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June 2012
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Antler arms race Bucks finishing racks that will be weaponry, rate status, earn breeding rights

By Steve Vantreese outdoors@paducahsun.com.

Whitetail deer bucks right now are working hard to become boneheads.

Midsummer, a season of plenty, is also the thick of an antlers arms race. It's crunch time for growing the bony headgear that will go far to define the social status of each adult male whitetail.

Growing antlers is a natural, involuntary process, but bucks instinctively know what to do to make it happen. They spend much of their waking hours eating to pump nutrients into their systems, fueling antler growth and building reserves they'll need when it's time to use those antlers. 

Antlers are some of the fastest growing tissues in nature. A buck begins growing its first antlers in the spring of its second year. Older bucks that already have grown antlers shed them in late winter, then begin growing new ones in the spring. 

A buck goes from the first nubbins rising from bases called pedicels â “ usually in March â “ to the finished product, polished bone antlers, in late August or early September. In this part of the whitetail's range, antlers are said to reach their full growth potential about Aug. 10.

Antlers that grow to be branched (some are only spikes) seem to attain those forks sometime in May. Some of the earlier growth obviously needs to go into the main beam, while the points coming off those are secondary sprouts.

Right about now, most of the antler development in size is attained. Bucks are still sprouting the last bit of their point length.

All antlers start as rather soft tissue growing as much as a half-inch per day in its peak growth period. Antlers grow enclosed in a soft, fuzzy coating known as velvet. This sheath is heavily laced with blood vessels that carry a steady flow of nutrients to the cells inside.

Not only is antler tissue less than bone-hard early on in the season, it is particularly vulnerable to damage. Bucks that incur some sort of misfortune to the formative headgear while it is soft end up with misshapen, smaller, sometimes gnarly antlers on one or both sides. Damage to a pedicel early on in the process can cost a buck an entire antler.

Biologists don't fully understand why, but during the period when antlers are being formed, an injury to a buck's leg can cause a deformity to an antler. And it gets weird here: If a front leg is injured, the antler on the same side is deformed; but if a rear leg is injured, the antler on the opposite side tends to grow misshapen.

Within about three weeks, the antlers of most bucks will be as big as they're going to get. The growth stage ends and the hardening intensifies as the blood flow in the velvet shuts down. This coincides with and mostly likely is directly triggered by a hormonal change â “ a rise in the production of the buck's testosterone.

The boys-will-be-boys endocrinal surge is mostly the result of the changing length of daylight, the photo period, when shorter days on the back side of the summer solstice start sending bucks a message. The message, beginning as that hormonal whisper of testosterone, is that the rut is coming.

The hardening of the antlers, indeed, is the first physical sign of the whitetail breeding phase. It won't become full blown until early November, but technically at least the bucks should be capable of breeding from the time of hardened antlers â “ the time when those big boy hormones first flicker.

Hardened antlers are accompanied by drying and flaking velvet. There is a time in late August or even into early September when bucks will be shedding that fluffy sheathing as it grows crispy. During that time, a buck typically will rub its headgear on vegetation, seemingly to cast off the dry, often ragged and hanging velvet.

There are different thoughts about this process. Some folks maintain that dried velvet must be itchy, and that's why bucks thrash bushes to rub it off. Yet, inasmuch as antlers are hard bone by then, I'm not so certain that dried velvet could itch them.

This August and early September rubbing might be (just speculation here) in part just the earliest of rubs that are made as social signpost markings and for the strengthening of neck muscles.

Those neck muscles do need a workout, because one of the real purposes of antlers is coming up. Visually, bucks assess each other in kind of a pecking order on the basis of how big and fit they are â “ and how impressive those antlers rise above the ears.

The pecking order applies to breeding rights of local does when the peak of the rut comes, but bucks work much of that out now with exploratory shoving matches, sparring with those newly completed antlers. Later when mere appearances and impressions of social status won't settle things, bucks may engage in serious, down and dirty fighting with those antlers among near-equal contenders.

How they rate in the whitetail community, who can whip whom, and who gets to breed what does â “ all these things may hinge later on what a buck is growing on his head today.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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