When we tell deer hunters that “culling” spike-antlered yearling bucks to improve antler quality is a management mistake, a host of online experts are sure to correct us and remind us of their exception to this rule. “True,” they’ll say, “except I shoot all cowhorns.” Or, “Actually, you need to kill cowhorns.” The reliability of this retort, and the sheer number of cowhorn experts, would lead one to believe cowhorn spikes are abundant.
What exactly is a cowhorn, and are they really so common we need a footnote about them when discussing herd management? It may be a regional term that some deer hunters have never encountered, but where I’m from in the South it’s widely understood that “cowhorn” means a spike buck with really long, unbranched antlers. It’s implied that cowhorn refers to an adult or mature buck, and also that the buck has never and will never grow branched antlers. Those who use the term seem to consider cowhorns a genetic glitch that should be weeded out.
Except, cowhorns are so uncommon as to deserve all the biological consideration of unicorns. Let’s set the record straight on this fable.
How Common Are Cowhorns, Really?
Assuming we are talking about adult bucks with long, unbranched, spike antlers, it’s difficult to determine their frequency in nature precisely because they appear to be extremely rare. I asked a few people in positions to know the frequency. For example, Dr. David Hewitt of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M-Kingsville has studied the antler growth of thousands of known-age bucks and how their antler growth tracked into older ages. David could not recall an example of a single mature spike in his research.
“I am going to say that mature, over-the-hill bucks with spike antlers are a very low percent of all bucks, almost unheard of,” said David. “A buck that is a spike his whole life is even rarer.”
Tes Randle Jolly of Alabama has been photographing wild whitetails in the South and other regions for 25 years. Upon my query, she dove into her photo files. She found several photos of mature bucks with a single spike antler on one side and a branched antler on the other, but that’s a different animal than we are discussing and one that is typically the result of an injury or bacterial infection.
“Not much came to mind when I read your request. So, I spent a bunch of time in search of the elusive mature cowhorn spike,” she told me. “In over 25 years of deer photography, I can say they are about as rare as hen’s teeth!”
Joe Hamilton of South Carolina, who founded the Quality Deer Management Association in 1988, is a student and admirer of mature bucks. Joe has written in the past that his dream buck is an extremely old buck with a low point count, like a 6-pointer, simply because they are so rare. When I asked Joe about cowhorn frequency, his answer via e-mail was brief: “Extremely rare to encounter a cowhorn older than 1½ years.”
To review: Extremely rare. Rare as hen’s teeth. Less frequent than “almost unheard of.” Yet, they are not imaginary. Joe sent me a grainy photo he took years ago of a mounted cowhorn he encountered (photo at the top of this web page). I did some investigating and learned H.D. “Sonny” Hall killed the buck in Virginia on October 12, 1974. According to Sonny’s son-in-law Phillip Ricks, the huge spike pulled cotton scales to 245 pounds. No doubt, this was not a yearling. Sonny’s buck won the “Longest Spike” award at the Dixie Deer Classic in North Carolina every year from 1985 to 1987, until Sonny decided to let others have a shot at the award. The buck’s longest spike measured 20 inches.
Natalie Krebs of Outdoor Life documented an enormous spike killed in North Carolina in November 2014. Dennie Bowman killed the buck with 26-inch beams and a 19½-inch inside spread. According to Natalie’s article, a taxidermist estimated the buck to be 10 to 12 years old.
Natalie wrote that article almost 10 years ago. Meanwhile, other articles and documentation of cowhorn spikes are few and far between. The problem is, we don’t have accurate age information to go with the few famous cases of bucks killed with astoundingly long spike antlers. It’s clear most if not all of them were adults, not yearlings. It’s likely most of them were extremely old bucks that were in decline and once had branching antlers when they were younger, but again we don’t know for sure. Naturally, it’s difficult to study and shed light on something that is so rare, but the rarity is my point.
Spike Buck Reality
The vast majority of spike bucks, sometimes jokingly referred to as “11-pointers,” are yearlings carrying their first set of antlers. Their frequency in any area, or the percentage of yearlings that are spikes and not branch-antlered, is a function of nutrition and herd health. Research at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute showed that 76% of a yearling buck’s antler growth is explained by nutrition and environment and only 24% is a genetic effect, meaning a yearling’s antler dimensions do not accurately reflect his genetic potential.
It’s even possible for a buck to grow spikes beyond 1½ years of age in low-quality habitat where soils, forest management and herd management are lacking. Dave Edwards, a wildlife biologist and consultant from Florida, told me that in areas of lower quality habitat in Florida, a small percentage of bucks remain spikes at 2½ and even out to 3½.
“I think in most cases of a 2½-year-old cowhorn, the buck was born late in the year and simply hasn’t recovered, and that’s due to a less-than-desirable situation,” Dave said. “High deer density, poor sex ratio, poor habitat. His surroundings aren’t helping him recover.”
These problems are not fixed by shooting spike bucks of any age. They are fixed by improving nutrition and balancing the herd with the habitat through doe harvest to ensure adequate nutrition for all deer. If a high percentage of yearling bucks are spikes where you hunt, it’s a sign they need better nutrition. Shooting them only perpetuates a poor buck:doe ratio and low buck age structure.
The Same Little Spike?
Some hunters say they’ve seen the same little spike for multiple years, and his antlers never get any bigger. This is almost certainly a case of yearling spikes looking very similar to each other across years. These hunters are not seeing the same small spike year after year. They are seeing new yearling spikes each year, they just look a lot like last year’s spikes.
Most spike antlers have very little character. They usually lack unique curvature, varying mass, or other identifiers. They are just simple, thin spikes averaging around 6 inches long. It’s guaranteed there will be a few spikes like this wandering around every year – more of them in herds with poor nutrition – and for those who don’t understand how antler growth works as a buck ages, it’s easy to think it’s the same deer. I feel safe saying it is not.
What to Do About Spikes and Cowhorns
The National Deer Association welcomes the harvest of any deer that is legal and desirable to the individual hunter involved, including yearling bucks. However, spike yearling harvest should not be a management obligation. Research shows these bucks can produce antlers as adults that will make many hunters happy. Research also shows we can’t manage wild deer genetics through harvest choices. If you want to improve the numbers of adult bucks in your area, manage by age, not antlers; protecting the majority of yearlings, including spike yearlings, should be your goal.
So, is the cowhorn spike a myth? As a management concern, yes, it’s fake. Any true cases of a buck that grew spike antlers every year for life would have to be the result of a rare deformity, injury, or catastrophically poor habitat. Killing the deer won’t fix any of these causes, so there is no need for a footnote under buck harvest and herd management.
Manage for more adult bucks by setting yourself a locally realistic age minimum, and then pass or harvest bucks based on whether they meet it. Disregard the “what about” arguments that only complicate buck harvest for no valid reason.
You are more likely to see a piebald deer, a cactus buck, a doe with antlers and a deer with fangs than you are to encounter a mature “cowhorn” spike, but if you do, I promise it will meet your age minimum. Tag it and hang it on the wall along with its teeth, which will likely be extremely worn down. Send an incisor tooth for lab analysis to find out exactly how old it is. Celebrate the rare achievement of killing a very rare, very old whitetail. And send me a photo of you and your cowhorn, because I sure had a hard time finding any for this article!