Whitetail deer antler sheds have a wide variety of uses and are becoming more popular as a crafting material and for home decor. In their natural state, they are used to create rustic chandeliers, lamps, and table centerpieces, or simply as wall decor. As a raw material, they can be turned into knife handles, jewelry, decorative carvings, key fobs, and a variety of other items. Some pet owners use sheds for dog chew toys. If you're interested in finding antler sheds for use in your own crafts or if you would like to sell antler sheds, it's important to know where and when to look for them.
Using Dogs to Search for Sheds
Have a canine companion? If you want to want to improve your chances of finding sheds while taking some of the work out of the process, consider teaching your dog to find antler sheds for you. Because dogs find antlers naturally appealing it can be relatively easy to train a willing dog to be your antler hunting partner. Dogs are also able to find sheds in tight places, dense brush or high grass where humans have a hard time finding them. This video shows two dogs hunting for sheds, and describes some of the training process:
Retrievers and other hunting breeds often have a leg up on other dogs since they are specifically bred to seek and retrieve items. But any dog who is capable of fetching a stick may be able to be taught to fetch antlers instead. Just be sure that your dog is obedience trained, and can be trusted off leash before trusting them to run free in you alter shed hunting area.
Fresh sheds from the current season have a distinct smell that dogs can detect, so start your training by offering your dog a very fresh antler chew toy and allow them to become familiar with the scent and to associate antlers with play. Play a few games of fetch with the new toy by tossing it where the dog can easily find it, and praise them for bringing the antler to you. Next, hide the antler in the house or in the yard and teach your pup to find the hidden antler toy.
Once you are certain they can find their antler toy by scent, take the game to the new step, and introduce your dog to whole sheds if possible. Expand your games of find-and-seek to a large wooded lot. If your dog continues to succeed at finding the antlers you have hidden, they are likely ready for shed hunting. You can read more about the process here.
Antler Hunting Tips:
- Avoid private property unless you have explicit permission to be there
- Don't create feeding stations / antler traps if feeding wildlife is illegal in your area
- Walk a lot - the more area you cover, the more likely you are to find sheds
- Do not disturb the herd by visiting sleeping or feeding areas too often
Deer Antler Basics: The Hows and Whys of Antler Growth
Deer antlers are a relatively unique feature in that they are made from bone-like tissue yet grow in a single season, then are shed when no longer in use. This is different from horns grown by other ungulate animals like goats, sheep, or cows since horns grow a little larger each year and do not naturally shed. Only male whitetail deer (bucks) grow antlers which they use to fight off rival males during the fall rutting season and to attract mates. Age, stress, and poor quality habitat can limit the growth rate and the maximum size of deer antlers.
Bucks begin to grow antlers in Spring, and depending on local weather and available food sources, usually start developing in March or April. High protein, nutrient dense foods are necessary for rapid antler growth, and under ideal conditions, a growth rate of ¼ an inch per day is possible. Immature antlers are highly vascular and have a soft, rounded look and are covered in a fuzzy ‘velvet’. Antler growth accelerates during the summer when food is most available, and by August, most Bucks will have developed fully formed antlers.
At this point, the antlers are still covered by a soft velvet but the enormous numbers of blood vessels which nourish and grow the antlers begin to diminish. When this happens, the antlers lose their rounded bulbous look and appear to shrink.
By September, bucks start to shed the velvet on their antlers and are often seen rubbing their heads against branches to scrape off the remains in ragged and sometimes bloody strips. Hard, sharp-tipped points are left behind, and around October, the bucks are ready to use their fully mature antlers during the rut.
You can read more about antler growth and their seasonal cycle here.
When do Deer Shed Their Antlers?
Bucks keep their antlers for a few months after the rut, but shedding time varies by region. The further North the deer live within their natural range, the earlier they drop. In the Northeast United States, deer may begin losing antlers in late December or January, while they may not start shedding until March or April in Southern states.
It’s important to know exactly when the deer in your area are shedding to have the best chance of finding and collecting antler sheds at their peak numbers and quality. Asking local outdoorsmen can help you to estimate in what month this will happen. You can also use binoculars or inexpensive trail cameras to monitor herds in your area to see when the majority of bucks have dropped their antlers.
