North American Deer Species
There are two main species of deer native to North America, whitetail deer and mule deer. Technically, moose, elk, and caribou are also deer as they are members of the deer family, but in common terminology, only the aforementioned two are referred to as “deer.” There is much debate in scientific circles between those who like to identify various subspecies of animals, and those who dismiss subspecies simply as regional genetic variation. The Boone and Crockett club recognizes five different species or subspecies of deer in North America. In the whitetail category, the club recognizes whitetail deer and Coues’ whitetail deer. In the mule deer category, B&C recognizes mule deer, Columbian blacktail deer, and Sitka blacktail deer. While all of these deer appear similar to the untrained eye, there are significant, recognizable differences that differentiate one species from another. In the areas where whitetail and mule deer ranges overlap, it may be essential for a hunter to know the difference between species to avoid mistakenly harvesting the wrong deer.
Whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus)
Whitetail deer are the most common deer in the United States. Whitetails truly are America’s deer. Probably, when most people in the U.S. think of hunting, they are thinking of whitetail deer hunting. Whitetail deer are a conservation success story. In one century, they have returned from the brink of elimination to a point of overpopulation in many areas. Whitetail can now be found throughout almost all of North America, much of Canada, and Mexico. This recovery has been made possible by hunter-led conservation efforts. A factor that favors the whitetail is their willingness to tolerate living in close proximity to human activity. Human development of agricultural land has actually benefitted whitetail deer as a species and helped lead to the expansion of their range.
The most notable feature of whitetail deer is their big, bright white tails. A whitetail’s tail is large, triangular in shape, brown on top, and white underneath. When alarmed, a whitetail deer will raise its tail showing the white underside, which acts as a signal to other deer. While mule deer and whitetail deer are both reddish orange in the summer, mule deer turn silver gray in the fall while whitetail turn a more brownish gray.Whitetail deer show huge variation in body and antler size over their range. In general, the whitetails in the southern part of the U.S. are much smaller than the whitetails in the northern U.S. and Canada. This is probably influenced largely by the weather patterns and the fact that the northern deer simply have to be bigger to survive the harshly cold winters of the North. The size disparity could also be influenced by diet due to the fact that many of the northern deer live in and around agricultural fields where they can easily access a high calorie diet. Significant differences between mule deer and whitetail deer can be seen in their distinct facial markings. A mule deer buck has a black patch on his forehead extending back between his antlers, with a white muzzle and cheeks. The whitetail has a dark brown muzzle, cheeks, and forehead with white rings around his eyes and nose. These are of course general differences, and variation can be expected between individual specimens. Another big difference between whitetail and mule deer is in the shape of their antlers. On a typical whitetail, the antler’s main beam extends out and forward while all other points extend up from the main beam. The antlers of a typical mule deer extend upward and then split or fork into two beams that go on to fork again. Commonly, a buck’s size is referred to by the number of points on his antlers. For whitetail, all points are added up, where for mule deer, only the points on one antler are considered in the total. For example, a whitetail buck having four points on each antler would be called an eight-point. The same buck with four points on each side, if it were a mule deer, would be called a four-point.
Whitetail deer can be hunted using just about every possible technique. Common whitetail hunting methods include, tree stands, elevated blinds, ground blinds, still hunting, calling, driven hunts, spot and stalk, baiting, and the use of dogs. Tree stand hunting is probably the type of hunting most closely associated with whitetail hunting. This is especially true among bow hunters. The use of calling either by rattling or vocalizations can be combined with tree stand hunting. Scent lures are also used to attract bucks within range, particularly during the rut. The territorial nature of whitetail bucks makes it possible for hunters to pattern their behaviors and movements, and place their stands accordingly. Spot and stalk can be used to hunt whitetail where the country is open enough. Most whitetail habitat is in areas of thick forests and brush, making spot and stalk hunting impractical. Driven hunts, where a group of hunters move through an area “driving” game towards hunters stationed ahead of them, can be effective in areas of heavy cover, and is a commonly used strategy. In states where it is legal, whitetail deer are often hunted from blinds over bait such as corn. Some southern states allow the use of dogs for hunting deer, which is a tradition carried over from Europe by many of America’s earliest immigrants.
