by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
Antlers are fascinating to me. They are the fastest growing mammal tissue on earth and they come in all sort of shapes and sizes. A fun activity I pursue every March is the search for antlers or “sheds”. Each winter, male white-tailed deer drop their antlers in the woods and I take it as a challenge to try to find them. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will take you on a deep dive into the world of shed hunting.
The antler process begins in April when male white-tailed deer begin rapidly growing tissue on top of their heads. Growth is completed by late summer. During this time the antlers are covered in “velvet”, a soft skin containing blood vessels and nervous tissues that supply oxygen and nutrients to the fast-growing tissue. Once growth is completed, this velvet dries up and is rubbed off by the deer on any small woody plant in their path. The mating season is what the antlers are needed for as they aid in determining hierarchy and securing a mate. Once the mating season is a distant memory, the antlers have lost purpose and are just a cumbersome drain on energy. Cells called osteoclasts destroy the connection between the antlers and the skull and the deer will shed the antlers. Antlers are rarely dropped at the same time but are usually dropped within the same week. Bucks will use hard objects such as trees or rocks to detach the antlers. Antlers are shed from late December through March depending on the particular buck. When the calendar turns to March the hunt for antlers begins.
The search for sheds, in a forest such as Wintergreen, is not for the faint of heart. Difficult terrain and dense foliage make the search extra challenging. Naturally, bucks that have escaped the fall deer harvest are a wary reclusive bunch that prefer the hermit life once mating season is over. This means they will spend the majority of their time during the shedding season in tough to find locals. Here are my tips for seeking sheds.
First, go slow. This is not a fast process but instead a process requiring plenty of patience and willingness to explore. Plan to cover plenty of acreage and make sure you stop frequently and canvas the terrain visually.
Target south and southeast facing slopes at Wintergreen. Deer prefer to rest and digest where the sun will warm them naturally. The aspect is important and will also lead you to more of their bedding areas.
The bedding areas are my favorite and most successful spots to find sheds. At Wintergreen, the majority of buck bedding areas tend to be the thickest, gnarliest areas on the mountain. I key in on mt. laurel stands on ridges. Bucks like to hang out on ridge lines because it offers multiple escape options that can be deployed quickly. The mt. laurel stands offer the cover they often seek in bedding sites. Try to find trails on a ridge leading into mt. laurel thickets. This edge of thicket territory is a great spot to locate antlers. If you are feeling extra adventurous, don’t shy away from entering a thicket in search of sheds.
A primary technique I use in searching for sheds is just finding a deer trail (a well-worn path in the woods with deer poop on it is the best clue) and walking it for a long way. This will give you either clues on where to look or will lead you to the occasional antler.
Don’t be afraid to use winter weather to your advantage. Snow, while making walking in mountainous terrain difficult, shows you all the deer movements you could hope for. When the snow melts, go back to locations that looked promising and you will increase your chances to find an antler or two.
My last piece of advice is to get out and search for sheds before the greenery erupts out of the soil. Our landscape becomes incredibly thick by summer and the time to hunt sheds will have closed quickly.
Seeking sheds is a lovely way to welcome the end of winter and the beginning of spring. It welcomes a slow, thoughtful walk through the woods and the payoff is tangible. Enjoy!