Biology, Facts, & Tips for Whitetail Shed Hunting

Jun 30, 2022 | Whitetail Hunting | 0 comments

The Basics & Biology

The annual life cycle of antlers is unlike anything else in nature. Whitetail antlers are living organisms, dying and falling to the ground each year, only to grow once again. The antler is made of bone, soft and fleshy during the spring and summer. In the late summer, blood leaves and antlers turn to dense bony structures used as weapons for fighting to gain social position within a territory. Antlers typically shed in late winter or early spring once the rut is over and testosterone decreases. Some shed both sides within minutes of each other while others lose one antler, then roam around lopsided, sporting the remaining antler for a month or longer.

Nutrition can also play a role in the timing of antler drop too. Bucks in poor health will often drop antlers as early as mid-December in the Midwest. Early shedding isn’t necessarily a sign of poor nutrition though. Injuries or an extremely long and intense rut can also cause a buck to be in poor physical condition, thus causing a rapid drop in testosterone and expediting his antler shedding.

The When

The timing of when whitetail shed their antlers can be as diverse as the antlers themselves. Since shedding is related to post-rut testosterone levels, the antler drop varies around the country. Deer in states with a rut in early fall will often drop antlers before New Year’s Day. States in the Midwest where nutrition is high and deer populations are abundant often have a primary rut in November, but then bucks breed some fawns in mid to late winter. This results in their testosterone levels remaining high until February in some cases. In this case, it isn’t uncommon to see deer in late February still sporting one or both antlers. Overall, the majority of shed antlers are found in February and March across much of whitetail range.
Left long enough in nature, most things disappear, including antlers. Depending on where you live will dictate how long you can find dropped antlers. In arid environments like western Kansas or Nebraska some sheds will last years. They become dry, cracked, and bleached, but remain mostly intact. In more humid environments where rainfall exceeds 40 inches annually, most antlers don’t last long on the ground. It’s not necessarily a function of the moisture, but rather a result of more robust vegetation created in higher rainfall areas. The presence of thicker vegetation is home to a higher density of rodents. Mice, rats, and ground squirrels make quick work of antlers each year to extract valuable nutrients. In forested landscapes tree squirrels also enjoy dining on antlers, further shortening the likelihood any antlers last more than a few months.

The Where

For the most part, shedding antlers is based on random timing during the day. A deer’s antlers are just as likely to fall off in the morning as they are in the afternoon. Since it can happen anytime, the most likely places to find shed antlers are where deer spend the majority of their time. In our opinion, bedding areas, feeding areas and travel routes between offer a high probability of finding shed antlers.
Bedding Areas
Bedding areas consist of dense, secure cover. Ideal bedding areas exist in many different forms. Two- to five-year-old regrowth after a heavy timber harvest or clear cut usually provides ideal bedding cover. Old fields consisting of a mix of grasses, forbs and young trees or shrubs that provide adequate visual obstruction to make deer feel comfortable also provide prime bedding. In some portions of the country Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) fields are full of deer beds. Looking for sheds in CRP is tough due to the height of the grasses. However, spring burning exposes a lot of the shed antlers. They may get a slight char on one side, but they are still a nice reward for having spent the day improving habitat with a drip torch.
Feeding Areas
Feeding areas in late winter and early spring are somewhat limited. Resources are at their lowest availability during this period. Food plots and any crop fields still having residual grain are likely locations. Winter wheat fields can be a gold mine due to their green growth when compared to the dull brown landscaped usually dominating most acreages. Deer prefer woody browse where it’s available in late winter. Look for areas with recent timber harvest or chainsaw activity from the previous year. These sites provide abundant stump sprouting and deer will browse all year.
Travel Routes
Travel routes between bedding and feeding areas should be well defined by late winter. Trails are often down to bare dirt and resemble a cow path more than a deer trail. Follow these trails and see where they lead. Oftentimes antlers are dropped along these routes. Pay particular attention to places where deer must jump or make some type of move jolting their body. Fence or creek crossings can sometimes knock an antler loose. Trails going through narrow, thick brush can also help pop an antler off by brushing against the trees and shrubs.

The Why

Hunters and non-hunters combined spend countless hours each year searching for sheds. Additionally, many shed antlers are found by outdoors men and women doing other activities like turkey hunting, mushroom hunting, hiking, conducting prescribed burning, and many other things. Most people search for antlers either just out of the novelty of it or due to their interest in deer hunting. Others sell antlers or make them into home decor or cut them into dog chews to be sold. Antlers are usually sold by the pound with the freshest sheds being the most valuable, often fetching $13-15 per pound. Some antlers are treasured and kept as collectibles while others are tossed into sheds, barns or farmsteads where they slowly succumb to domesticated nature.
Deer hunters usually look for sheds for a couple of reasons. One is to identify which bucks survived the hunting season and winter. This can serve as an inventory of potential bucks available for next fall. Another common reason hunters look for sheds is to gain insight into how the deer are using a certain area and where they are spending the majority of time. Finding a target buck’s antlers in a bedding area can tell a hunter a lot about a buck. This new intel allows the hunter to strategize the following hunting season resulting in the harvest of the exact target buck that dropped the sheds eight months earlier.

Regardless of your motivation, get out and look for some sheds. It’s a great way to spend time with family, friends, and enjoying nature. Maybe your next find will result in a critical piece of information for the fall hunting season. Or perhaps the next shed antler you find will just be added to the stack of sheds from previous years. Either way, it’s always satisfying to find one of nature’s treasures.



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