Deer in Spring Landscape

Antlers Tell Much About Deer

The hunter approached his stand quietly, walking through the early morning light. It was a clear, crisp morning in late November. The stars still bright in the sky. He reached the stand he had chosen many weeks before, near the base of a huge oak tree.

The site gave him a good view of the deer trail where he had observed several bucks earlier in the month. The hunter quietly cleared a small circle of leaves and twigs to prepare a quiet place to stand.

It was nearly full light. As the night shadows faded, the "ghost" deer became stumps and low bushes. The deer hunter remained still. Only his eyes moved, scanning both sides of the trail. Then a white branch appeared to move. It wasn't a branch but the tine of a six-point buck. The buck appeared along the trail walking very slowly, his nose only 10 inches off the ground. The buck has been on the trail of the doe since early dawn, his head is low, picking up a doe's scent.

When the deer came into a small opening, the hunter fired. His six-point rack was a beauty, the tines are long and even on both sides. The projectile met its mark.

At the check station, his buck created a lot of excitement. One hunter admired the "horns." Another suggested the deer must be five to six years old because of the size of the rack and the white on the face. A Maryland Wildlife and Heritage Service biologist aged the deer by replacement and wear of the teeth on the lower jaw; it was 18 months old.

How did a yearling buck grow such an impressive rack? We must begin our story about eight months before the hunt when the young button buck was approximately eleven months old. He had survived the winter in good condition due to a mild winter and plentiful food supply. These conditions meant the deer would quickly regain any weight loss from winter stress.

[Early stage of development]As the days grew longer, in late April or early May, increased daylight triggered a gland at the base of the deer's skull. This caused the buttons on the buck's skull to produce a fleshy, bulb-type growth resembling fuzzy, fat thumbs. As June approached, the main beam began to sprout branches of the same material. The buck was growing his antlers for fall.

Antlers start as living tissue. They are soft, consisting of veins and arteries that carry blood to fuel growth. The tissue is very delicate. Growth continues into late August or early September. During the growing period, the antlers are described as "being in velvet."

The size and number of points, or tines, on the rack depends on several factors, such as how well the buck wintered and how much nutritious food he ate while in velvet affect growth. Heredity also plays a part in rack development. A well-fed yearling buck can grow a six to eight point rack.

[Second stage of development]During the summer, the buck deer is not often seen. He restricts his movements to prevent damage to the rack. If a buck sustains injury to the velvety tissue the rack may become deformed or bleed. Injury can cause the tines to be blunted or to develop abnormally. As summer progresses, the level of the male hormone, testosterone, increases. The hormone slows and stops antler growth and causes the deer to shed the velvet.

In late August or early September, the arteries and veins at the base of the rack constrict. This cuts off the supply of blood to the tissue allowing the velvet to dry. Beneath the velvet is the bony material observed in the fall. The shedding of velvet begins the buck rubbing. Initially, this serves to get rid of the dead tissue and leads up to the rutting season, in late October to November.

[Mid-Final stage of development]In early fall, the bucks become more visible. Rack color varies from white to brownish. A white rack can result from the blood enriched velvet drying rapidly and not causing a stain from frequent rubbing. A brown stain may result when the velvet dries slowly and the rubbing causes a stain. Many claim the brown stain occurs when deer rub certain types of trees and shrubs. Possibly, the coloration is affected by heredity.

During the breeding season or "rut," the reason the buck grew the rack becomes apparent. Deer are heedless of danger during the rut. Their necks begin to swell. When two bucks meet there is at least a sparring if not an all out clashing of antlers. Sometimes bucks lock their antlers and die of stress and starvation if they do not get unlocked. Most of the time a sparring match, consisting of eye or body movements, determines the dominant male. Strength plays an important part in who becomes "king of the woods." Many times a strong six-pointer will be more than a match for a smaller eight or ten-pointer.

[Final stages of development]In Maryland, 15-20 percent of bucks survive the first year. These shed their antlers after the breeding season. Antlers are shed from early December through March. When deer drop their antlers depends on the amount of stress on the buck after the rut, heredity and nutrition.

Shed antlers are called "drops." Looking for them can be a good way to spend late winter days in the field. Usually only one side of the rack can be located at a time, because both sides of the antlers do not drop simultaneously. They are difficult to find after late winter because small mammals, mice and squirrels, eat the antlers for the calcium in them.

A yearling buck can support a six to eight point rack by fall. This dispels the misconception that the age can be determined by the number of points. Age is determined by the replacement and wear of the teeth.

Another misconception is that antlers are horns. Horns are not shed annually. They continue to grow through the year. Cattle and goats have horns. The deer family's bony structures are antlers because they are shed annually. Deer do not always grow the same size rack each year.

Growth depends on nutrition and heredity. Antlers can also be found on female deer. Normally the doe has spikes that remain in velvet. The spiked doe remains fertile and can produce young. This occurs in one to every 20 thousand deer. In the Maryland deer kill, only two or three antlered doe are reported each year.

The white-tailed deer is a very interesting and important game animal in Maryland. Knowledge of the deer herds' well-being is necessary for future management. The condition of the antlers in the fall is a prime indicator of a deer herd's health. This is one reason why wildlife personnel staffing deer check stations measure antler diameter.

Antler development is not only of interest to the deer biologist but also to the sportsman and citizens of Maryland who enjoy hunting or observing one of Maryland's largest mammals.

Contributed by Edward Golden, a retired habitat biologist for the Western Region of the Wildlife and Heritage Service of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Mr. Golden earned a B.S. in Wildlife Management from the University of Wyoming and has over 32 years of experience in wildlife resource work. He enjoys hunting and raising beef cattle in his spare time.

Drawings by W.H. Henry