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Every summer as velvet antlers sprout and take form on bucks across North America, a drone-like buzz begins to build in the backs of our minds. It’s a sure sign deer season will be here soon. That’s exciting and, at least for me, the volume button that controls my eagerness seems to inch toward 11 by the day.
Thankfully, our excitement seems to get a little bit higher each year, too, because we’ve literally been able to witness a gradual, yet irrefutable, trend of buck age structure increasing across the country for the last 30 years. This is due, in large part, to the QDMA and our strong educational campaign encouraging folks to pass young bucks as part of implementing QDM.
Of course, one of the things that has grown in popularity along with passing bucks is aging bucks, both on the hoof and after the harvest. The first technique allows the user to estimate a buck’s age before he/she shoots, ultimately helping the hunter decide whether or not to pull the trigger based on their personal goals. However, aging on the hoof is a somewhat subjective exercise based on a few standardized rules, including the date of observation, the position of the deer, and others. The latter always includes a look at the teeth, and may be done using either Tooth Replacement and Wear (TRW) or Cementum Annuli (CA) analysis. This type of testing is subjective as well and comes with a bit of a learning curve — and possibly a cost.
Even though each technique comes with subjectivity and a list of caveats, they are the best methodology we have. They are science-based, and short of tagging/marking a deer as a fawn and then killing it later in life, you will never know the exact age of a deer. They are also certainly way better methods than the following attempts:
- A shed antler – All you can say about a shed and the age of the buck that dropped it is this: the smallest antler in your collection probably fell off a yearling and the largest probably fell off a fully mature buck. After that, it’s not possible to identify to a specific age. If you’d like to read more about why that is click here, we have a whole blog about that exact topic.
- A taxidermist mount – The only authentic items on a deer mount that actually existed on the deer when he was alive include his hide and the antlers; the remainder is manufactured. We already know that antlers are a poor predictor (see item #1), and the hide certainly doesn’t help – especially when you consider that the tanned skin lies on top of a Styrofoam form that the taxidermist ordered. So the neck girth is certainly influenced by what size form is used, and the look of the mount is at the whim of the artist who assembles it. Please don’t bother asking “How old was that deer?” when motioning to the buck on display in your living room.
- Upper teeth – The TRW method described above was developed by renowned deer researcher C.W. Severinghaus in the 1940s. Severinghaus studied the bottom jawbones of known-age deer, looking at differences between the number of teeth and how worn they were. He didn’t use the upper teeth, so neither should we. Moreover, CA analysis is typically performed on the incisors, and those teeth are completely absent along the front of the whitetail skull. They don’t have them. So, the upper row of teeth is not an option for CA analysis. Interestingly, another wildlife researcher tested the use of CA on upper versus lower molars in the late 1980s, and QDMA funded a project in the early 2000s to evaluate potential new technology for estimating age of white-tailed deer by several tooth characteristics, including digital photographs and GIS, and each of these could not better predict age than the Severinghaus technique.
- A kill picture – Although that hero shot you took last fall certainly trumps trying to age the same buck frozen in time through taxidermy, a harvest photo — even a good one — is still not ideal. The animal is typically lying down, which will contort its body in similar ways to a bad trail-camera image. Speaking of that:
- A bad trail-camera image – Estimating buck age requires you to study body characteristics and physical proportions in areas like the stomach, chest, neck, hindquarters and legs. If the photo is sketchy, your age estimate will be too. For example, don’t try to estimate the ages of bucks in photos where they are walking directly toward or away from the camera (as in the photo above); when major parts of the buck are chopped off by the photo frame or hidden by vegetation; when the buck is too far from the camera to be clearly visible; or when it’s in the middle of some athletic stunt like running or jumping. If you’d like to read more about other issues that could arise when attempting to age bucks on the hoof click here, we have a whole blog about that as well.
So, please avoid the five items listed above and stick to the old standards of either aging bucks on the hoof from fall photos, when the buck is broadside, or using TRW or CA on teeth that originate from the lower jawbone after harvest. I understand that bad habits are difficult to break, but I know you can do it.