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Outdoor Life - Outdoor life is a column by Mick Bohonis.
2012-01-12 at 9:00 AM

Antler growth

The month of January and the dead of winter settling in mean one thing – we have a couple of more months before daylight starts to show significant increases and temperatures stay on the rise.

This is the time of year antlers on moose and deer shed and are strewn on the ground somewhere in the woods. With coarse, thick winter coats covering themselves, keeping the cold and dampness out, it will be at least another 90 days before the molting process begins, but in the meantime, the excess weight of head gear is giving these ungulates some relief during the dark, cold months. 

It’s hard to believe that a mature bull moose carries around antlers on his head that can weigh in excess of 80 pounds. Some antlers can be as large as 65 inches wide and 50 inches tall. In the Yukon and Alaska there have been moose harvested with antlers with a spread in excess of 70 inches and weights of  100 pounds.

What’s even more impressive is  the bull will shed these antlers every winter/spring and grow a new set every summer. It’s an amazing phenomenon due to the grandeur of such bone mass. Try for one second to imagine carrying around a 100 pound piece of plywood on your head for seven months of the year. 

Yes, ungulates in our area, including deer, will do the same and if you are out in the woods, chances are you may come across an antler that has been cast by either a deer or a moose.

They are usually spotted more easily when temperatures get warmer and snow starts to melt in the spring, however, they can be found just about any time of the year, even now when they may be recently shed and laying right on top of the snow. 

I have been lucky enough to find such treasures, and shed antler hunting in today’s realm of the outdoors has actually become big business in some locales around North America. 

Many hunters make the effort every year to get out in the woods and look for shed antlers to see what has been roaming their hunting grounds that has eluded them all season. 

Shed antlers can be used for so many things, and the Aboriginal people of hundreds of years ago coveted antlers as one of their most important finds, valuable treasures and usable gear in surviving harsh environments and day-to-day living. 

Antlers proved invaluable to these nomadic people because they were used to make tools that allowed them to do so much. Antler is bone and is very strong and can be carved and shaped into just about anything and this art form still exists today. Custom knife makers use antler to shape handles on their knives just as the Aboriginals did back then.

Antlers can also be turned into carvings, and I’m sure a lot of you have seen a moose antler turned into a work of art by the artists who have carved a scene or another animal right out of the palm of the antler and set on display. These antler carvings are popping up in a lot of gift shops across the Northwest and now antlers are being used for a lot more than even carvings.

Antler lighting fixtures, chairs, tables, cribbage boards, stir sticks, letter openers and many more creations are now being made out of antlers and for sale in gift shops and retail outlets or on the web.

Antlers in a hunter’s world have many meanings and usually the first thing that comes to mind is a set mounted on a plaque or a complete shoulder mount of the animal displayed in a rec room or garage. 

There are scoring systems in place that measure and score antlers for the hunters  in North America such as the Pope and Young club (bow hunters)  and the Boone and Crockett Club (rifle and muzzle loaders)  and indeed are very popular with hunters across the country. It is simply a charted and recorded way of paying tribute to the animal who wore them. 

So what do these antlers mean to the animals themselves? What exactly are they used for and what purpose do they serve in the ungulate world? 

For the male moose and deer the antlers are used mostly during the mating season in rival fights for the right to breed. They are their weapons of attack and defense against other rutting males in search of a receptive female. During the mating season, bucks and bulls will be on the move looking for an estrous female and fights will occur with other males in order to establish dominance and breeding privileges with the ladies. 

Antlers are developed with age and young bucks and bulls will indeed sprout antlers their first year, but it usually takes four to five years to grow a set that will impress the females and be a threat to other rival males.

Genetics plays a huge role in the development of antlers and like in humans, the ones who were given good genetics will be the ones who will grow the biggest and strongest rack. 

The females will ultimately choose the male they will mate with and of course the female wants the best genetics given to her to reproduce a strong and healthy calf or fawn. 

Antlers, as I’ve said, are cast every winter (early December, January and into February) and new ones start to grow in the spring. This is a phenomenon that is truly spectacular as some antlers are so big and can grow literally an inch a day if the conditions are right and good nutrition is available. 

A male deer or moose will grow a larger set of antlers every year until it reaches its peak in maturity at which time the antler size and shape will plateau until the animal starts to age. When a buck or bull gets old the antlers will deteriorate as well, and the once large, pointed, strong, healthy rack, will start to go on a down slide in size and development.  

As a hunter, I have learned a lot about antlers in the past 25 years and although I have many sets of moose and deer racks myself, they still intrigue me to no end. 

There is nothing like the sight of a mature bull moose with a big, heavy, healthy set of antlers on his head roaming his kingdom in all his majesty. It commands respect and is the subject of many wildlife artists’ collections. 

Antlers are one of many reasons we hunt and although the ultimate prize is the tender venison that is so good for us, there is nothing wrong with displaying a giant moose rack on the gable end of camp or above a stone fireplace.


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