Well, here I am again.  Getting ready to give more attention to the most worshipped part of the whitetail anatomy.  I managed to avoid it for a couple of years.  It was a good run.

I have chronicled my love/hate relationship with antlers; shared my passion to hunt for them; and defended those creatures that do their best to produce them on this blog in the past.  Ah antlers – will the conversation ever end?  

Of course not.  These are antlers.  A marvel of evolution.  A standard by which to judge.  A religion to some. 

So what’s the latest hubbub on the antler front?  Bucks without them…during deer season.  Gasp!

This year I have answered more questions than normal about what seems like more bucks than normal without antlers.  The story often goes something like this:  I shot a buck and when I got to him, one of his antlers had fallen off.  Or I was dragging my buck out of the woods and his antler popped off.  

This often surprises the happy and successful hunter and starts a myriad of theories as to why this might be.  

Bucks were rutting so hard that their testosterone levels were low causing them to drop their antlers or maybe bucks shed their antlers once all does are bred. 

Interesting.  They sound plausible.

Every year more than 30 deer aging teams descend upon hundreds of deer processors to gather data on the annual deer harvest.  Deer aging teams look at 25,000+ deer heads every year harvested during the 2-week firearms season.  

My team ages about 900 deer heads a year and I’ve been doing this for 15 years.  Some quick math will tell you that I have seen over 13,000 deer heads to date.  Fun Fact: a 50-gallon drum can hold about 40 deer heads!  

After the first hundred or so, I don’t pay much attention to the heads as I’m cutting and slinging.  A deer head is a deer head.  I call out sex and age to my data recorder and pitch it.  My goal is to get these data as efficiently as possible then get dirty, smelly, sometimes soupy heads off my board as quickly as possible.  Did I mention it’s cold during deer season?  And the sun NEVER shines when I age deer?  But I digress.

When I come across an antlerless deer that is male and NOT 6-months old, I don’t even pause.  I age shed antler bucks every year.  All aging teams do.   

With the spike in questions regarding shed antler bucks during the firearms season, I decided to look back over the data to see if there was spike in the number of shed antler bucks we aged.  I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary but memory, as we all know, can be deceiving.  

From 2012-2017, the number of shed antler bucks aged by aging teams waffled between 3% and 4%.  

What was it for 2018?  4%!  

Nothing out of the ordinary.  But I age deer every year and I see shed antler bucks during firearms season every year.  

The average Pennsylvania hunter has been hunting for 40-ish years.  If he or she was successful in harvesting a buck every year (which is not the case), a hunter has seen less than 1% of the deer heads I have.  If one of those bucks pops an antler the first week of December, it is rather alarming.

The standard answer I give when asked about a buck that has lost his prize possession during the firearms season is natural variation and general health (which relates to nutrition) of a buck contribute to the timing of antler drop which occurs any time from December through March.   

This year was no different from years past.  Regardless, it’s time to cast off what’s been weighing you down and start anew.   The new year will bring a clean slate and, for deer, another set of fancy head gear.

-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
PGC Deer and Elk Section

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