Spike bucks in New York State are almost always a yearling deer and are not destined to be spikes if they survive to future hunting seasons. If a yearling buck is lucky enough to survive to the age of 2 ½ years it will begin to display antler growth typical of a mature white-tailed deer in northern habitat.
Yearling antler growth is affected by several factors, including quality of habitat, date of birth, severity of the past winter and to lesser extent genetics.
A deer’s date of birth is a critical consideration for yearling antler growth. Fawns in NY are typically born in late May or early June. Fawns that are born later in the year as a result of late conceptions almost always lag in physical development in comparison to fawns born during the traditional period. Late-drop fawns are weaned to solid food later in the summer. The period of time needed for normal body growth before the onset of winter is reduced and overall their physical stature is diminished. If they are lucky enough to survive their first winter, late born male fawns become yearlings and will typically display the tiny yearling spike or “pencil” racks hunters often observe. In contrast, fawns that have a normal period of time to mature before winter tend to have the typical long spikes as yearlings and some will grow a small “basket rack”.
Quality of habitat is another key factor in yearling antler growth. Not all deer habitat is equal. Yearlings that have consistently better nutritional rations of natural foods available to them will have larger body sizes, larger antler beam diameters and higher point-counts on basket racks as yearlings. Having more and better food results in better body condition.
A wild card in yearling antler growth is winter severity. Even during mild winters, deer rely on their stored fat reserves to make up for the lack of green succulent vegetation in their winter diet. Fat is stored in three locations in their bodies and will be found under the skin, in the gut cavity and in bone marrow. In hard winters, fat reserves are depleted rapidly. If deer are able to survive the harsh conditions and lack of food, they will need to replenish their overall body condition before resuming normal growth and restoring fat reserves. As a result, male deer of all age classes will show smaller beam diameters, less antler mass and lower point counts during the next fall because they needed to both replenish their fat reserves and body condition before resuming normal growth.
Bucks that survive their yearling fall continue to mature as they enter the next fall when they will be 2 ½ years old. In addition to having more body mass, antler growth will increase significantly. The pedicels, or bases of the antlers found
on the skull tend to shift to the sides as the animal matures. This causes antlers to appear to grow more outward over the ears. Spike antlers on 2 ½ year old deer are extremely rare in NY. I’ve checked and aged thousands of deer in the field in southeastern NY and I’ve only encountered a handful of 2 ½ year old bucks that had spikes for antlers. Most occurred after the really tough winters such as 1977-78 and 2002-03 when starvation and winter mortality were widespread. In the few other instances 2 ½ year old bucks with spikes had an earlier body injury that affected antler development.
Lastly, while the genetic contribution of a deer’s parents can certainly play a role in the size and mass of deer antlers, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to attempt to manage that specific genetic trait in a free ranging deer herd that is subject to hunting on vast acreages of public and private lands. Keep in mind that one half of the genetic contribution to a fawn’s future antler characteristics comes from the doe. Without knowing the lineage of the doe it is virtually impossible to predict which does might carry a higher quality gene for larger antler development. While controlled pen studies done with captive deer herds and known lineage for certain physical characteristics can be done, it is simply not possible to hope to be capable of duplicating that level of precision breeding in free ranging herds.
“Once a spike, always a spike” was a common refrain I heard when going afield with my deer hunting elders in Ulster County in the late1950’s. Nothing could be farther from the truth – a yearling buck with spike antlers is similar to a 12-year-old boy…an energetic, excitable and highly mobile individual with a lot of growing that needs to occur to his physical stature before he reaches maturity.