Deer antlers – a sometimes impressive sight!

After living in apartments for many decades, it was a thrill for me when I was able to live in a house surrounded by a yard on all sides. It was even cooler when I discovered my neighborhood was home to a variety of birds and animals, undoubtedly helped by the fact that there are woods, a creek and a pond nearby. One of my greatest delights has been the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), that visit – even though some neighbors loathe them and chase them from their yards. I’ve found that a home-made deer repellant, as well as a store-bought one, work well to keep these visitors from eating the plants I want to keep. The veggies are in a narrow, fenced garden that they cannot enter so no problems there either.

deer antler IMG_5122©Maria de Bruynsignedres

While does and fawns are the main passersby, a variety of male deer visit, too. Some have been the offspring of local does, while others have come in during mating season.The buck above was kind enough to drop one antler in my yard and I found the other in the woods. Learning about their antlers has been interesting and showing the antlers to kids that I have mentored and visitors is fun, too.  So what process leads to these impressive growths?

Male fawns that are 6-9 months old during their first winter (fawns are born in the spring) are called “button bucks” because they have nobs on their heads that are covered with skin. In their second year, their antlers become longer but are still rather short.

button buck IMG_4770©Maria de Bruynsigned2nd year buck IMG_5975©Maria de Bruynsignedres

The males grow new antlers every year; they are the fastest growing bone in mammals. They start growing in late spring and are at first covered with a fuzzy skin, called velvet, which provides nutrients and oxygen to the growing bone. The velvet has blood vessels and when the deer rub it off, for example, against tree branches, you can see traces of blood. When the velvet has been shed, the antler becomes dead bone and it doesn’t hurt when the antler is shed.

antler velvet shedding IMG_6077©Maria de Bruynsignedresdeer skull IMG_1388©Maria de Bruynsignedres

The way that the antlers grow is influenced by the deer’s nutrition, age and genetic background. Some have simple spikes, which may become branched antlers as the deer grows older. Some “racks” (the pair of antlers) will have many branches.

deer antlers IMG_5414©Maria de Bruynsignedres

The bucks lose their antlers at the end of winter and you can find them on the ground if the squirrels don’t get to them first! I had left some antlers outdoors as garden decorations until one day I found a couple had been gnawed by the squirrels. The squirrels eat them to help wear down their front teeth (which are always growing) and to obtain minerals such as calcium.

gnawed antler IMG_1402©Maria de Bruynsignedres

As long as the does are around, the bucks will come, which makes me happy. They may not be as comfortable staying in the yard as this member of Schatje’s family, but their brief visits will remain a source of pleasure and learning!

Schatje's son Topa IMG_7560©Maria de Bruyn signedres

Thanks to Kevin Hinkle for letting me photograph the skull.

Next blog: birds at salt blocks