Horns, Antlers, and a Lesson from a City Girl

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One horn from the skull of an Alaskan Dall Sheep (left) has been removed to show the boney core. On the skull of a Sitka blacktail deer (right, also from Alaska) both antlers are branched. The buck died before shedding them, so they remain attached to the skull. Both were found after the winter snows melted.
One horn from the skull of an Alaskan Dall Sheep (left) has been removed to show the boney core. On the skull of a Sitka blacktail deer (right, also from Alaska) both antlers are branched. The buck died before shedding them, so they remain attached to the skull. Both were found after the winter snows melted.

Deer hunters routinely use the word “horns,” but we all know the growths on a buck’s head are not horns. They’re antlers. Very different from horns, but your non-hunting friends may not know it. (And they may not believe it, as you’ll soon learn.)

Among wild animals in North America, members of the cervid family (which includes deer, moose, elk, and caribou) grow antlers. Bison, sheep and goats grow horns. So what are the differences?

1. Antlers are actually external bones, and not part of the skeleton. Horns have a keratin sheath, the same material your fingernails and hair are made from, though they have a boney core.

2. Antlers are temporary. Deer grow them annually through the warm season and shed them in winter. Horns are permanent and grow continuously throughout an animal’s life.

4. Antlers are grown by males of the species. (An exception: female caribou grow antlers, too.) Horns are generally grown by both males and females.

5. Hardened antlers have no nerves, no blood, and no skin — but while growing they are covered by a velvety skin dense with blood vessels. The blood deposits calcium and minerals to the rapidly growing bone. Soft, developing antlers are very much alive, but once they harden they are solid, dead bone throughout. Horns, by contrast, have two components, a living boney core and a slowly growing keratin covering.

6. In mature animals, antlers are typically branched, with a number of points. A horn comes to a single tip. (Except for the pronghorn antelope, thus the name “pronghorn.”)

7. Antlers are shed in fall or winter, after the deer no longer needs them. Horns are not shed, but pronghorns are the exception here, too. They shed the keratin sheath annually, but keep the boney core under it.
Now you know, and when you start attending parties again (after COVID-19 is gone, of course), you can amaze your friends with this knowledge. That’s what I once did, half a life ago. Here’s how it went.

I was at a lodge at the foot of New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock enjoying lunch during an adult Sunday school class outing. Ronda (our teacher) pointed to a huge moose head above the fireplace and said, “I wonder how long it takes to grow horns that big.”

No whitetail deer hunter can resist being teed up like that, so I offered my ready answer. Here was my opportunity to teach the teacher. “First, they’re not horns, Ronda. They’re antlers. And they start growing them in the spring and finish by the end of the summer.”
Doubting Ronda thought I was kidding. “They can’t grow that fast!” she replied.

I’ll educate this city girl, I thought. “After they finish growing them, the antlers harden. Then the moose will carry them through the fall, and drop them during winter. All deer do the same.”

“You’re making that up. If that was true, people would find them on the ground.”

“Well, people do find them on the ground, but many are not found because squirrels and porcupines eat them for the calcium in them.” It was the truth, but if I had wanted to make up something she wouldn’t believe, I couldn’t have done better.

My teacher was a stubborn student. “No way! Squirrels couldn’t eat those. Now I know you’re making it all up!” To her, my explanation got weirder and weirder, and nothing I could say would ever convince her.

Is there a lesson? Nope, not for Ronda! But the lesson for me was that country folks know a few things a city girl will never learn.

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He writes for top outdoor magazines, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.

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Steve Sorensen
Steve Sorensen of Russell, PA is an award-winning outdoor writer whose column, The Everyday Hunter®, offers hunting tips, strategies, and insights on how to think about hunting. His byline has appeared in the nation’s top hunting magazines including Outdoor Life, Sports Afield, Deer & Deer Hunting, Pennsylvania Game News, Fur-Fish-Game, North American Whitetail, Bear Hunting Magazine and more. He contributes regular website content to Legendary Whitetails and Havalon Knives and is a field editor for Deer Hunters Online. Steve is also in demand as an event speaker, presenting programs on do-it-yourself Alaska moose hunting, whitetail deer, wild turkeys, and eastern coyotes, with new programs coming. E-mail him at EverydayHunter@gmail.com to invite him to speak at your next sportsmen’s dinner (or to tell him where your best hunting spot is).