We have entered the micro-season of “The Elk Sheds its Horns”. This is the middle season of the mini-season Winter Solstice. This season runs from December 22 until January 05, and contains the micro-seasons of:
- The Common Self-Heal Sprouts (Dec. 22 – Dec 26)
- The Elk Sheds its Horns (Dec. 27 – Dec 31)
- Beneath the Snow the Wheat Sprouts (Jan 01 -Jan 05)
The micro-seasons were established in 1685 by Japanese astronomer Shibuka Shunkai. Each micro-season lasts about five days and highlights a slight change in the natural environment.
The micro-seasons are specific to the climate of Japan because they were developed around their agrarian society. However, just because this calendar focuses on Japan doesn’t mean that it isn’t applicable to others. The seasons can become a starting point for your personal exploration of the world around you.
Antlers Versus Horns
Before starting the exploration of this season, I need to address a challenge with the title. Antlers and horns are not the same thing. Elk, Moose, Deer, and other members of the Cervidae family have antlers. Antlers are shed every year and are made of cartilage and bone.
Bovine animals like cows, bison, and mountain goats have horns. Horns are made of keratin, which is like our fingernails. Horns are also permanent.(1) I suspect that this mistake in nomenclature may be a result of translation from Chinese, to Japanese, to English. So, we should probably be referring to this micro-season as the season of “Elk Shed its Antlers”.
Elk in Japan?
Elk are not a native species to Japan. However, elk are found in the northern forest of Eurasia and are known to inhabit parts of China. It is suspected that Shunkai and the Japanese of the Edo period enjoyed the imagery of the great elk and therefore kept it in the calendar.(2)
The elk was a prized animal by the early Chinese and was hunted until extinction in the early 19th Century. Since that time, the Chinese have been in partnership with the World Wildlife Foundation to reintroduce this species.(3) The Chinese government reports that they are having great success in the reintroduction of the elk. In 1986 there were a reported 39 elk in China. In 2004, there were 706 elk. And in 2020, Chinanews.com reported over 8,000 elk living in China, either in the wild or in the Dafeng Elk National Nature Reserve.(4)
The Antlers of the Elk
Elk, and most other male deer, start to grow antlers in the spring. These antlers grow from a point on the skull known as the pedicle. The antlers start as cartilage and then transition to bone during the growing season. In the early part of the growing season, the horns are covered with vascular, furry skin known as “velvet”. This velvet carries blood and nutrients to the ends of the antlers allowing them to grow up to 1 inch a day. (5)
By late fall, the velvet starts to come off the horns. This indicates that the horns are done growing. Some elk, like the Roosevelt Elk of North America, can have antlers that weigh around 40 lbs. each. The antlers are primarily used during the mating season as a sparing tool and as a visual representation of the bull’s health. There are some scientists who suspect that the antlers may also serve as protection from predators. They cite studies noticing that elk who had shed their antlers early were more likely to be killed by wolves(6)
Why Elk Shed Their Antlers
After the mating season is over, the elk will shed their antlers. The Roosevelt Elk is known for shedding their antlers in early March.(6) However, White-tail deer may shed their antlers as early as January. There are a couple of reasons for the shedding of antlers.
The first reason is that they are not needed. Once the fall rut is over and the males don’t need them as a show of their health and dominance. The next reason has to do with available food. In the winter months, there is less food available so it doesn’t make sense to use excess energy to carry around all that extra weight. Finally, because of the decrease in available daylight in the winter months, the animals will also have a decrease in testosterone production which will lead to a weakening of the joint between the antler and the pedicle.(1) The weakened connection, along with the reabsorption of the specialized osteoclast cells, enables the antlers to fall off.(5) The osteoclast cells are those specialized cells that help the antlers turn from cartilage to bone and then reabsorb at the end of the season.
Elk, Deer, and Antlers in Haiku
one man listens to stags as a stag himself -Kobayashi Issa
The term “stag” is another way to identify male elk and deer. Chris Drake writes of this haiku, “In addition to being naturally sensitive to animals’ feelings, Issa may also feel the stags express a kind of wild energy that is driving him to try to return to his hometown, receive half his father’s house, and get married there in spite of strong opposition from his half brother, his mother-in-law, and many villagers.”(6)
the katydid breaks out into song... on the deer's antler -Kobayashi Issa
This haiku reminds me a bit of the haiku about the cricket on the log in the river. It seems to be a reminder to pay attention, and take joy, in the moment.
Basho wrote the following haiku in 1688 when he left his friend Ensui in Nara.
deer’s antler one joint beginning to divide -Matsuo Bashō
- US Fish and Wildlife; “Eight points about antlers”
- 72 Season App
- China.org.cn;“China’s Elk Population Rises to 706”
- TellerReport.com; “China successfully released 25 elk populations to 8,000-Chinanews.com”
- National Geographic Society; Antlers Make a Point
- David Frey: Wolves help shape how long elk keep antlers; The Wildlife Society
- Chris Drake; Quoted on World Kigo Database: Deer (Shika)