When bowhunters hear about a big buck, they envision a monarch standing in the woods, its antlers shining in the sunlight. As it sneaks away, they’re probably overwhelmed with excitement. But consider those antlers. Do you wonder what that magnificent crown is made of?
Antlers, which are often called a “rack,” are made of bone, much like our fingernails. But unlike fingernails, they’re grown only by bucks. Female deer, called does, seldom grow antlers.
Antlers come in all different shapes, sizes and configurations. Hunters differentiate racks by their number of points, or “tines,” and the width between the two antlers at their widest point. The tines grow individually from each beam that grows upward from atop a buck’s head, and must measure at least 1 inch to count as a point.
Hunters tally the number of points to describe the rack’s size. But that’s only part of the description. Some racks have many points growing from main beams that spread well beyond a buck’s extended ears. Other main beams have few points and form a compact basket atop the head.
Antlers begin growing each year in early spring, and fall away the next winter. Therefore, it’s difficult to tell the difference between bucks and does from mid-winter to early spring, when antlers are small or nonexistent.
That changes fast once the rack begins growing, as the buck generates up to a quarter-inch of new bone daily. While growing, antlers are soft and protected by a fuzzy coating called “velvet.” Velvet is rich with blood vessels to nourish the growing bone, and helps protect the antlers from damage and infections. The velvet-wrapped antlers keep growing and adding points through mid-August, when they reach their maximum size.
The antlers harden at that time, and no longer need protection or nourishment. The once soft, fuzzy velvet starts drying, cracking and falling away from late August through early September. Bucks often hasten this process by rubbing their antlers against trees and brush.
This early rubbing usually isn’t intense, but that changes in the weeks that follow as the buck’s testosterone rises in preparation for breeding. By October, bowhunters regularly find baseball-bat-sized trees with gouged bark and bare wood. These are called “rubs,” and bucks create them by thrashing their rack up and down against trees and saplings. Bucks also use their hard antlers to protect themselves from predators and battle each other for dominance during the breeding season, which varies from late October to mid-January, depending on the location.
Although antlers are hard once the velvet sheds, they’re not indestructible. Bucks often break off entire tines while fighting each other. These fights occur during the breeding season, which is called the “rut.” Bucks compete for dominance as they seek does, and if one doesn’t back down during a confrontation, a fight breaks out. Bucks can break off an entire antler during these battles, and in rare instances their antlers entangle, dooming them to a long, brutal death. Broken antlers don’t hurt or affect a buck. In fact, the best way to save entangled bucks is to break off several tines or a main beam so they can separate.
As the breeding season ends, bucks try to rebuild their exhausted bodies by feeding heavily. December and January’s dark, dreary days are also short and cold, and the bucks’ testosterone levels decline. Antlers connect to the skull at the pedicle. As winter progresses, the antler’s connection to the pedicle weakens until the antler eventually falls off. This “shedding” process usually occurs from January through March, but some bucks lose their antlers as early as late November.
As soon as bucks shed their antlers, the growing process begins again. As a buck ages, it grows larger antlers each year, assuming its habitat provides ample water and nutrition. This annual size increase continues until old age weakens bucks and wears down their teeth, which hurts their ability to eat and stay healthy.
Nothing is certain in the deer woods, so whenever you see a big buck sneaking through a forest or feeding in a field, don’t take its antlers for granted. Their magnificence requires an annual process that never gets easier as bucks confront nature’s harshest elements.