Live-Aging Whitetail Bucks
Like a lot of things in life, estimating the ages of live bucks becomes easier with practice, though it never becomes truly easy in many cases. Since it is generally agreed by most biologists, that the true lifetime antler-development potential of most whitetail bucks cannot even be accurately accessed before a buck's third set of antlers is developed, the ability to live-age bucks is a necessary skill for anyone intent on managing a deer herd, if culling inferior bucks, and passing on bucks that show promise, is part of the management program.
Though a few exceptional bucks develop impressive antlers at the age of two or three, most bucks do not begin to approach their potential until they are at least four years of age. Since severe winters generally require that more nutrients be used in developing and sustaining a buck's body in the far northern regions, bucks in those areas usually show optimum antler development later in life, compared with bucks in southern climates. These northern bucks often show optimum antler development at seven or eight years of age, whereas bucks in Texas usually peak out as early as four, and as late as seven, but usually around five or six years of age. There are always a few exceptions, of course.
Wherever a buck lives, and whatever his age, nature dictates that in times of inadequate nutrition, or severe stress, nutrients go to body development and maintenance first, and antler development second. This is obviously why, in years with severe drought conditions, many younger bucks, especially, will have spikes, or maybe even no antlers at all.
Most northern bucks that are past their prime, seem to decline more slowly than southern bucks. Many northern bucks continue to grow pretty decent antlers even though they might be 10 or 11 years old, or even older. In Texas, though, bucks over seven years of age will generally be in decline, and rarely live past nine or ten years of age in the wild, though does are more prone to live slightly longer.
One of the more reliable indicators of a buck's level of maturity is the size of the pedicels, (the spots on the skull where the antlers develop). These normally grow larger each year until they reach maximum size. A buck cannot achieve optimum antler development until his pedicels have reached their maximum size. A mature buck will normally have at least about a four inch pedicel circumference, and the buck's eye can be used as a reference to gauge this, since the eye normally measures about four inches in circumference. The antler bases of two and three year old bucks will normally, (not always), be smaller than the circumference of the eye. Here is where good binoculars can really earn their keep.
Bucks over four years of age often begin to develop a "roman" nose, that is, the nose will begin to show a slight hump in the middle. Mature bucks also develop a deeper body as they get heavier, and the extra weight, (and age), will cause their backs to begin to sag, and they will appear to be somewhat potbellied. This can become so pronounced on some older bucks that their legs appear to be too short for their body. Bucks younger than four years will usually have relatively straight back and belly lines. The facial muscles and skin of bucks over five years of age may begin to sag, and they begin to develop jowls. On bucks four years of age and younger, the point where the brisket joins the body will usually show a "notch, or change in contour. On older bucks, the profile of the transition from the brisket to the chest will be a smooth line, and there will be no clearly discernable junction.
A buck's neck begins to swell during the rut at 3 ½ years of age, and mature bucks show very pronounced neck-swelling. Some authorities point out that during the rut, the tarsal glands on the hocks of mature bucks will be stained dark brown, (which is true, of course); however, this can also be seen to some extent on some younger bucks, which tends to confuse the issue if this characteristic is being used as a consideration in age determination. The staining will often be quite pronounced on mature bucks.
Judging a deer old enough to be in decline is simplified by the fact that the pedicels never diminish in size with age. Even though an older deer might have antlers that are inferior to what he carried in previous years, the large size of the pedicels is a dead giveaway that he is an old buck.
Finally, older bucks will behave as if they are older bucks, especially in the presence of other deer. During the rut, a dominant buck will be confident of his position in the herd, and will act accordingly, whereas 1 ½ and 2 ½ year old bucks will behave like adolescents. A buck that is past his prime, and has lost his position of dominance, will usually withdraw from the herd, and may become solitary and even more secretive than he was previously.
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