Animal Sheds: Can You Take Home Shed Antlers?

Have you ever wondered where all the antlered deer go in early spring? And what about that lone antler you found on an outdoor excursion once… does that mean a buck died nearby?

Animals in the Cervidae family, such as deer, moose, elk and caribou grow and shed their antlers every late winter or early spring. The antlers, which are extensions of the animal’s skull, begin to grow back in March or April and develop over the summer. If you notice them during the growth stage, they will look fuzzy, and this is because the growing bone and cartilage is layered with a vasculature filled, furry skin called velvet.

Buck in velvet and doeSylvia Dekker

Once the antlers are done growing in the fall, usually September, the velvet begins to slough off. The animal will rub against trees to get rid of the strips of dead fuzz, leaving the hard, smooth bone most people imagine as antlers behind. You may notice patches of shredded bark on trees and branches, and these are known as rubs.

The resulting hard, pointy antlers are used by the males to spar during the rut, fighting for females.

Whitetail deer shedSylvia Dekker

Antlers make it easy to distinguish between male and female deer, elk and moose during most of the year. However, female caribou also grow and usually lose them after having their calves in the early summer.

In late winter, low testosterone levels in Cervidae males cause the connection between the antler and skull to deteriorate. Eventually the antler falls off and is left behind. We call those shed antlers, or sheds for short.

ShedsSylvia Dekker

Antlers hold many clues about who dropped it and when. The difference between moose, caribou and deer antlers are obvious. Moose have palmate antlers we call paddles, deer have long tines, and caribou have a unique antler that is distinct and easily identified. The shape of deer antlers can tell you whether the buck that grew and shed it was a mule deer or a whitetail deer.

Younger animals will generally have smaller antlers, although the age of an animal is not perfectly correlated with antler size or number of tines since older animals can sometimes regress.

Another clue is the colour. The fresher the antler, the darker it will be. Antlers shed years ago will usually be bleached white by the sun. You can tell if an antler is very newly shed if there is still a little blood on the end that was attached to the animal’s skull.

Happy hiker with antlersSylvia Dekker

Shed hunting is loved by many for a variety of reasons. I anticipate and relish the relaxed wandering of the activity, peering for tines sticking up through the grass, following deer trails, letting my feet decide the direction and allowing my mind to wander. Cultivating my eye for sheds means I’ve noticed exciting hints of spring, such as tiny flowering plants and insects. It’s the perfect late winter or early spring adventure, and it gives purpose to an outing and exercise ahead of the summer hiking season. Plus, kids love scurrying around looking for and at things on the ground. There is something thrilling about finding a beautiful piece of an animal’s history, giving you snippets of information to help you imagine its story.

There are a few things to keep in mind if you are intrigued at the idea of hunting for shed antlers, though.

Never harass an animal to make it jump or run in the hopes the antler will fall off. Go ahead and watch the animals with binoculars (highly recommend this activity as well!), but if you do see one drop an antler, wait until they’ve moved on before heading over to look, rather than chasing them away.

Mule deer buckSylvia Dekker

Not only is disturbing wildlife potentially dangerous for you, but it is illegal and unethical behaviour, mainly because it is harmful to the animals. The late winter, early spring months are tough for browsers such as deer. They can be weak and tired after enduring harsh winter conditions and limited food, so getting too close or pushing them out of an area can cause extra unnecessary stress and energy expenditure.

Another consideration is the regulations surrounding this activity. Shed antlers are considered wildlife parts. Just like fossils and wildflowers, animal parts like antlers are natural features that make the outdoors so special.

Plus, antlers play a key role in the ecosystem. Some of the antlers we’ve found in the past have had the tines chewed off, with the teeth marks indicating rodents were snacking. They are great sources of calcium, phosphorus and other minerals for squirrels, porcupines and other animals.

Deer_ rodent chewed tinesSylvia Dekker

The regulations regarding taking wildlife parts home vary by province and area. In many places, naturally shed antlers can be collected and kept or sold. For example, in Alberta, you can keep or sell the antlers you find, as long as they were not found inside provincial or national park boundaries or protected areas. This holds true for every province and territory in Canada, so if you are visiting any of these specially protected areas, assume you can’t claim a shed as a souvenir.

Of course, if you spot a shed antler in these places, you can look. Antlers are a great talking point for educating kids about wildlife, and a wonder to see. As tempting as it may be, though, don’t take it home.

Fines for removing sheds from a national park can get hefty—up to $25,000. No antler is worth that amount of money!

Instead, take a picture, and if touching is allowed where you are, take a photo with it.

(I may or may not pretend to be a buck when I find antlers.)

Antlerless deerSylvia Dekker