Mike Fenoff found this nice 8-pointer dead last week in Elizabethtown, apparently a victim of a vehicle collision. The deer’s antlers were still very much attached to its skull.
An interesting anomaly seems to be occurring this year with the deer herd in the form of bucks bouncing around in mid February still wearing head gear.
Normally, bucks will have shed their antlers by this time, making way for next year’s set. It is unusual to see antlers on a deer in mid to late February, but that is exactly what outdoorsmen are reporting and many are attributing it to the warmer than normal temperatures we’ve enjoyed this winter.
I myself saw a nice, high, 6-point behind the house the other day, and my old hunting chum Mike Fenoff stumbled across a dead 8-pointer in Elizabethtown that was showing no sign of shedding its antlers.
“These antlers were not loose at all,” Mike said. “I picked him up by them.”
Senior DEC Wildlife Biologist Ed Reed said that while unusual, a buck still having its horns this time of year is not unheard of. And, he said the milder than normal winter we’ve experienced probably has little to do with the fact that some deer have yet to drop their antlers.
“I really don’t think the weather has had any affect, it is the length of the daylight and a drop in testosterone following the rut that controls it,” Reed said.
The way that daylight affects antler growth is complicated. But, to simplify things, the shorter the day length, the less testosterone produced by a deer.
That’s because the length of a day from sun up to sun down is sensed by a deer’s eyes, which controls the release of different hormones. One of those hormones controls testosterone.
So, when the days grow shorter in late fall, testosterone levels drop causing a layer of cells between the antler base and the point where it mounts to the head — called the pedicle — to weaken. Eventually, both antlers fall off, a process that normally takes place over the course of a couple weeks.
Deer in the Adirondacks normally shed their antlers in late December or early January, Reed said, but some deer may keep them into February and even March.
Dr. Mickey Hellickson, a biologist with the Quality Deer Management Assoc., said that along with testosterone levels, a deer’s diet, as well as its age, can also affect when it sheds its antlers.
“A restricted diet has been found to cause bucks to shed their antlers early. It has been suspected that the lack of adequate nutrition somehow affects testosterone output,” Hellickson said.
Also, older-aged bucks are thought to shed their antlers earlier than younger bucks, and more dominant bucks tend to cast their antlers sooner than lower-ranked (subordinate) bucks, he said.
“Older-aged, more dominant bucks probably shed their antlers sooner because of the high energy costs incurred in maintaining a higher dominance rank, such as fighting and chasing,” Hellickson noted.
Like Reed, Hellickson also noted that there is no clear evidence that weather directly affects antler shedding.
But, he did say it is likely that severe winters may cause bucks to shed their antlers earlier, because of the nutritional stress this causes.
Under this hypothesis, a mild winter when food sources are plentiful, like this year, could slow the shedding of antlers, because deer are well nourished and bucks had it relatively easy recouperating from the rut.
Aside from when a deer looses its antlers, one thing about this winter is abundantly clear: The deer herd should benefit from the mild temperatures.
“I expect to see the deer take increase dramatically next year,” Reed said. “I think we’ll see a lot of yearling bucks running around.”
John Gereau is managing editor of Denton Publications and an avid outdoorsman. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org