It's early August and in the world of white-tailed deer bucks, a number of physiological changes are happening. They are beginning to feed more heavily in preparation for the fall rut, or breeding season.

Perhaps the most interesting phenomenon, though, is that their budding antlers, which have been velvet-covered and growing since April, are now nearing full development.

Many people incorrectly refer to the headgear worn by the white-tailed deer as horns. Deer grow antlers, not horns. Antlers are true bone, and are shed each winter then re-grown each spring and summer.

This big, mature, velvet buck was photographed on August 29, his antlers full grown. He shed his velvet three days later.  Photo by Bill Marchel
This big, mature, velvet buck was photographed on August 29, his antlers full grown. He shed his velvet three days later. Photo by Bill Marchel

Antler growth on whitetail bucks originates from a plate on the skull called a pedicel. During growth, a soft blood-rich skin called velvet covers the antlers. Antlers continue to grow throughout the summer, and are fully grown by about mid-August.

However, by early June a human observer generally has at least an indication of the eventual size of a buck's headgear when fully mature in late summer. Beam diameter is the best hint. Also, evident will be the number of points a buck will possess.

As summer progresses antlers continue to grow, sometimes up to an inch per day, until by now the complete growth cycle is nearly complete. In two or three weeks the antlers will be full grown. Then, during late August and early September the antlers solidify and the velvet peels off exposing the hardened bone beneath.

As healthy bucks age, their antlers typically get larger. Usually a buck will sport his largest rack when he is about 5 or 6 years old. Beyond that, as his health declines, so does the size of his rack.

Biologists believe the purpose of antlers is for social ranking, not protection from predators, since antlers are shed during winter when predators pose the greatest threat.

The yearly antler growth procedure is complete when the antlers are shed during winter. Antler shedding progression -- like velvet shedding -- typically begins with the older bucks. Worn down from the rigors of the November rut, mature bucks occasionally shed their antlers as early as mid-December. Sometimes, a jubilant December bowhunter is dismayed when he or she breaks loose an antler while dragging their prize from the snowy woods.

Habitually though, the chief antler shedding period is mid-January to mid-February. Healthy, well-fed bucks typically carry their antlers longer into the winter.

Usually whitetail bucks shed their antlers within hours of each, so it rare to a see a buck carrying just one antler. Photo by Bill Marchel
Usually whitetail bucks shed their antlers within hours of each, so it rare to a see a buck carrying just one antler. Photo by Bill Marchel

The antlers of white-tailed deer differ in configuration from those of mule deer. Whitetails feature antlers that have a single main beam from which the antler tines sprout. Mule deer sport main beams that fork, and then fork again.

Occasionally, whitetail bucks grow “non-typical” antlers, in other words antlers that contain unusual or odd tines. Sometimes bucks sport antlers with configurations so outlandish they defy nature. An injury to the body of a buck can cause antler deformities, usually to the antler on the opposite side of the injury. This phenomenon is known as "contralateral effect."

One would presume the woods and fields would be littered with dropped antlers, but that's not so. Antlers are a source of minerals, and shed antlers are soon consumed by forest creatures such as squirrels, mice and porcupines.

Think about these captivating antler facts next time you see a whitetail buck, and marvel at the wonders of nature.

BILL MARCHEL is a wildlife and outdoors photographer and writer whose work appears in many regional and national publications as well as the Brainerd Dispatch. He may be reached at bill@billmarchel.com. You also can visit his website at BillMARCHEL.com.