A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Eight Points about Antlers

These fast-growing bones are shed every year and disappear quickly in the woods.
Antlers are among the fastest-growing bones
in the animal world.

1.    Antlers are Different from Horns:

You sometimes hear folks referring to a deer's "horns." Maybe it's a slip or genuine confusion, but those protrusions on deer and moose heads are, in fact, antlers. They're a single structure, and really fast-growing bone that are shed and regrown each year. Aside from white-tailed deer and moose, other mammals with antlers include elk and caribou.

Horns, on the other hand, have two parts. The inside is bone, like an extension of the skull. The exterior sheath covering that bone is a hard keratin covering, a form of hair follicle, just like your fingernails, but even harder. Horns aren't shed each year; they keep growing over the animal's life (except for pronghorn antelope). Animals with horns include bighorn sheep, mountain goats, bison and cows.

And unlike antlers, horns generally aren't forked or branched.

2.    Antlers are Among the Fastest Growing Bones in the Animal Kingdom

Antlers start forming in the spring and keep growing through summer, a living tissue that's circulating blood and nerves and encased in a soft velvet. If you could touch that developing antler, you'd suddenly find that it's hot, with blood rushing through it. They're growing at an incredible rate, as much as half an inch PER DAY. A bull moose – of course the female "cows" don't grow antlers -- can have a rack that adds a pound of antler per day as it grows.

Generally, the older the moose or deer, the older its rack. That said, you can’t age a deer or moose by the size of its rack. Wear on teeth is a better indicator of age than antlers.

3.    Antlers Play a Role in Mating Process

Male deer and moose will use antlers to announce their presence to others by rubbing their racks against saplings and young trees. These “rubs” are like sign posts and can reveal a rough beating by the bull moose or whitetail buck. Sometimes, bulls and bucks will spar, using their antlers aggressively against other prospective males that are interested in females. Males can get pretty beat up in this process, suffering cuts, bruises and sometimes infections and death.

In rare cases, males may even lock antlers. One instance of two moose that had locked antlers was discovered in New Hampshire in 2003. The two bulls ultimately perished of exhaustion and dehydration. But the moose were preserved as impressive, full-size mounts in battle. The two moose tour fairs and festivals in N.H. Fish and Game Department’s traveling “Forever Locked” exhibit.

4.    That Velvet is Sensitive

In the summer months, when antlers are covered in velvet, the tips are blunted and the whole rack is sensitive to the buck (or bull moose). While antlers are in velvet, the animal will avoid sparring with another male, or even rubbing against branches. If damaged while in velvet, antlers can become deformed, pointing down or split in odd angles.

And velvet is purported to have medicinal properties for people, from helping strength and supporting bone growth to all sorts of other ailments. The science is still out on this, but it’s wise to be skeptical of such claims.

5.    Deer and Moose Drop Their Antlers after Mating Season

When mating season (called the rut) wraps up, antlers have pretty much fulfilled their purpose and are shed. New Hampshire’s white-tailed deer typically shed their temporary bone in February (earlier in the north). Moose start shedding their antlers in November or December. This process can get pretty awkward for a moose that sheds one of its 40-pound antlers, then walks around with the other for a few days until finally forcing that one off.

6.    They Disappear Quickly in the Woods

When antlers fall off in the woods, it’s amazing how fast they disappear. Antlers are full of calcium, salts and other minerals that mice, squirrels, porcupines and other animals love to devour. I’ve found antlers in early winter – dropped maybe a few weeks earlier – with heavy sign of rodent marks. Other mammals, like coyotes, will drag antlers around and chew them up.

7.    Shed Hunters May Also Find ‘Em

Antlers are also the objective of shed-hunters, folks who search the winter and spring woods in search of a fine buck or bull rack. In North Country towns like Pittsburg, shed-hunting is a big deal, as people follow snowmobile trails, power lines and other corridors seeking moose antlers. They can fetch $50 for a low-quality shed or up to several hundred dollars for a nice, big rack. Even more for a pair from the same animal.

You can search for antlers on your own, but know that antler drops are pretty random. You can search high and low and never find one. Then again, you might just stumble upon one in the woods, all chewed up and raw or in perfect condition. Also, please keep in mind that late-winter/early spring is a tough time for moose and deer. If you’re slogging around looking for antlers, you can inadvertently spook the animals, putting a ton of stress on them at the time when they most need to conserve energy. It’s a good case for leaving their habitats alone until late-spring.

8.    Keeping Score of those Racks

Antlers are among those things that, well, just invite comparison. Two organizations have made kind of a science out of comparing racks. The Boone and Crockett Club has a scoring system for measuring antlers taken by all hunters, and the Pope and Young Club’s scoring system is for bow-hunters. Both are sophisticated scoring methods, and both clubs have strong emphasis on fair chase ethics of hunting.

