For weeks now, whitetail bucks have been ditching their headgear.
Late winter is a period during which many antlered deer drop those hard bone weapons and social status symbols. Individual differences cause some bucks to shed their antlers as soon as late December, while some bucks carry their topknots on into spring.
If there are generalities, some of the larger, older bucks lose their annually grown racks earlier in the shedding season, while some of the younger antlered bucks, the year-plus fellows wearing their first bone accoutrements, are among the latest to have them drop.
It is not a voluntary process. It happens when a buck’s testosterone level subsides well below the stage at which it is capable of breeding. This is the opposite end of the origins of the annual rut, the reproductive season. The very first development in this is when bucks’ growing antlers reach full size and harden, which happens as bucks begin to experience a rise in their hormonal levels.
At this latitude, most deer breeding for the season is weeks in the past. Most adult does are impregnated and have little use for bucks. Consequently, bucks don’t need antlers to battle or intimidate each other for the does’ attentions now. In a few weeks, they will need to start growing a new set of antlers to start the cycle again, so they might as well dispose of the old headgear now.
Nature takes care of this without the bucks’ participation. Typically about now, a buck will start developing a layer of cells around the base of the hard bone antlers in the natural sockets from which the antlers grow, the pedicels. This allows them to begin separating from the point of attachment.
When a buck’s antlers grow loose enough, they will eventually fall off from their own weight. Often before that happens, some movement of the deer or some contact with vegetation or some other object will bump off an antler.
It usually happens one antler at a time. Rarely, it seems, do both antlers drop at the same time or even close to each other. It is common to see one-antlered bucks during the shedding season. One drops and then the second goes a day or two or a few later.
The shedding of antlers tends to humble the bucks in a sense. Without sharp, pointy bone weaponry on their heads, they certainly are not so inclined to fight or try to bully around other deer. They are even a little more vulnerable to predators like coyotes. The sight of them probably does not even impress the does as much.
Meeker attitudes probably go along with the late winter season, during which bucks that are physically depleted by the past frenzy of the “rut,” are more focused on eating to replenish calories and to rest up in order to survive the remaining rigors of winter before kinder spring arrives.
This annual divestiture of antlers creates another hunting season of sorts for humans. A fair number of people who enjoy all sorts of deer-related activities are pretty enthusiastic about hunting for and collecting the deposed racks.
There are those who walk the fields and woods in search of dropped antlers, a kind of deer harvest that does not subtract from the whitetail population. Some do it purely to have and hold the antlers as personal artifacts of the living, breathing bucks. Some use it as a scouting technique, hunters putting an identity on specific bucks, confirming which ones surviving the previous season and still exist in what habitats now.
Now, with abundant snow cover is a great time to find those antlers that might have been shed since the end of the last snowfall. It is going to take a major thawing to reveal the pre-snow and pre-ice racks.
The place to find antlers, of course, is where shedding bucks go. That might be in a feeding field or it might be along faint trails that are travel byways between bedding cover and feeding areas. Seemingly better, however, are in thick places where bucks spend more leisurely hours loafing, the bedding areas themselves.
Finding good bedding areas often lets antler seekers find the bucks themselves. Paying attention sometimes reveals deer busting out the opposite direction. For a hunter, that is OK. Disturbing the areas now will be long forgotten or forgiven by the next hunting season, and it is educational now.
For the bone relic hunters, it is beneficial to find antlers as soon as possible after shedding. Mice, squirrels and other rodents apparently relish the minerals in antlers and will gnaw on them beginning soon after they hit the ground. They can eat them away to nothing over a period of a few weeks.
Late February, at least as soon as the ground is visible again, is a good bone hunter’s compromise between early winter, when few antlers are yet shed, and spring, when most antlers are shed but many already have been whittled down and disfigured by ravaging rodents.
• Earlier this week, Kentucky’s regular hunting season for Canada, white-fronted and “light” geese — snows and blues — came to a halt. That was followed immediately by the onset of the “conservation order season” for light geese.
Monday brought the close of the conventional goose season, but the special season to encourage additional harvest of snow/blue geese followed seamlessly on Tuesday. It runs all the way through March 31.
The conservation order season, for which there is no daily harvest limit on light geese only, is offered as a means to help reduce numbers of snows and blues, which are overpopulated to the extent that they have been damaging their nesting habitats in extreme northern North America and Canada.
The asterisk to that season in Kentucky is that there typically are few light geese wintering in the state and these are present at only choice habitats. Opportunities to take snow and blue geese are usually very limited during the special season, resulting in little hunter participation.
• Other ongoing hunting quests in Kentucky include squirrel and crow season and hunting/trapping for furbearers. These seasons run another 10 days, concluding Feb. 28.
The end of February brings a conclusion of Kentucky’s 2020-21 hunting year.
The same applies to Kentucky’s sporting license year. Hunting and fishing licenses for 2020-21 expire at the end of the month.
Licenses for the 2021-22 year are required beginning March 1.