Coues’ deer (Odocoileus virginianus couesi)
Coues’ whitetail deer or just Coues’ deer are a subspecies of whitetail deer found only in a relatively small area of Arizona, New Mexico, and Northern Mexico. Coues’ deer are similar to whitetail except for the fact that they are very small, being only about half the size of a typical whitetail deer. A large Coues’ buck will weigh a little less than 100 pounds where an average whitetail buck will weigh somewhere around 200 pounds or more.
Spot and stalk is the most common way to hunt Coues’ deer because of the fact that they live in wide-open desert country. Ambushing Coues’ deer at water holes in a ground blind can also be effective since they live in the desert where water sources are scarce.
Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus)
Mule deer are far less populous and are much less widespread than whitetail deer. Mule deer get their name from their large ears which somewhat resemble the large ears of a mule. The mule deer’s range covers much of the western half of North America, from the Yukon down into Mexico, east from the crest of the Cascades and Sierras, over the Rockies into the prairie.On average, mule deer are larger in body and more robustly built than the whitetail. A mule deer’s tail is much smaller than that of a whitetail, white all over with a black tip. Unlike a whitetail, a mule deer’s tail is short, narrow, and cylindrical in shape. Mule deer, especially large bucks, are much less tolerant of human activity than whitetails. Currently, mule deer populations across the west are in decline due largely to predation and human development in areas of critical winter range
Spot and stalk, and still-hunting are the two most popular methods of hunting mule deer. Spot and stalk is probably the most effective method, especially when a trophy buck is the intended quarry. Hunting by ambush, whether in tree stands or ground blinds can also be effective for mule deer although it is far less popular as mule deer can be difficult if not impossible to pattern. An interesting thing about mule deer is the fact that bucks will often choose to live in high alpine basins that look more like sheep country than deer habitat.
Columbian blacktail deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus)
Blacktail deer are classified as a subspecies of mule deer. The Columbian blacktail’s range stretches from northern California, up through western Oregon into Washington and British Columbia. At first glance, blacktail deer closely resemble mule deer, but there are important differences. The most obvious difference is their dark black tail. A blacktail’s tail is shaped more like a whitetail’s than a mule deer’s. It is wider and flatter than a mule deer’s, and black or dark brown down the entire length of its upper surface. The antlers of Columbian blacktail bucks are typically much smaller and more compact than whitetail and mule deer. The Columbian blacktail is also slightly smaller in body size than the average whitetail or mule deer. The antlers are interesting in that they often show characteristics of both whitetail and mule deer antler shape. Some Columbian blacktails have antlers that look like whitetail antlers and some look more like mule deer antlers, while others look like a cross between the two. The Columbian blacktail’s facial coloration closely matches that of mule deer.
Common blacktail hunting methods include, spot and stalk, still hunting, ambush hunting using tree stands and ground blinds, as well as calling using rattling and grunting during the rut.strong>Sitka blacktail deer (Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis)The Sitka blacktail live in the coastal areas of southeast Alaska and northern British Columbia. They also inhabit many of the offshore islands of the same region. Sitka blacktail are even smaller and more compact than their cousins the Columbian blacktail, and they have a shorter muzzle than other deer. The antlers of Sitka blacktails are very small compared to other deer. Their antlers are usually very compact in both height and width. Spot and stalk as well as still hunting are common ways to hunt Sitka blacktail. Sitka blacktail are also said to respond well to fawn-in-distress and predator calls.
Each type of North American deer has its own devotees and fanatics. No one will ever settle the argument over which is most difficult to hunt. All deer are beautiful animals with senses far keener than our own making any legal deer harvest an accomplishment that a hunter can be proud of. Whether you want to match wits with a cagey old buck, or simply fill your freezer with healthy, nutritious meat, deer hunting is the real American pastime and hopefully will be for many generations to come.
Geist, Valerius. Mule Deer Country. Minocqua: NorthWord Press, 1990. Print
Gibson, Dan. “The Columbian Blacktail Deer.” BlacktailCountry.com, n.d. Web. 6
January, 2011 <www.blacktailcountry.com/html/blkpage.htm>
Gutschow, Gregg. Whitetail Wisdom. Minnetonka: North American Hunting Club,
Merriam, Harry, Schoen, John and Hardy, Dave. “Sitka Black-tailed Deer.”
Alaska Department of Fish and Game Wildlife Notebook Series. Alaska
Department of Fish and Game 2008. Web. 6 January, 2011
Moors, Amanda. CouesWhitetail.com, Moors, Amanda. N.d. Web. 6 January,