Multiple Factors Contribute to the Shed Effect

Multiple factors affect when bucks shed their antlers.

Multiple factors affect when bucks shed their antlers.

As sure as the sun sets each day, at some point a buck will drop his antlers each year. For many hunters, this is a brand new “season,” scouring the woods and fields for antlers they have only seen attached to a moving object up to this point.

By Jeremy Flinn

The value of a discovered shed means different things to different people. From monetary gain to another chapter in a story, these calcium-rich trophies are like gold to many. But it usually isn’t as easy as simply walking into a field post-hunting season and gathering antlers. In fact, the first and toughest decision is when to start looking.

Fortunately, with the rise in the popularity of trail cameras, it’s easier to determine exactly when bucks are dropping. But just like during the rut, hunters often see a wide variation in timing. From early December to early May, just what deter- mines when a buck will let go of his headgear?

The timing of antler shedding is linked to a few factors.

1. Testosterone.

The most prominent is the drop in testosterone levels. And just like with the rut, photo period plays a significant role. It might sound simple and consistent, but it is far from it. Without getting into the physiological mechanisms that actually cause the antler to fall off, let’s take a look at what factors affect the testosterone levels from reaching or not reaching the “shed” level.

In a balanced herd, where adult buck and doe numbers are relatively consistent, we typically see antlers shed during the same 2- to 3-week span for the majority of the herd. This is because all of the does come into estrus in a relatively “tight” time period, they are all bred, and aside from the rare “missed” doe or fawn reaching critical weight, the breeding is over and bucks’ testosterone levels fall to the “shed” threshold.

2. Social Stress.

Many herds are not balanced. As conservative as two does to one buck, and as severe as seven or more adult does to one buck, it all has an effect on the timing of antler drop. Because there are more does in a herd to breed than bucks, the breeding season extends. This, in turn, drags out testosterone levels, which means bucks hold onto their antlers longer.

In some parts of the Deep South, bucks are still carrying antlers into early May, which, obviously, is not a good thing. Not only does it inflict wear and tear of the buck’s body (breeding for months rather than weeks), but the new antler growing season should’ve already started. Less growing time usually results in smaller-than-normal antlers the following autumn.

Shed hunting is fun for kids

When looking for whitetail deer antlers, bring along a young buddy. You just never know what they’ll find! (photo courtesy of Lon Sherman)

3 – 4: Injuries and Illnesses.
Though much less likely to affect the overall timing of antler drop, injury and illness can cause a buck to shed its antlers much earlier than its counterparts in the herd. This is so that the deer can put more effort into healing its body, rather than participating in breeding.

5: Nutrition.

Lastly is the effect of nutrition. Rarely do bucks experience such severe nutritional starvation that they shed their antlers early, particularly in the South. However, when early snows and severe cold temperatures arrive much earlier than normal, many of a deer’s “go to” food sources, as well as the body’s requirements, are affected.

A severe nutritional depletion can cause bucks to drop their antlers, almost in a survival mode. Their focus is on food rather than the need to keep testosterone levels up. Unfortunately, like most males in the animal kingdom, bucks rarely think about food when a breeding opportunity is at hand. This often leads to post-rut mortality in bucks literally “running” themselves to death.

What about cold weather? Well, it can expedite some of these factors, but cold weather in and of itself does not cause bucks to shed their antlers in free-ranging deer herds. The whitetail species is more than 3 million years old for a reason: It has learned to adapt and survive in a wide host of climactic conditions.

As you plan this season’s shed hunting, rely on your cameras to tell you when bucks are dropping. Once a fair number are showing up “bald,” it’s time to put some miles on those boots.

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