Antlers fascinate. Antlers get attention. Antlers are impressive. But none of that answers the question, “What is it about antlers?”
Although twenty-first century hunters display them, collect them, score them, and discuss them, we modern hunters are not the first to treasure these adornments on the heads of deer. Ancient subsistence hunters loved antlers too, because those prehistoric painters decorated their cave homes with art that shows super-sized antlers on the heads of the animals they pursued.
So, I suppose those purist meat hunters weren’t so purist after all. They loved antlers as much as we do, so the attraction to antlers is universal—all hunters of all times have appreciated all antlers.
We don’t just gaze at and gab about antlers. Like those who’ve gone before, we also use them by converting them to tools. Want proof? Check any hunter’s knife drawer—you’ll likely find an antler-handled knife. If you don’t, you have a gift idea he’s guaranteed to like.
When anyone sees a deer—man, woman, hunter, non-hunter—his eyes automatically drift to the top of the animal’s head to scan for bony protrusions above the skullcap. They can be small, or elaborate, but if the observer spots even small antlers he says, “Buck!” as though does are ordinary and bucks are special.
And small antlers will be replaced with bigger ones, so let that young buck live. Assuming the deer is healthy and nutritionally satisfied, his antlers will be larger every year until he reaches his prime. They grow rapidly on an annual cycle beginning in the spring, increasing through the summer, and hardening in August. By Labor Day they’re polished, pointed, and proudly displayed. When the trees drop their brilliantly colored leaves in the fall, it’s as though they’re surrendering their majesty to the racks of antlers that walk beneath them.
After the breeding season, antlers drop off during the winter to be consumed by porcupines, mice and other rodents, or found by some hunter still searching for trophy bone. And every shed antler you find is a trophy. Then, in a few months, these head bones connected to the skull bone begin growing again.
Despite our fascination with them, antlers actually are just bones—the same material as the skull they grow from, the spine that supports the body of the animal, and the rib cage that protects the vital organs. But there they are, on top of the head where they have little function and get more attention than the rest of the bones that have so much work to do.
Antlers grow so rapidly they’ve been compared to cancer cells, but cancer is random, disorganized, and deadly. Antlers are consistent in their development, remarkable in their structure, and full of life. They grow beneath a velvety skin covered with tiny hairs. This velvet protects a network of blood vessels that carry nutrients for the growth of the antlers. When antlers harden, they die, and then they infuse the dreams of hunters with life.
In the northeast, when we talk about antlers we’re talking about white-tailed deer, but every species of deer produces antlers—elk, mule deer, blacktail, moose, caribou. And that’s just North America. Deer from everywhere in the world grow antlers. If it grows antlers, it’s a deer. If it doesn’t, it’s not a deer. The lone exception is the Asian water deer. No antlers, but it does have tusks.
The biggest species on that list, the moose, is especially impressive. The idea for a satellite dish antennae must have popped into someone’s head as he was looking at a set of moose antlers. While moose hunting in Alaska, I saw one big Bullwinkle whose antlers exceeded 70 inches wide. His growth rate would have been more than a half inch per day just in width, and better than a pound a day in weight. If a moose would stand still and let you get close enough, you could probably watch his antlers grow.
What is it about antlers? I guess I don’t know. Maybe nobody knows. I can only say nothing compares to them—and we love chasing them. So, good luck. I hope you bring home a nice rack this season.
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 is a field contributor to Deer and Deer Hunting magazine, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.