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The simple pleasures of shed hunting

Updated: Mar 7, 2022

Here’s a heck of a confession for a man raised in rural Iowa: I’ve never shot a deer. Not once. I’ve never been especially opposed to it, but in my early years I never had much intrinsic interest in it either. No one else in my immediate family hunted, and before you know it, you’re a full-grown adult working on habitat projects nodding politely while all your coworkers tell tales about their weekend in a tree stand. So I’m not a hunter, even though with an unkempt beard and a love of all things outdoors most people just assume I am. But I am a committed scavenger, endlessly fascinated to this day with poking at carcasses and scat, eating unwashed food items I find in the woods (“wild edibles” if you need a veneer of sophistication in explaining your hobby), and generally rummaging around wherever my interests take me. I’d like to think I have a lot in common with the Tyrannosaurus Rex: mischaracterized in my methods for obtaining food, surprisingly weak upper body, longstanding feud with the actor Sam Neill, etc…

He knows what he did

Late winter into early spring is prime scavenging season. Just ask the convocation of eagles gathered over a bit of roadkill along the highway. Winter food caches run short for squirrels and chickadees, but the bugs haven’t emerged yet. Herbivores have picked over the best woody browse, turning at this point to the less-palatable offerings like red cedar needles or even carrion in the most

Deer browsing last year's growth

For us humans in the modern age, we’ve replaced the starvation of late winter with a curious malady called “cabin fever.” Symptoms include mood swings, weather dysmorphia (“it’s not so bad in the sun”), and impulsive plane ticket purchases.

Some individuals of our species have found a clever adaptation to satiate the hunting and gathering urge, and manage severe cabin fever, in the form of shed hunting.

The time to harvest a trophy buck has passed, but the big ones who made it through another season unscathed leave a present behind for those willing to put in the time.

Whitetail sheds in late winter reminds me of autumn’s leaf drop. Indeed, the two phenomena have somewhat analogous biological underpinnings. During their growth, leaves develop an “abscission layer.” This layer has two parts, one comprised of weak tubular cells that transport nutrients to and from the leaf tissue, and another more durable waterproof layer underneath. As changes in photoperiod – the length of the day - trigger hormonal changes within the plant, the more durable layer expands and pushes out the weaker cells, detaching the leaf once all the chlorophyll has been resorbed.

Antler casting in deer has a lot of the same mechanics. Antler growth, mineralization, and casting is dictated by testosterone levels within the deer. Those testosterone levels wax and wane in response to changes in, you guessed it, the photoperiod. Much like the deciduous leaf, the antler is attached by a bone called the pedicle. With testosterone levels fully elevated, the layer remains strong enough to anchor the antler, but when that testosterone wanes, a specialized set of cells called osteoclasts develops on the pedicle that absorbs bone at the base of the antler until it weakens and falls off.

Unlike trees, deer move around which makes their cast offs a little harder to find. But some basic biology and behavioral considerations can tilt the needles-to-haystacks ratio in a more favorable direction.

When deer metabolism slows down in the winter, they concentrate their time budget into mainly bedding and feeding areas. Bedding areas typically involve high thermal cover, i.e. tall grasses (like CRP fields or prairies), dense brushy forest (i.e. areas recently logged or otherwise disturbed woody areas), or cedar thickets where the evergreen trees block snow from above and wind from the sides. Those kinds of habitats on south facing slopes that get more sun and warmth become doubly valued by whitetail.

Exploring a deer bed at Motor Mill. Photo credit: Dan Slagel

Feeding areas this time of year typically consist of fresh woody browse – again, making young forests or recently-disturbed areas highly coveted – or ag fields where corn or soybean remnants provide nutrient-dense forage for empty deer bellies.

Concentrating your shed hunting to those areas, and the travel corridors between, will provide the most efficient use of your scavenging time. Walk a grid pattern, and perhaps train your eyes before heading out by looking at shed photos or a set you may already have from previous adventures. Think of it as practice for mushroom season.

Sheds found at Osborne last year

One last note on shed hunting: loose antlers are fair game for all, but antlers still attached to the skull – “deadheads” from bucks that died of disease, car accidents, or lost by hunters - do require a salvage tag. Salvage tags are free, but you must call a law enforcement officer to get one filled out.

Deadhead found during last year's prairie reconstruction at Osborne

Like fishing, even a bad day shed hunting beats a good day at the office, so if your cabin fever symptoms are getting to that critical stage, get out there and find those antlers!

Looking Back

Last month had us busy working on habitat projects at Motor Mill and Becker East. At Becker, we took the opportunity with light snow cover to treat a few stubborn woody plants in the brand new prairie reconstruction so the nascent grasses and forbs will have a better chance to establish and thrive.

At Motor Mill's Grau Savanna, crews spent the better part of a week removing undesirable trees - bitternut hickory, hackberry, ironwood, small maples and basswood - from the ridgetop and edges to get a little more sunlight through the canopy. The site got a little seed boost last fall thanks to a grant from the Iowa DNR, and to give the valuable forbs a fighting chance we hope to give them a little more morning and afternoon sunshine this year.

The naturalists scurried around to county schools offering programs on reptiles and amphibians, climate change, geology, forestry, owls, groundhogs, and whatever other curiosities spring forth from the minds of students.

We had a lovely hike in the cold weather at the Motor Mill historic site, with 13 people coming out in single-digit temperatures to explore the lingering stems from last year's growing season and stave off the aforementioned cabin fever.

Our partnership with Upper Iowa University's Ecosystem Restoration & Methods class saw a bunch of budding young conservationists visit Osborne and Motor Mill to help with timber stand improvement projects, and presenting their findings on the potential for biochar to become a value-added component of forest restoration projects.

Looking Forward

March is all about Motor Mill! On Thursday, March 3rd, stop by the Osborne Nature Center at 10:00 AM and 6:00 PM for "Coffee Talk" as the Motor Mill foundation updates its interpretive plan. Stop by and offer your thoughts on this regional gem to help shape the next chapter in the site's storied history.

On March 5th, the annual Bluebird House Workshop will take place at Osborne. The nesting season will be here before you know it, so don't miss out! Participants must register to ensure adequate supplies; call 563-245-1516 to secure a spot.

On March 19th, Motor Motor is here! The 5K runs on dirt trails around the mill, the 10K on the lime-chipped Motor Mill Trail, but both routes will definitely be a breath of fresh air after a long winter, even a mild one like this year.

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