What causes bucks to shed / peel their velvet? Do older bucks normally peel before younger bucks? What factors cause bucks to shed their velvet early or later than normal?
The whitetail velvet shedding process is one that has fascinated deer hunters for centuries and it seems that more and more hunters are observing changes in buck behavior on their properties.
Case in point: My Instagram buddy Derrick poses these insightful questions this morning. Derrick writes:
“My friend has noticed this year that the mature bucks on his hunting property seem to have shed their velvet earlier than the younger bucks. Does the time when a buck’s antlers harden translate when they will peel their velvet, or is it random?
“I’ve thought mature bucks would be the first to peel their velvet because of three things:
- The weight of the antler.
- The size of the larger antlers getting caught up brush, vegetation, etc.
- The fact that older bucks are more experienced in this sequence of events.”
“One last observation: my friend found that his mature bucks shed their antlers in late winter about a week or two before the younger bucks began to drop their antlers (he found about 80 sheds. Any coorelations here?”
Whitetail Antler Experts
Outstanding questions, Derrick! I will try to touch on most of them here today, but for more in-depth insights you should get yourself copies of all the Charles Alsheimer and Leonard Lee Rue books you can get your hands on. These men paved the way for generations of whitetail enthusiasts. They spent the bulk of their careers as freelance photographers documenting whitetail behavior across North America. I consider Rue as the pioneer whitetail behaviorist in North America, and Alsheimer as the man who took Rue’s work several steps farther in connecting all of us more closely with the white-tailed deer. They learned about deer through watching them — 24/7, 365. Literally.
But I digress. Let’s get you some answers to your questions.
For starters, the white-tailed buck’s antler-growing process begins and ends each year from about April 1 to July 15. That can vary slightly across the country, but it’s a good timeline for most whitetail enthusiasts to set their clocks by, so to speak. The antler growing process ceases approximately by Aug. 10. This is when blood flow ceases to the velvet-clad antlers and the drying process begins. Key word there is “begins.”
When Do Velvet Antlers Harden?
The antler drying/hardening process takes about 20 to 25 days. With the blood supply cut off, the antler begins to calcify and turn to “bone” (which is what we hunters call it, but antlers are wholly different material).
Why do bucks shed their velvet? That’s an easy one: Because the cessation in blood flow leads to the “death” of the velvet covering. When that velvet dies, it starts to decompose. If you’ve ever been around dried velvet antlers, they can get pretty funky pretty fast. They literally rot, and the odor will hit a 10 out of 10 on the gag meter. Some folks believe bucks peel their velvet because it “itches.” I doubt this is the case as much as it reeks; it attracts insects (bees, flies, you name it), and that annoyance along with the odor (which surely attracts predators) is something a buck does not want on his headgear for long. This is why bucks will most times have their racks completely polished of velvet with hours of their racks becoming hardened.
How Bucks Shed Their Velvet
The velvet-peeling process is physically taxing for the white-tailed deer. It is a rare event when a buck will peel his velvet in less than three hours. In most cases, it takes anywhere from eight to 48 hours. Bucks will usually seek a secluded location that’s loaded with brushy vegetation.
To your larger questions of timing … photoperiod (shortening day length) is the single most important factor that controls when a buck not only peels his velvet but also when he drops his antlers in late winter. This is wired in a buck’s genetic makeup, and each buck is a little bit different. Photoperiod triggers hormone secretions in the whitetail’s pineal gland. In turn, that gland secretes hormones that start and stop both processes.
Is velvet peel triggered both a stretch of hot or cold weather? Do mature bucks peel their velvet first because the antlers are much larger than those of younger bucks? Does a mature buck peel his velvet first because he has more experience? Given what we know from decades of research, the answers to all of these questions is most likely a resounding no on all three. However, I must slightly preface this answer. We do know that stress can and will affect whitetail behavior, but the stressor typically must be severe and prolonged. A very prolonged recovered from an injury, for example, can affect the antler processes. Severe droughts and winter weather (I’m talking really severe, not just a few weeks here or there) can also affect things.
All things being equal, individual white-tailed bucks will peel their velvet and shed their antlers on remarkably consistent schedules each year. Yearling bucks might be the exception simply due to the fact they are going from infants to adults in a rapid succession. Hence, the hormone levels might not be at the capacity where they will be, say, when that buck is 2 years old or older.
One final note: in the 20-plus years I worked with Alsheimer, he would provide yearly updates on the bucks in his research facility in western New York. These deer weren’t hunted and were provided with ample nutrition year-round (a key factor). Alsheimer documented peel and shed dates for all of these bucks, and discovered that each individual deer would peel velvet and shed their antlers on a remarkably consistent schedule. It was a very rare case that a buck would deviate more than a 3 days from its genetically programmed date. For example, one buck might shed its antlers each year within a 3-day period in February, while another buck would have a similar schedule but maybe three weeks later.
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