Now is when a stroll in the woods may lead you to freshly discarded deer antlers. Antler loss is an annual occurrence in a male deer’s life that usually takes place between late December and mid-February.

Tracks, rubs, scrapes, droppings and bedding areas are all common signs that show where deer have been. In addition to these, this is the time of year when you may find interesting – and highly noticeable – proof that a whitetail has been in your area.

Now is when a stroll in the woods may lead you to freshly discarded deer antlers. Antler loss is an annual occurrence in a male deer’s life that usually takes place between late December and mid-February. The shedding of antlers is a prelude to the re-growth of new ones. Besides making room for new “headgear,” another reason antlers shed is a simple one: They aren’t needed any more. In prior months, a buck needed his antlers to attract and impress females and to fight with competing bucks over females. Those needs no longer exist at this time of year. Antler loss is nature’s way of helping a deer discard something that would primarily be a hindrance to its mobility during the spring and summer.

Antlers and horns are not interchangeable words. Antlers are made of solid bone and are shed and re-grown every year. Horns have a bony core overlaid by keratin, which is a type of protein. Horns are sometimes shed in adolescence, but after that, they grow each year. The exception to this rule is the pronghorn (also known as the antelope). Pronghorns have true horns, but the sheaths of the horns are shed each year.

All whitetail bucks shed their antlers at this time of year, but physiological and environmental factors may affect when the antlers are actually dropped. Some studies suggest antler shedding is tied, in part, to nutrition because deer living in better ranges tend to carry antlers than those in poorer ranges. Young deer typically shed antlers earlier than adults.

Prior to antler loss, a deer’s body begins to draw calcium back into the body. This leaves the antlers more brittle, and somewhat more porous. A specialized layer of cells forms near the base, which adds to the antlers’ brittle composition. Finally, the antlers fall to the ground, usually one at a time. This antler drop may be separated by a few hours or a few days. As a result, at this time of year, you occasionally see a deer with only a single antler.

These dropped antlers provide a good source of minerals and protein for the local rodents that gnaw on them. Depending on their condition when found, shed antlers may be suitable for decorative purposes, too. According to the Wildlife Code of Missouri, shed antlers may be collected without possession authorization from the Missouri Department of Conservation. However, any person who finds a dead deer with antlers still attached to the skull plate and takes those antlers into his/her possession must report the taking to a conservation agent within 24 hours to receive possession authorization.

If you’re interested in hunting for deer instead of deer antlers, you still have a few days of opportunity remaining. The state’s archery season runs through Jan. 15.

More information about deer can be found at mdc.mo.gov.