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New year, new headgear for some creatures

2022 01 01 hawke antlersBy David Hawke — Around the time our calendars flip from December to January, the white-tailed deer of our area are succumbing to an annual miracle. At least the guy deer are. It starts with an itch, escalates to an obsessive notion to rub things and suddenly the top of their head falls off! Plop, plop, in the snow, just lying there.

Antler shedding is a unique part of being a deer, elk, or moose. It does seem a bit strange that Nature makes the males of these animals spend most of the year sporting a set of bony headgear, all shined up and impressive for the fall mating season, only to discard them a few weeks later. But then again, Nature works in mysterious ways.

Before we get too far into antler lore, know that the horns that ride atop such critters as mountain goats, mountain sheep, bison and cattle are permanent adornments. Horn growth is very different from antler growth: once it has started, a horn will continue to grow, a bit like growth rings within a tree, whereas the antler is a temporary thing. Should a young and tender horn become damaged (or an old and fragile one), the scar remains. With an antler, the animal gets a whole new start each year.

As mentioned, this headgear is useful during the mating season. And yes, when it comes to horns and antlers, size matters. However, the manner in which the aforesaid headgear is used does differ between species.

You have no doubt seen the TV/YouTube footage of two dueling mountain sheep, each rearing up and crashing their heads together with such force that they are almost knocked senseless while the thunder of their combat rolls through the mountain valley. They can do this head-bashing as their horns are part and parcel of the skull. (The ewes graze nearby, pretty much oblivious of this male ritual. "Yeah, yeah, whoever's still standing come over and see me. Whatever.")

Deer and moose have much more finesse when it comes to asserting their dominance over other males and their resultant attractiveness to nearby does. What these guys prefer to do is posture. Tilt the ol' antlers a bit this way, a bit that way, catch the morning sun — “Oh yeah girls, cast your eyes on these!”

Deer with equal sized antlers may get into a bit of shove and push with each other, but will protect their antlers from undue scuffing. Moose are similar, and being so big, they don't even have to get close to one another to prove who's the bigger of the two. "Oh man, look at the rack on George over there! They are like satellite receivers! And I'm barely the size of a TV dish. Oh well, maybe next year I'll grow a little bigger set."

And so, with the aid of a little violin music and a pan shot of the sky, our deer and moose find true love. But once the mating season is over, what is the use of these huge things stuck on their head? Useless appendages. Like wearing your favourite deely-boppers to work the day after the office party; "Give it up dude, the party's over. If she wasn't attracted to you last night, she sure won't be today when she's sober".

And so, antlers are shed each winter. This is possible because of the way they are attached to the skull, which is much like the way a leaf is attached to a twig. While growth takes place in spring and summer, the blood vessels are numerous and protected beneath a thin layer of fuzzy skin called velvet. Once growth for the year is complete, the blood vessels close off, the velvet dies like a scab and is rubbed off, and the animal is left with a rather handsome set of antlers.

Depending on the nutrition in the deer’s food, the antlers may have grown large with many spikes, or spindly with few divisions. Biologists can use antler growth, size and shape to start understanding the health of the animal. Note that the number of tines, or spikes, do not determine the age of the animal.

Back to horns for a moment. Horns are actually a tough shield around soft bone material which needs to be protected from injury at all times. Kind of like a giant fingernail wrapped around itself to form a point. Antlers, on the other hand, are solid and once the detachment occurs, aside from a bit of bleeding for a day, the wound is sealed and new growth is preparing to happen.

Why are we not knee-deep in cast antlers within the winter woods? Most antlers will not survive to see the snow melt next spring, despite being bone-like in structure. While now being useless to the deer, the cast antler becomes a much-needed dietary supplement for rodents such as porcupines and mice, as well as carnivores such as coyote and fox. To find an ungnawed antler on a woodland walk is special discovery for us.

The local deer have just about finished their migration into their traditional deer yards for the winter months, where a dozen or maybe a hundred of them will hunker down to endure the snow and cold for a few months. Within the protective hemlock groves await the porcupines and red squirrels. They know that their special Christmas treat is about to be delivered by a head-shaking buck, the next best thing to a flying reindeer.

Dave's Notebook: Welcome to 2022! ... It sounds so 'futuristic' to me. When someone says "Hey, remember 20 years ago?"  I immediately think of 1975 or so. Time flies by, so might as well engage with it.

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© 2021 David J. Hawke

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