Antlers or Horns?

The whitetail deer is the most plentiful big game animal in the Finger Lakes Region, and indeed, in the entire state of New York. And now that the annual rut is underway, it seems that almost everyone’s attention is focused on deer activity and movement – especially drivers and hunters.

How many times have you ever heard someone say something like this? “You should have seen the horns on that buck!” The truth of the matter is that deer don’t have horns at all. In the wild animal kingdom, bighorn sheep, bison, and mountain goats have horns. So do domestic cattle. But members of the deer family, which includes both whitetail and western mule deer, together with caribou, elk, and moose, all possess antlers instead.

Only male members of the deer family grow antlers, which fall off during the winter and grow back the following summer—except that females in the caribou species grow antlers as well. In contrast, horns are permanent and continue to grow year after year. Antler growth in deer is one of the most fascinating occurrences in nature. Even at birth, a whitetail buck fawn can be identified by the two dark spots located just above his eyes, which are called pedicles. They are the bases on which his antlers will grow as he matures. By the time he is five or six months old, those pedicles begin to swell and he becomes known as a “button buck”.

Antler growth is primarily dependent on genetics, nutrition, and age. A typical year-and-a-half old buck usually produces a single pair of goat-like appendages that may range from three to six or eight inches in length. At this stage, he is known as a “spike-horn.” If he inherited superior genes and is well fed, his antlers might even branch into small forks, which would earn him the moniker of “crotch-horn” or “fork-horn.” Each year as a buck matures his antlers grow larger and contain more points. But you can’t tell a buck’s age by counting his points. It’s irrelevant. As an older buck ages and his face turns gray, his antlers become smaller and the number of points diminishes.

Antler development begins in late spring and continues throughout the summer. They grow at the astonishing rate of ½-inch per day. During that period, they are soft and fragile and can be easily deformed or even broken. They are encased in a spongy covering, known as velvet, which is the tissue that protects the growing cartilage and supplies it with blood. By late summer, the antlers harden and the velvet dries and falls off. It’s a humorous sight to see a majestic buck trying to impress a doe with shreds of dried velvet dangling from his rack.

A buck uses his antlers to establish rank in whitetail hierarchy. The buck with the biggest rack is likely to dominate the breeding activity in his territory while eager younger bucks look on in envy. Sometimes shoving matches take place to establish dominance but incidents of interlocking “horns” are rare. Big rubs on saplings and small trees are an indication that a dominant buck is present and serve as a warning for other bucks to stay clear. The biggest buck rub that I have ever seen was on an 8-inch diameter cherry tree. It was shredded so bad that the tree eventually died.


adamski_profile_Apr21Story and photo by John Adamski