Hunting Horns

I’ve passed through all five stages of horn-antler cognition

By Rob Breeding

OK, here’s something I never do: search for sheds.

This lack of firsthand experience, also known as ignorance in impolite circles, won’t stop me from writing about it. Writing about what I don’t know, or also what I’m terrible at, is a specialty of mine. But before I start in on finding them, there’s the whole horn-antler thing that needs clearing up.

I’ve passed through all five stages of horn-antler cognition.

For those of you still in the first stage, here’s some intel. Deer have antlers that are shed in the spring, then regrow to hardened bone for the fall breeding season. Usually only male deer grow antlers, with the exception of caribou and a few other odd-ball species.

Bison, bighorn sheep and mountain goats grow horns. Horns aren’t shed, but continue to grow throughout the animal’s life. Boys have bigger horns than girls, but both have them. Horns are a type of modified hair follicle, something like fingernails.

Pronghorn grow horns but shed and regrow an outer leathery sheath each year. Pronghorn are like the goth kid you knew in high school who never quite fit in. At wild ungulate keggers, pronghorn are the critters off to the side, denouncing the whole drunken spectacle as juvenile and superficial.

Back to horn-antler cognition.

Ignorance is the first stage. You know some animals have pointy things sticking out of their heads, and you use horn and antler interchangeably to describe them. Even worse when you’re a young writer, you do this in print. Eventually, an editor or reader points out you’re cluelessness, and with this new knowledge seared into your brain by the red-hot brand of humiliation, you vow to never make this mistake again.

Next is the knowledge stage. Having been recently admonished, you suddenly notice whenever the words are used incorrectly. You are briefly stricken with existential angst by the vast world of horn-antler ignorance that once passed unnoticed.

Then comes the pompous jerk stage, and yes, if this wasn’t a family publication I would instead use a three-letter word for donkey. Having recognized this vast sea of horn-antler ignorance, you set out to fix it. You know you’ve reached this stage if you find yourself wandering over from the side of the party and saying something like, “You probably don’t know this, but Rudolph didn’t use horns to attack the Abominable Snow Monster. Since reindeer shed and regrow the pointy things sticking out of their heads each year, they’re actually antlers.”

That was usually the signal for the pretty girls to head for the record player to change the music, or some other distraction.

Maturity finally begins to present itself in the acceptance stage. You realize your efforts at righting the wrongs of incorrect horn-antler usage are futile. You may flinch a little whenever you hear the mistake, but you just let it pass.

Then finally, having flirted with maturity until that seventh-grade boy reasserts himself, you enter the state of willful, provocative ignorance. You use the words interchangeably, just to annoy. This stage is especially acute when you start mocking people who correct your purposefully incorrect usage.

This is the point at the party where you’d be better off wandering back off to the side where you belong, but instead you keep drunkenly provoking the captain of the football team until he decides true cognition awaits you at the bottom of a swimming pool.

This cognition progression follows a similar pattern for buffalo-bison and antelope-pronghorn quandaries.

The shed season on state wildlife management areas opened last week. The best shed hunters — not me — have already picked up the most obvious treasures. But if you’re willing to work at it, there are still plenty out there.

Just don’t ask me for tips.