Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the number of a deer’s antler points is determined by age. Diet and genes are also factors. The story also should have made clear that the antlers retrieved on the walk were not from Colmar Manor Park and were placed in the area for participants to find.
“Look, I found one,” shouted Lorelei Bois, holding a curvy, chocolate-chip-cookie-colored antler just plucked out of the underbrush.
Her hands almost shivered after a Saturday morning walking the woody hills and weedy marshes along the Anacostia River, the waterway on the eastern side of Washington. With her mom, Tiffani, she was one of the 17 adults and kids on a winter walk over the 260-acre Colmar Manor Park near historic Bladensburg, Maryland.
It was an environmental exploration of the winter vegetation and process of life for the birds and other animals living in the park. There was also the chance of finding deer antlers, which are shed by male deer every winter. They grow new ones every summer, and the cycle continues throughout their lives.
“Yeah, you don’t have to kill deers for their antlers,” said Lorelei, an 8-year-old from the District.
There are about 30 million deer scattered across the United States, said Jorge Bogantes Montero, a natural resources specialist at the Anacostia Watershed Society, which organized last month’s “shed” walk, the group’s first such event. Wildlife authorities estimate a deer population of about 200,000 in Maryland, 850,000 to 1 million in Virginia, and several hundred in the District.
“Actually, you see them in almost every neighborhood these days,” Bogantes Montero continued, “not just wild places.” That means if you can remember where you see them where you live, a winter walk in that area could turn up fresh antlers, he said. “Otherwise, mice and woodland critters eat them, and they disappear over time.”
“They’re so beautiful,” piped up David Luttenberg, a 10-year-old from Silver Spring, Maryland, on the walk with his dad, Randall. David, Lorelei and one adult were the only people on the walk to find antlers that Bogantes Montero had hidden in the park. (Check with authorities before removing them from public parks.) David’s had three “points,” while Lorelei’s antler had four.
The number of points is determined by several factors, including a deer’s age, its ancestors and the food it eats.
Antlers come off “kind of like how you lose baby teeth, one at a time,” Bogantes Montero said, which means finding the matching pair isn’t easy.
Scientists are mystified by antlers, Bogantes Montero said. They are not pure bone, and their composition changes during the year. In the summer, they feature a velvety skin that has nerves and blood vessels. In the fall, they harden and are mostly protein and calcium.
A deer is the only mammal that grows back a major part of its body every year, he continued. And antlers can balloon one-quarter of an inch a day in warm weather, he said. Only cancer cells reproduce more quickly, which explains why medical researchers are studying deer antler cells to try to understand and perhaps control cancer in humans.
“I just think they’re cool,” said Lorelei, who can’t wait to show her find to out-of-town grandparents when they visit.
Lorelei even made up a name for her antlers: “It’s ‘Anilty,’ a word I never heard before,” she said. “Just like I never saw an antler before.”