Antlers or Horns?

By Ryan Taylor

Many people use the term horns when referring to a whitetail bucks rack. In fact, horns are made out of keratin and they grow and stay in place for the rest of an animals life (unless cut off). Antlers are bone casts that bucks grow and then shed every year. This process sets off a frenzy of hunters entering the woods come early spring searching for that matching set.

As we all know, bucks will grow a new set of antlers every year. With every year of life a whitetail buck has he will grow a larger set of antlers until around the age of 6 1/2. At this time, bucks tend to have “peaked” at mass and girth and they usually do not grow any larger. Typically, when a buck is around a year old they will begin to grow their first set of antlers. Since bucks and does typically do their mating in the early winter months, this would make the buck a year and a half when their first actual set of antlers arrives. During the first winter they are alive (around 5-6 months old) they typically have what hunters call “buttons”. Many states require you to identify your deer when checking it in, as a buck, doe, or button buck.

So why do bucks need a set of antlers on their head? The main reason bucks grow larger and stronger antlers every year is sort of like why men go bald when they get older. It shows who has been around the longest. It also shows dominance amongst the bucks as well. Bucks antlers will be at there largest somewhere around 4 ½ year old to 6 ½ year old. Occasionally, good nutrition and good minerals lead to a buck being large at age 3 ½. Once a buck has grown older than 6 ½, they typically begin to slowly decline in size, body weight and antler size. This is why the buck with the strongest and largest rack is typically the dominant buck in the area. Many times during the pre-rut and rut a dominant buck will be challenged. Just like when a boxer loses his belt to a new and upcoming fighter, the same can happen with bucks. If the dominant buck gets roughed up enough, there will be a new dominant buck in town! Bucks will use their antlers to battle and the sound that is created during this fight makes a rattling sound. This sound is often re-created by hunters to get bucks attention and to bring them in close for a kill shot. Bucks will use the force of their antlers along with their body weight to have sort of a shoving match back and forth. This fight can lead to death, but typically it doesn’t go that far. Bucks also spend much of the summer months in bachelor groups preparing for the rut. Often times you may find bucks sparring with each other in a more friendly fashion than during the rut. This sparring is often for a cause though. Some of the smaller bucks are sizing up towards the rest in the group. This is how dominance is created amongst the group.

Can a bucks antlers fall off prematurely? Yes. Many times while a buck is fighting another, some of his points can break or his antlers can even fall off. While hunting, you may come across a buck with one side of his rack gone. This is probably the result of a fight the buck had at some point during the pre-rut or rut. Since every buck is different, it is important to be careful with your prized possession after you kill him and not pull hard on the antlers. Some bucks lose their antlers much earlier than others. If you are planning on having your buck scored professionally, one of the requirements is to have the antlers in place like they were when they were grown and when you killed him. If one side has fallen off or if both sides are off the skull of the buck, re-creating the actual placement on the bucks head is next to impossible.

What can help a bucks rack grow larger? Having minerals available for the deer in your area and having a good source of nutritious food high in protein available for them helps immensely. Since the antlers are basically bone growths, we know that having a good diet full of vitamins and minerals is essential to staying healthy. Bucks need these to help them maintain a healthy life. The better the protein and nutrition, the better the rack will be.

Why do bucks use their antlers to mark trees? Bucks will typically make “rubs” on trees for many reasons. The first being because they are trying to get the velvet off their antlers. When a new set of antlers has grown the velvet is soft and somewhat flexible. Once the velvet dries it cracks and bucks naturally try to remove this velvet from their antlers. They do this by rubbing on small tress that are about as big around as a quarter to half dollar size. Deer also rub trees to show markings for their home area. Just like they scrape the ground and leave scents in the dirt and on tree limbs, they leave scents on trees where they’ve rubbed.

As you can see there are many uses bucks have for the antlers. Being mindful of these things will make you better understand the pattern bucks are in during the pre-rut and the rut. When hunting a particular animal it is important to know anything and everything about that animal. Knowing why a buck has antlers and how they use their antlers will make you more successful during your hunt.

Ryan TaylorRyan Taylor
Born in Columbia, Missouri in 1980 and grew up in the small town of Cairo, Missouri. Currently I live with my wife (we are expecting baby #2) and 2 year old son in Moberly, Missouri. I have hunted whitetail deer religiously for 6 years now…
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