The Mysterious Case of a Hard-Antlered Doe

Records & Rarities
The Mysterious Case of a Hard-Antlered Doe

Tommy Eidson has seen the white underbelly of enough deer to know instantly when its private parts don’t match its skull cap.

And so this western Washington (state) hunter stood in disbelief after rolling a mature black-tailed buck onto its back for field dressing and saw an adult doe’s undercarriage, complete with a vagina and four never-been-used teats. Stunned, Eidson stared at the head to confirm its forked-horn antlers were hard and polished, with no hint of velvet.

“I said, ‘This thing ain’t got no dangly parts,’” Eidson said. “It’s a doe.”

Eidson wasn’t talking to himself. He was helping a white-bearded hunter who had shot the deer from a nearby ridge 200 yards away during Washington’s deer season.

Eidson had seen the same hunter three days earlier, and recognized his old Dodge SUV when the hunter returned just before dawn Oct. 25. Eidson watched from his observation post as the old man moved slowly from his truck to a glassing spot 200 yards down the ridgeline.

Eidson watched the man sit and start glassing the hillsides and bottomlands in the opposite direction. Eidson then did the same, turning away to glass the brushy bottoms below him. He felt neither rushed nor crowded on these public lands. A light fog had settled in, and daylight was slowly illuminating the wooded ridges and hillsides around him. He didn’t expect blacktails to be moving around much in the fog and figured he would eventually get up and still-hunt the ridgeline to the man’s SUV and then around to meet him.

Change of Plans

His plans changed when the man shot. Eidson turned and saw the man looking downhill in the opposite direction. Eidson hollered, “Dude, you need a hand?”

“Please,” the man hollered back.

Eidson worked his way around to the man’s observation post and saw he was now about halfway to his deer, which was dead in the bottom 200 yards below. When they met minutes later at the deer, Eidson introduced himself, and learned the man’s name was Barry and he was 74. Eidson asked if he wanted to gut the deer or hold its legs apart for Eidson while he dressed it. Barry said he preferred to hold the legs because he struggles to bend down or kneel for long.

That suited Eidson because he was eager to examine the deer’s interior. Eidson said he probably pays more attention to deer anatomy than most hunters, just because it interests him. “I’m not a biologist, but I had no doubt I was looking at a deer’s vagina when I rolled it over,” he said. “Even with the antlers, no one would insist it wasn’t a doe. The old guy said that’s good, because he had a doe tag. He could use that tag and keep hunting for a buck. He couldn’t believe it. He had finally drawn a doe tag, and then he shot this deer.”

Eidson cautiously cut through the hide and abdominal lining, being careful not to nick anything inside. Besides, he was dressing another man’s deer and wanted to do a good job with no mess.

“When I opened the pelvic area, I saw it had ovaries, but I wasn’t so sure about its uterus,” Eidson said. “I looked carefully at everything. She wasn’t carrying any milk, and the nipples looked like they’d never been used.”

After assessing the deer’s “plumbing,” Eidson continued field dressing the deer. He removed the viscera and chest organs and rolled the carcass upright to bleed out. The old man then carried Eidson’s rifle as Eidson dragged the deer uphill to the old SUV. After loading the deer aboard and watching the man drive off, Eidson resumed hunting about 10 a.m.

“My mind has been racing ever since,” Eidson said. “It would have been interesting to see how that deer was carrying itself. Was it walking like a buck, or was it bedded when he shot it? A doe won’t walk with a buck’s masculinity. When I first saw it lying there dead, it looked like just another fork-horned, 2½- to 3½-year-old buck. I didn’t think to ask the guy all my questions, and I didn’t get his phone number or last name.”

Heffelfinger’s Verdict

MeatEater contributor Jim Heffelfinger—wildlife science coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department and a researcher at the University of Arizona—said the deer was likely a doe. Although Heffelfinger didn’t see the deer in person, he thinks Eidson’s descriptions and photographs of the deer’s female anatomy are convincing. Besides having ovaries and vagina, the deer showed no evidence of a scrotum or the end of a penis sheath.

“This is only the second or third hard-antlered doe I’ve seen in 30 years,” Heffelfinger told MeatEater. “Most antlered does have velvet antlers because they can’t get that testosterone boost right before the rut to dry the velvet. Many supposed antlered does are actually males with deformed male ‘plumbing.’ They’re usually a hypogonadal buck with pea-sized testicles in a tiny scrotum or a cryptorchid buck with normal-sized testicles still inside the body cavity. That happens when the testicles don’t drop through the inguinal canal into the scrotum.”

Michigan’s John Ozoga, who spent his 30-year career studying white-tailed deer at the Cusino research facility in the Upper Peninsula, said hard-antlered does are exceptionally rare because it takes an “incredibly complex combination of sex hormones” for females to produce hardened antlers. These combinations include old, diseased, injured, or degenerated ovaries; or “hermaphrodite” deer. A hermaphrodite has ovaries and testes, as well as male, female, or both external sex organs.

“There’s an old saying that ‘exceptions are the germs of discovery,’” Ozoga told MeatEater. “Other than reindeer and caribou, female cervids (deer family) rarely grow antlers. Yet for some reason, female whitetails, mule deer, and blacktails are more likely than elk and moose females to grow antlers.”

Rarer than Rare

How uncommon are antlered does? A New York study from 1941 to 1955 found one antlered doe for every 2,650 white-tailed bucks (0.04%) shot by hunters. A Pennsylvania study of buck harvests from 1958 to 1961 found one antlered doe for every 3,500 bucks (0.03%), and a 1963 Michigan study found one antlered doe for every 956 bucks (0.10%). Ozoga said the highest rate he found for whitetails was from a 1980s study in eastern Alberta, Canada, that found antlered-doe rates 15 to 40 times higher than anything reported in previous studies.

In nearly every case, however, such antlers still had velvet. “If your antlered doe has polished antlers, you should probably suspect it’s not a true female,” Ozoga said. “But even the experts often have trouble determining the animal’s sexual status.”

Feature image via Tommy Eidson.

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