Be wary of approaching the deer too closely or searching for sheds in their territory too early, since this may spook your local deer and cause them to move to another area. This will necessarily limit the number of antlers which are shed within your search area.
If you live in a heavily wooded area, walk along a herd’s favored trails. Low-growing trees and brush that snag against a ready to shed antler can pull it free. Focus on trails that lead from favorite sleeping spots to foraging areas and search for daytime resting places with sunny southern exposure. Deer spend time each day during the winter soaking up the rays and these sunning areas are often fruitful shed collecting spots.
Feed Plots and Feeding Stations
In the depths of winter, spots with abundant high-quality food will become a favored hangout for deer. If you have access to land with a wild game feed plot, this is a good place to look. In more urban areas, bird and squirrel feeders may be targeted by deer herds deprived of other food options. You may or may not be able to legally feed deer in your area, but if it is an option, consider setting up a deer feeder and offer sorghum or corn to attract hungry bucks to your property.
Depending on where you live and the kind of winter weather you experience, your local deer may have several favored places to bed down for the night. Once you’ve discovered these sleeping places, be sure to only visit them when the deer are away. Coniferous forests are a good spot to look since these places are usually free of deep snow even during harsh winters and provide protection against the wind. Some landowners put out old bales of hay near food sources to coax herds into staying in a certain area. Some shed hunters get their best hauls from the area around these hay bedding spots.
A Word About Antler Traps
Some land owners and shed hunters choose to use homemade devices called ‘antler traps’ in order to harvest sheds in the easiest way possible. These traps use wire mesh panels, chicken wire, bungee cords, and other materials around a feeding station baited with corn or other high-value foods. When a buck eats from the bait, their loose antlers become tangled in the antler trap and come free when the deer pulls away. This may seem like an excitingly simple way to collect sheds without the drudgery of tracking a herd and discovering their naturally dropped antlers.
Unfortunately, many of these antler traps can present a lethal danger to deer whose antlers aren’t yet ready to drop. Bucks can become easily entangled in the wire mesh and if the trap is set in an unmonitored area, the deer may die from exposure or from lack of access to food and water. Even in a backyard antler trap, an entangled buck may thrash and hurt themselves. Even so-called ‘safe’ antler traps can damage the buck’s pedicle, the growth region of the antler, when a shed is prematurely pulled lose.
Instead of using antler traps, its best to allow bucks to drop their antlers naturally. But you can improve your odds and remove some of the guesswork from shed hunting. If you want to avoid hours of walking and want to make shed collection easier, provide your local deer with the two things they need to keep them close at hand: food and shelter. You’ll be rewarded in early spring with easy to find antlers.
For more antler hunting tips, check out this article.
Antler Quality: Good vs Bad Sheds
Because antlers are bone, they can potentially survive for months or years outdoors, but freshly shed antlers are usually better quality and are more valuable. It is usually relatively simple to distinguish sheds from the current season versus previous years, but if you are new to shed hunting, here are a few things to look for.
Shed antlers are a valuable resource for local animals thanks to the calcium and other minerals like phosphorus in them. Chipmunks, squirrels, and other small animals will gnaw antlers to wear down their ever-growing teeth and can leave marks on them. Larger animals like foxes, coyotes, and even deer may chew on antlers, too.
Water and sun can also break down the highly porous structure of shed antlers, and after a season or two in the open, splits and cracks will start to form in sheds. This can make them unsuitable for some crafts, so if you are looking for antlers for use in jewelry, carving, or other fine crafts, newly shed antlers are best.
Good vs. Poor Antler Quality:
- Avoid splintered, gnawed, or weathered antler sheds
- Fresh sheds will be a little heavier compared to old sheds due to moisture content
- Fresh sheds will be a warm brown and relatively smooth to the touch
- Chalky white or greying antlers with a rough looking texture are old sheds
Good Antler Shed
Bad Antler Shed
Hunting for whitetail antler sheds is a lot like hunting for the deer themselves. It takes a lot of patience and some first-hand knowledge of the herd’s daily habits and behavior in order to be successful. If you know that there are whitetail in the area, but have thus far been unsuccessful in searching for sheds, you probably aren’t looking in the right places. Read up on local laws regarding wildlife and be sure to respect private property, and with a little luck, this spring you’ll have plenty of whitetail sheds to either sell or use in your own crafts.