Words and Images from Ed Felker

The Allure of Antlers

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I am drawn to the aesthetics of deer antlers. To me they are beautiful, organic shapes that please the eye. But the bizarre biological mechanics behind them are fascinating, growing anew each year covered in blood-rich velvet that feeds them nutrients. Then the bone dies, the velvet is shed and the antlers remain. Status, attraction, competition are all a part of the purpose and function of those extensions of the skull of a whitetail buck. And then, in late winter, testosterone levels drop and the antlers are cast off.

And when they fall, there they sit. In corn fields, hedgerows, creek beds and lawns, in dense woods, briar patches and snow drifts. There they sit until critters, attracted to the minerals within, gnaw them away. Or until they rot. Or until a person, wandering through the woods with their eyes to the ground, finds it and picks it up.

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Searching for shed antlers is a fun way to get exercise. I have tried to train my dogs to seek them out, and they love running off leash for miles and miles, even if they aren’t quite sure what they’re looking for. But shed hunting can also be frustrating. The three of us have spent a lot of hours and miles and, until yesterday, had yet to find a single shed. But I’ll get back to that.

Wandering around the woods looking for food sources, buck rubs, trails, beds and other signs is a good way to learn about deer behavior. But logging a lot of miles with your eyes trained to the ground, you’d be surprised how many other little things you notice. First of all, anything bone colored gets your attention, no matter how small. During yesterday’s outing on a friend’s farm I spotted this jawbone from about ten yards away. My guess is raccoon, but I’m not positive.

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Some friends identified these feathers as coming from a Yellow-shafted Flicker. This beautiful bird became dinner for a fox or other predator.

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Winnie decided if she couldn’t find any antlers, she was going to commit to being the very best collector of burrs she could be. Here Finn admires her handiwork. He tried to help by pulling a few off her, but then he abandoned his efforts, mumbling something about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

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After a few hours with no luck, this little four point skull caught my eye, half buried under some thorny briars. So I asked one of the more nimble members of Team Orange to fetch it for me. Winnie volunteered. Nothing special, the skull looks to be at least a year old and one side is discolored from being in the ground. But since it was starting to look like I might be walking out of the woods empty handed yet again, I brushed it off and took it with me.

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A while later, we were following a deer trail parallel to a tree line. I looked down and saw two antler points sticking up through some grass. I studied it from where I was, about five feet away, careful not to let myself get too excited about what might end up being another of the million curved corn stalks or antler-shaped sticks that had already faked me out. But there it was, finally. I brought the dogs over in hopes that they would see or smell it and catch on that this is what we were looking for. They did not.

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I picked it up, the first human hands to ever touch it. I examined it. Not fresh, probably from last year. Three points, one of the three chipped at the end, and a fourth brow tine that had broken off as well. It was neither large nor perfect, but it was beautiful. This year alone I had hiked probably twenty miles to get to this one antler shed. It was a huge relief. I wish I could say it was enough to just be outside even if I don’t find any, but it was starting to get to me that I couldn’t find at least one shed.

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I tried to get the dogs excited about it, hoping that knowing what they’re looking for would help them find more. Winnie posed with this long enough for a quick photo, but then went on her way, adding to her burr collection.

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So the final tally on the day: 1 skull, 1 shed, 5 miles, 5 hours, 90 burrs and 2 tired dogs.

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Those burrs, by the way? Winnie’s coat is an absolute magnet for them. If I didn’t have some of this Showsheen, I would have had to resort to clippers to get them out. It’s an equine product and I always keep a little bit in a spray bottle with my grooming supplies. Spray it on and the burrs comb right out. Stubborn clumps need a bit more attention, but it really works great.

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As for shed hunting, maybe I broke the ice with this one. Maybe I will get better with practice, learn where to look and how to see. Maybe Team Orange will catch on. But even if none of those things happen, the pursuit of antlers has gotten me out hiking, observing nature and exercising the dogs, in the midst of a brutal winter that is slow to relinquish its icy grip. And that is a very good thing.

Addendum: After I wrote this post, my friend Monica, whose great blog Shedding Suburbia should be added to your browser bookmarks, published this great post about a very special antler find and the lengths she had to go to just to get it home. I wanted to link it here for my readers. Enjoy!

7 Responses

  1. Basla

    I’m a fan of antlers, too. Congrats on your finds, and on the fun time spent finding them!

    March 3, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    • Dispatches from the Potomac

      Thanks Basla. I was pretty sure you would share my fondness for these beautiful, interesting mementos of the wild.

      March 3, 2014 at 7:26 pm

  2. Spike Knuth

    Great Story Ed. I miss wandering in the woods like that.

    March 3, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    • Dispatches from the Potomac

      Thanks so much, Spike! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      March 3, 2014 at 7:25 pm

  3. JaN

    I found one a few years ago while out walking. I never did find the other one although someone told me it was likely to be nearby. Enjoyed reading about your search. Thanks for the Showsheen tip!

    March 3, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    • Dispatches from the Potomac

      Sometimes they can be very nearby, so it’s worth looking. But in some cases the second antler can drop as much as four weeks after the first! So those aren’t likely to be anywhere near each other of course.

      March 3, 2014 at 7:25 pm

  4. John Orr

    Over the years I have observed that rodents will not eat/gnaw antlers still attached to the skull, yet shed antlers will rarely make it past April.

    March 13, 2014 at 1:50 pm

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