Monday, September 3, 2012

When Whitetail Deer Antlers Lose Their Velvet

The rapid loss of daylight at this time of year triggers many events in nature, including several changes in the white-tailed deer. It is in early September that a deer’s chestnut-tan summer coat begins to be replaced with much thicker and darker colored fur that is better adapted to retain body heat and conceal this big game creature in the dimmer light of winter.

Deer also experience an increase in their appetite as summer wanes in an attempt to build deposits of fat that also act as insulation and can serve as fuel when food becomes scarce during the dead of winter. Additionally, the first week of September is when bucks in the Adirondacks rub the velvety covering of skin off their set of antlers, their initial preparation for the rutting or mating season that will arrive in approximately two months.

From the time that antlers sprout from the top of a buck’s forehead in mid spring, the surface of these fast growing boney structures are covered with a layer of soft, fuzzy tissue that is composed of a multitude of blood vessels and a high concentration of nerve cells. The increased presence of nerves on an antler makes it more sensitive to pain than any other part of a deer’s body. As it moves through a heavily wooded area in summer, a buck becomes well aware of the exact location of its antlers in reference to obstacles and takes great care to avoid contact with any woody matter. A sharp impact with a limb just above its head, or a forceful hit on a twig that juts across a path on which a deer is traveling causes a more painful blow than getting smacked across the middle of its chest, legs or face when it is on the move. Light contact with leaves, tall brush, and recently formed shoots on branches lets a buck know exactly how high above its head and how far off to the sides its growing antlers are located as the summer season progresses.

During the final weeks of August, the flow of blood in the velvet is reduced as a result of the constriction in these vessels in the area around the base of the antlers. Without a proper supply of nutrient enriched blood, minerals can no longer be deposited into the boney tissue beneath the skin and the growth and development of these characteristic structures ceases.

A critical reduction in blood reaching the nerves in the velvet causes these cells to die from a lack of oxygen. As feeling in their antlers begins to completely fade, the buck develops the urge to rub this mass of bone on a sapling. It is quite common for a small buck with only spikes or 4 points to loosen the velvety skin and completely shed this covering in a single scraping session. Older bucks that have six or more points often require several periods of vigorous rubbing to rid their rack of all the scraps of velvet. At this time of year, a large buck may be seen with small pieces of velvet hanging from the junction of a central beam and one of its larger tines.

Even after a buck has completely removed all of the velvet from its antlers, he continues to periodically rub them on saplings in an attempt to advertise his presence to other deer in the immediate region. As it rubs its antlers, glands on the top of a buck’s head release small amounts of chemicals that alert other deer to the physical status of the animal creating the scent post. For a doe, a healthy buck that seems to have a sizeable rack will be a worthy breeding partner. For other bucks in the general area, a healthy rival means that a confrontation is likely, and sparring for control of the area is inevitable.

Throughout the next two months bucks frequently engage in pushing and shoving matches using their set of antlers. As the rutting season approaches, the intensity of these confrontations increase in intensity and duration. In order to minimize damage to their neck and upper vertebrates, a buck’s neck swells up to help cushion the repeated blows that this animal experiences in its fight to establish dominance over the other males of the region.

Currently, two bucks may seem to be only playing with each other, especially when a larger male is confronted by a young buck. Because little stress is placed on a deer’s head and antlers at this time of year, its neck appears to be of normal size, however this changes during October.

The passage of Labor Day is marked by numerous events in nature, as cautious moving bucks now become more reckless when traveling through thickets, and more confrontational when another buck happens to appear.

Illustration courtesy New York State Department of Conservation.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

One Response

  1. Lowlands Whitetails says:

    Nice post. The information stated was very useful for whitetail deer hunters, especially newbies. Keep it up!