If you have a story about antlers, let’s hear it. Shoot a note to

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Why Would You Take a Child Hunting?

It’s not for all kids, but for some, hunting is a great way to connect with nature and parents.

Ian is ready for this fall's hunting season.

Why on earth would you do it, a few folks have asked me.

“Why on earth would you let a child carry a loaded firearm? Why would you encourage a child to shoot and kill wildlife? Why would you take a child hunting?”

There are so many ways to answer that I hardly know where to start. The answer is both complex and simple.

First, a little setting: here in rural southwestern New Hampshire, we live in an ideal place to hunt. There’s plenty of forest, great habitat for white-tailed deer, wild turkey and other game, not to mention the warblers, thrushes and other species that thrive here.

A fair amount of these lands are open and available to hunting. And many of those lands, by the way, are protected by organizations and landowners through ownership or conservation easement. Hunters, hikers and nature-lovers of all sorts enjoy the benefits of this foresight.
Second: Unlike most people who learn hunting from their fathers, I did not. My father’s father, Ralph, was an avid hunter. You can see his pride of hunting in the weathered old photos and antlers on the walls of our camp in Maine. My dad hunted a little in his youth, but pretty much gave it up when I came of age. I took up hunting as an adult, mentored by a friend.

And while Son Number One has little interest in hunting, he’s a lover of the outdoors and a conservationist at heart, now studying forestry in college. Son Number Two, now 14, is also a lover of the outdoors and a conservationist. That’s Ian, who was a toddler when he started begging to join me hunting. 

Ian would carry a pop gun on those early “expeditions.” In later years, I’d let him carry an old .22 rifle with the action missing and we’d go out for an hour or two. For me, it was not really hunting; just fun time with the kid. For him, it was an all-out adventure, filled with the awesome, wondrous responsibility of listening, learning and safety. And always, the exciting possibility of a deer.

Youth Season for Deer

For the past two years, Ian and I have participated in New Hampshire’s youth deer hunt. It’s a specially designated weekend when a youth age 15 and under can hunt with a licensed adult. 

During the youth hunt, Ian is the one carrying the real, loaded gun. And I’m watching him carefully, making sure the muzzle is pointed in a safe direction and that he’s following all the other commandments of safe firearms handling. And like some of his youth-hunt peers, Ian has already taken and aced the N.H. Fish and Game hunter education class.  

The night before is a time of preparations. Ian lays out all the items he needs before meticulously packing his camo pack. The little survivalist packs knives, a poncho, rope, compass, gloves, extra socks, granola bars and who knows what else. He has anything needed to survive and thrive in the woods. He reads up on hunting, sets out his clothes and double-checks his alarm. This kid can’t wait.

We Hunt Because We’re Human

In today’s world, we don’t need to hunt to survive. As comfortable First World folks, we can get all the food we need at the supermarket or the farm, whether we’re vegans or omnivores. But we don’t need to do things because they’re easy or convenient. Sometimes we do things for the challenge.

We hunt because we’re human. It’s the ancient urge to gather, whether it’s nuts and berries or game. It’s an ancient urge to survive, to sustain. To learn from the world and to teach what we learn. These are impulses that arise from millions of years of human evolution. 

And as our garden veggies are delicious, so too is venison. It’s all natural, organic, free-ranging, sustainable and local. As hunters, we see how deer get by. And though we’re not guaranteed a deer, we may see how another deer gives its life and how it becomes our food. 

Getting Outside and Learning Respect

Whether a young hunter considers all these weighty matters about hunting and age-old instincts, I can’t say. I suspect a young hunter processes much of the hunt in many different and complex ways.

But I do know that kids spend too much time indoors, sitting in front of screens. Encouraging children to play and explore the outdoors is even a challenge for this parent, as it is for millions of other parents.

As for the guns, I’m not the first to admit there are too many guns (especially handguns), and American culture is way too violent. And I’m among many who’ll suggest that hunting instills in children a respect for firearms, an understanding of wildlife and a keener awareness that life and death are intertwined in many ways. Folks who grow up with farm animals know what I’m saying.

That’s not to say that hunting is all about shooting and death. Far from it. I hunted for years without shooting anything!

Preserving Our Environment and Traditions

But hunting is also about patience. It’s about reading details in the woods, like tracks, buck rubs and scrapes. It’s about stepping quietly on crunchy leaves. It’s about watching the clouds and hearing the wind and tolerating the cold rain and snow. It’s about planning and anticipation. It’s about the warm tea from a Thermos on a cold day. It’s about sitting quietly with your kin, no words exchanged, just a nod now and then and an understanding. It’s about returning to a warm home, scented with fresh-baked cookies. It’s about stories – many great stories – that we’ll share for decades.

