from their own ribs and breastbone. It all adds up to a new set of antlers.

Male whitetail deer at age 5 ½ are considered fully mature in body size and can now devote lots of energy into antler sets of sometimes outstanding width, girth and point numbers. Peak antlers in wild free-ranging deer of 5 ½, 6 ½ and maybe 7 ½ years will be top contenders for siring lots of fawns the following spring. Antler growth begins to decrease if male deer survive toward the end of natural life at or about age 10.

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A winter clay bird fun shoot has been planned by the Marshall County Izaak Walton League for Feb. 19, 2022. This will be a five station, 50 bird set up. Cost will be $20 if age 19 or older, and youth age 18 or younger are free with a paid adult. A bonfire will be ready and warming. Bring your own hot dogs to roast if that fits your culinary tastes. The Ike’s grounds are located at 2601 Smith Ave. in Marshalltown. Call Shannon Jelken at 641-485-4788 or Jon Nunez at 641-751-8706 for information.

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Another year brings another opportunity for scholarship award possibilities. The Izaak Walton League Chapter of Marshall County has been entrusted with a dedicated fund from the Piper family. The scholarship award for 2022 will be in the amount of $3,500 to qualified high school seniors and/or students already enrolled in college coursework who reside in Marshall County.

The scholarship guidelines stipulate that the course of study must be in a broad field reflecting conservation or environmental fields of study. This is a competitive grant to find sincere candidates who have career aspirations toward conservation related vocations.

A copy of the grant application guidelines will be sent to each high school district that has all or some part of its school district boundaries inside Marshall County. Students then may obtain a copy of the application, follow all the steps and complete the essay segment and references sections.

An evaluation will be held by the Izaak Walton board members to award or not award several scholarships. The deadline for applications is Mar. 15, 2022. Details of where to send a completed application are available in the packet materials.

Information and questions may be obtained from this author by sending a mail request to 206 E. South St., PO Box 96 or call me at 641-750-4914.

Garry Brandenburg is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. He is a graduate of Iowa State University with a BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology.

Contact him at:

P.O. Box 96

Albion, IA 50005

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