It's time to look for deer droppings. Not that kind! I'm talking about deer antlers.
In fall and early winter, during the rutting season, antlers are weapons used in clashes between bucks fighting over does. But after the rutting season, sometime between January and April, a buck's testosterone levels fall and trigger his antlers to fall too. The buck will then begin growing new antlers, which are soft at first and covered in "velvet," but by fall, the antlers will be hard and rubbed clean to the bone, ready for more clashing.
It's exciting to find a shed antler. For one thing, you know you're standing in the very place where an event in a buck's life occurred. For another, you have an impressive artifact, which can be crafted into something beautiful – or given to a favorite dog. Dogs, as well as many small mammals and rodents, love to chew on antlers, which are rich in calcium and minerals. My daughter-in-law gave our little dog Jazzy a small antler for Christmas two years ago. Jazzy has spent hours chewing the antler tines down to rounded stubs, but she still has a long way to go. I estimate that it will be her favorite toy for several more years.
Tips for hunting for antlers
When: Hunt for antlers in early spring when most bucks have shed theirs, so that you have the best chance of finding one. Also, it's easier to find antlers before grass and vegetation have covered them.
Where: Look for antlers where deer eat – the edge of a field, especially the line where field and woods meet; the base of an oak tree; in brushy areas where shrubs have buds; near evergreens.
Look near sources of water, such as creeks and ponds.
Look near a salt lick.
Look along deer trails, which are clearly visible at this time of year.
Look for cleared places where deer bed down.
How: You know how! Walk and walk and walk. Keep scanning the ground around you, or use binoculars to look over a field. Ivory colored antlers with sharp tines often look like twigs and fallen branches, so train yourself to look twice at whatever catches your eye. Look for bones, too, because sometimes antlers are part of an entire carcass.
How to handle antlers: I usually soak a found antler in water with a little bleach for a day or two. Then, even without scrubbing it, the antler will be clean and white. Jazzy wanted an antler that I soaked and she accepted it even with the smell of chlorox on it, but I decided to wait a couple of weeks for the smell of bleach to wear off before giving it to her.
On the other hand, if you want to keep an antler outside, you might decide not to clean it at all. The color of stained bone is more authentic and interesting.
My granddaughter Avery found an entire skull with eight-point antlers still attached. What a find! We don't think this was a deer that died recently, but we were still sad to see such a fine animal killed.
FYI for teachers: Sheep, goats, and cows have horns, which aren't typically shed. The age of a Big Horn Sheep can be determined by counting the annual growth rings on its horns. Deer have antlers that are shed each year. The antlers may or may not be bigger each year, depending on the deer's health, food supply, and genetics.
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Toni Albert, M.Ed., is an award-winning author of more than 40 books. Her lifelong love for nature, children, and books inspired her to commit her publishing business, Trickle Creek Books, to “teaching kids to care for the Earth.”