In West Virginia, most bucks lose their antlers in January or February. Crum said he's seen bucks lose their headgear as early as late December, and he's heard reports of bucks retaining their antlers into April.
"One interesting thing about antler loss is that individual bucks tend to lose their antlers at the same time every year," he added. "Nutrition and testosterone levels tend to affect that, though. If bucks are nutritionally stressed, or if their hormone levels are interrupted, they might lose their antlers earlier than they otherwise would."
Antler growth starts immediately after the antlers are shed but it usually does not become visually apparent until late April or early May. Growth continues until approximately mid-August. While the antlers are developing, a fuzzy skin called "velvet" surrounds them. Each antler grows from this blood vessel- and nerve-laden covering. The bone that forms the antlers is spongy at first, but later mineralizes into hard bone.
Growth usually ends in August, and when it does bucks rub their antlers against trees to remove the velvet and polish the underlying bone.
Crum said growing that much bone, that quickly, is a drain on bucks' physical resources.
"That's why nutrition is the single most important factor in a buck's antler growth," he said. "The better the food a buck has, especially in late winter and early spring, the better antlers it can grow."
The second most important factor, Crum added, is age.
"The biggest increase in antler development is after a buck's first year," he explained. "A 1 1/2-year-old buck will usually have a little 'basket' rack with four or six points. The next year, when the buck is 2 1/2, the rack will be much wider and taller."
The older the buck gets, the bigger antlers it tends to grow. At 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 years of age, bucks reach their peak of antler development. "After that, growth starts to flatten out or decline," Crum said.
While genetics play important roles in human growth and features, Crum said they play only a minor role in antler size or shape among wild deer.
"The captive-deer industry places a lot of stock in bucks' genetics, but the simple fact is that nutrition and age are the main determinants of how big a buck's antlers get in the wild," he added.
White-tailed bucks aren't the only animals that grow new antlers every year. Male mule deer, elk, moose, black-tailed deer, red deer, fallow deer, roe deer and caribou also do.
But until elk become fully and permanently re-established in West Virginia's mountains, white-tailed deer antlers are going to remain the Mountain State's main topic of water-cooler conversation every autumn.
Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231, or e-mail johnmc...@wvgazette.com.