Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
One of the traits that sets white-tailed deer apart from all other forms of Iowa wildlife is the ability of bucks to grow antlers. Generally speaking, the older the buck the larger and more impressive its antlers become. Antlers have but one purpose. They are designed to duke it out with other males during the annual fall breeding season. Battles can become dangerous and impressive. When November bucks cross trails, the Iowa woodlands echo with the sound of clashing antlers.
But once the annual rut is concluded, white-tails have no further need of their magnificent headgear. So what do deer do with something they don’t need anymore? They do the same as us; they throw it away. Bucks annually accomplish this task through an involuntary process called shedding. When the time is right, the antlers simply fall off. Harassment by predators, abnormally heavy snowfall, or prolonged periods of extreme cold are just a few of the events that may spike stress levels and cause a buck to suddenly lose his head — or at least the showiest part of it.
By winter’s end the process is complete, and all bucks will have lost their headgear. For outdoor enthusiasts, it’s an annual Call to Arms as a willing legion of shed hunters invade forested ridge tops and timbered river valleys in search of lost treasure.
In Iowa, shed hunting has become an increasingly popular sport during recent years. Once hooked, the search for antlers can become an obsession. Some collectors go so far as to schedule annual vacations around shed hunting; logging in hundreds of miles — by foot and by vehicle — in hopes of finding an antler bigger and better than the last. Some aficionados keep and train antler hunting Labrador retrievers which are bred, in part, for this highly specialized task.
Experienced hunters note that time is of the essence. As snow cover begins to recede, competition quickly intensifies. The hunt is on and much of the Iowa landscape is already being scoured. But not all competitors wear lace-up boots or travel on two legs. Squirrels, white-footed mice, and other small mammals are also looking to cash in on their fair share of the bounty. But local squirrel populations aren’t collecting sheds for their value as trophies. Instead, the bushy-tails covet cast off antlers for their rich deposits of minerals and calcium – a classic example of natural recycling.