What’s Up with Bucks Shedding Early this Year?

AJ Gall

Is anybody else noticing more bucks shedding their antlers earlier than normal this year?  This winter in particular, I have noticed a lot more hunters posting pictures of shed antlers and shed bucks already, and we are barely into the New Year.  In fact, a lot of states’ deer hunting seasons are still going on, giving worry to potentially shooting a shed buck that you thought was a doe.  Maybe it’s simply an increase in social media exposure that makes it appear as though there are more bucks dropping early, or perhaps, maybe there really are more bucks shedding early this year.

Every year, some bucks shed their antlers early, but it’s usually not widespread amongst the herd and is often the result of an injury to that individual buck. Without going into much detail about all the possible causes of early antler shedding (like we did in this article), here’s the most likely explanation for a (seemingly) greater number of bucks shedding antlers earlier than normal this year… and, for ease of reference, let’s consider the month of December as the “early” shed time period.

What’s Different in 2016?

If I was a betting man, I’d put my money on the severity of winter thus far, specifically through the front half of December.  If recent memory serves me right, the past couple of Decembers have been relatively mild with little snowfall here in Wisconsin, thus, not many bucks shed noticeably early.  This year, however, December (the front half especially) spent most it’s time buried in snow, which continued to accumulate up until a warm spell the last week of the month.  December 2015 saw just the opposite when the first major snowstorm didn’t hit until the last week of December. In other words, December 2015 and 2016 were polar opposites.

Big shed antler dropped early in snowHere’s an early shed we found while coyote hunting 

Rather than just speculating, I took a look at the average snowfall totals across the state, focusing on the differences between December 2015 and December 2016.  Not only that, but I also looked at when that snow hit (see snow cover graphics below).  I think it’s fair to say snow storms early in the month of December have more of an impact on whether bucks will shed early during any given year, especially if the snow sticks around for a while.

Temperature and snow cover were the two stats I compared for my home state of Wisconsin.  On average, December 2016 was a whopping 8 degrees Fahrenheit colder than December 2015 across the entire month.  With the colder temps, came more snow – December 2016 saw an average of 16.5 inches of cumulative snowfall compared to just 7.8 inches during December 2015.  That’s nearly a difference of 9-inches of snow that month!  Not only that, but the majority of the snow that fell across the state in 2015 fell on December 28th, which wouldn’t exactly cause much of a noticeable early antler drop.

Check out the following GIF graphic we created to demonstrate the difference of snow cover between December 2015 and 2016 using data from NOAA, it’s extremely interesting and telling.  The following GIFS paint a pretty clear picture as to why we might be seeing more bucks shedding early in states like the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and the northern parts of Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana in particular.

December 2015 Snow Cover

December 2015 Snow cover map in relation to shed antler drop Pay attention to the white regions and the date in the bottom right.

December 2016 Snow Cover

December 2016 Snow cover map in relation to shed antler droPay attention to the white regions and the date in the bottom right.

Why is December so Important?

December could quite well be the single most important month of the year for bucks in any of the areas where the rut occurs in November. It’s especially critical for bucks living in areas subject to snow and freezing temps and here’s why – December is recovery month.

Studies have shown that mature bucks often lose more than 20% of their body mass during the rut.  Are you kidding me?!  That’s like our friend, Jeff Janis of the Green Bay Packers (6’3”, 219 lbs), losing almost 44 lbs during one month! Then once the rut is over, they are expected to bulk back up and recover enough to make it through a tough winter stretch.  Mind you, quality nutritional food options are quite low in December…harvested crops, plowed fields, leafed off browse, depleted acorn crops, etc. . . sounds like fun foraging doesn’t it? Now, picture 10 inches of snow and freezing temperatures on top of that.  It’s no wonder bucks are more stressed during some years than others, a la 2016.

When you stop to think about it, it’s actually quite amazing that more deer don’t die considering the circumstances they are faced with heading into winter.  My, they are unbelievable animals!

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About The Author
From Woods to Table

AJ Gall

AJ Gall's prior hunting and wildlife experiences began long ago and make him the perfect contributing deer hunting guru.  As a habitat consultant under Dr. Grant Woods, AJ has worked on properties in 13 different states, amassing over 25,000 acres of quality deer management. He now uses that knowledge to help clients find their dream hunting properties as a licensed real estate agent in Wisconsin.  

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