Ian and I already have many hunting stories, from the three black bears that walked by us last year, to this year’s tree stand adventures. We look forward to many more.

But when it comes to hunting with a child, don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what Ian says about it:

“From hunting I have learned about respecting and preserving our environment and our traditions, so future generations will still be able to enjoy what we do today. I have learned about the animals themselves too, and the more you know about our nature the more you want to preserve it. Hunter education has taught me about ethics and the proper safe ways to hunt and overall has made me a better naturalist, hunter and individual.”

Well said, Ian.

Now, gather up your stuff. Let’s go hunting!

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Speckled Beauty: Hope in a Stream of Challenges

Wild Eastern brook trout is our canary in the coal mine.

As birds are flying south and deer are in the rut, another species is moving in the quest to fulfill its life cycle.

The Eastern brook trout is swimming its way upstream, into little brooks that wind through the woods, to the places of its own origin, where it will spawn and start the next generation.

If all goes well, the wild Eastern brook trout will spawn successfully, leaving another generation to renew the cycle.

From the brook trout’s perspective, it’s a challenging journey for sure. There are the predators, like anglers, great blue herons and otters. There are competitors: non-natives, like small-mouth and large-mouth bass. There is the warm temperatures and low oxygen. There’s the low water, no water and silt. And there are the obstacles: impenetrable dams and pitched culverts that block their journey.

Before I say another word about those challenges, let’s be clear about this fish: the wild Eastern brook trout, one of nature’s most beautiful creations.

Small Fish, Big Beauty

It’s a master of camouflage with its dark green-chained back, adorned with dazzling circles of blue and red dots.  And during the fall spawning season, the male radiates with a bright orange underbelly.

The Eastern brook trout is the official state fish for New Hampshire and a handful of other states. Unlike the rainbow and brown trout, brookies are native. They’ve endured here since the retreat of the Ice Age.

All three of those trout species are raised in hatcheries and stocked in New Hampshire’s waters for anglers. Many of the wild, naturally reproducing brook trout in our streams have a genetic heritage that includes some degree of stocked, hatchery-reared trout.

And while many streams in our region have lost wild brook trout, there are still a few brooks where you can find naturally reproducing brookies. These fish are small. Even as adults, only a few inches long; maybe a foot or so for a real big survivor.

Tough or Wimpy?

The streams where you can find wild brookies are also small. Twisting through the woods, they’re often small enough to step across, blessed with the shade of trees in headwaters and maybe open and marshy down low, with lots of undercuts for shade and shelter.

Depending on who you ask and what mood they’re in, the wild Eastern brook trout is either among our wimpiest of fish – constantly frail, on the edge of life and susceptible to warm temperatures and low oxygen – or one of our most resilient species, tough enough to survive thousands of years of New England’s changing landscapes and harsh climates, from sweltering, water-starved summers to frozen-solid winters.

Tough or wimpy, modern times are testing the brookie’s resilience. Development, roads, dams, pitched culverts, poor forestry and other land uses have obliterated, warmed, blocked and choked many streams that were brook trout strongholds for thousands of years. On top of all that, a warming climate isn’t helping.

One study estimated that wild stream populations of brook trout have vanished or are greatly reduced in nearly half of their watersheds. And most of their populations are fragmented.

Reconnecting Our Streams

Little wonder that the speckled beauty is likened as the canary in the coal mine. The health of its habitat is tied to the health of many other species, from salamanders to dozens of other fish and invertebrates. Its waters must be clean, cool and free-running.

As always, there has to be hope. As more people realize that the wild Eastern brook trout is a poster child for healthy streams and forests, some folks are stepping in the right direction.

One big step is the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, a collaboration among state and federal agencies, regional and local governments, businesses, conservation organizations, academia, scientific societies, and private citizens. Since 2006, the Venture has leveraged is ability to work with partners and draw from science to fund and complete projects from South Carolina to Maine, restoring streams and improving habitat. Modeled after the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, the Venture is exactly the kind of collaboration that helps maintain momentum for conserving brook trout.

Even locally, we see examples of hope. In Hancock, one farsighted landowner decided to rebuild his farm-pond dam with a small fish ladder to accommodate brook trout. And on a nearby road, the town recently replaced a problem culvert with one that has a natural-like bottom and can handle the brook trout’s amazing journey.

A little south, in the western Massachusetts town of Whately, The Nature Conservancy helped the town rebuild a culvert over a stream where brook trout passage has been studied for many years.

In the grand scheme of things – like the long-term survival of Eastern brookies – these measures are modest examples of many. But they’re a start, and they’re among a growing number of projects moving in the right direction. They’re helping to keep streams flowing freely, well-shaded by healthy forests, free of non-native species and running the way nature intended.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.