North American Deer
This page highlights the 6 deer that are featured in the Mason Wildlife Exhibit — the Coues, Mule Deer, Rocky Mountain Mule Deer, Whitetail, Sitka Blacktail, and Columbian Blacktail. The exhibit also includes other North American ungulates classified taxonomically as “deer”, such as elk, caribou and moose, and you can read about each of these on their own webpages.
Within the species that we commonly refer to as deer, there are two groups, the mule deers and whitetail deers. Mule deers include both subspecies of blacktail deer — columbian and sitka — as well as many other subspecies that are called mule deer, including the Rocky Mountain mule deer. Meanwhile, the coues deer is a subspecies of whitetail.
What species or subspecies a deer is can be identified quite easily by their tail appearance, as you can see in the graphic.
These deer are quite abundant in North America and are popular for hunting, hence they are deeply rooted in American conservation discussion and efforts. Those that reside in the Mason Wildlife Exhibit have a mission to educate visitors of about their conservation, and to inspire wonder and admiration!
Coues Whitetail Deer
Odocoileus virginianus couesi
Common Name: Coues Whitetail Deer
Scientific Name: Odocoileus virginianus couesi
Size: An average buck weighs 80-100 pounds and stands 30-32 inches high at the shoulder. Does weigh 60-80 pounds and stand 24-26 inches. At birth, fawns weigh 3-6 pounds and are 10-12 inches tall.
Diet: Coues are browsers, primarily eating shrubs and trees
Longevity: Coues deer can live up to 20 years in the wild, but few live past the age of 10
Did you know?
- Coues deer are one of the smallest sub-species of whitetail in the U.S.
- Bucks have an average home range of 4 square miles, but spend the majority of their life in only 1.7 square miles. That’s only about the size of central park
- The does have an average home range of 2 square miles but spend most of their time in 0.7 square miles
- This deer has developed such a reputation for being able to vanish from view in the smallest amount of cover that it is frequently referred to as the “Grey Ghost”
- Coues can jump up to 4 feet high and 30 feet long and run up to about 50 miles per hour for short distances
- A newborn fawn can stand 20 minutes after birth, walk in one hour, run a little bit within 24 hours, and outrun a man at five days old
Masters of disguise: Fawns are scentless and their reddish-brown coats, covered with pale spots, merge with the forest floor. They instinctively remain still if any animal comes near them.
Super Senses: These deers’ eyes are located on the side of their heads, giving them a wide field of vision. Their cupped ears move in different directions and amplify noises. They also have an excellent sense of smell; they can pick up a scent from 200 yards away.
Brilliant Legs: Coues have long legs, with strong muscles and ligaments for fast getaways. They have sharp hooves and can rear up and use them as weapons, killing coyotes or wolves with a single blow.
Superb Lookouts: When they sense danger and flee, they wag their tails and expose the white undersides as a warning to other deer. They can also secrete warning scents from glands in the hooves, telling other’s the way to safety.
Range and Habitat
The Coues deer inhabits the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico. Well-adapted, it inhabits both the desert floor and high mountain peaks and ranges in elevation from approximately 3,000 feet to 9,000 feet. They inhabit areas along streams and rivers, mixed woodlands, farms, forests, and burned shrub fields. Open areas are used only when thick cover is nearby.
Common Name: Mule Deer
Scientific Name: Odocoileus hemionus
Habitat: Mule deer are uniquely adapted to both desert and arid environments. They thrive in mountain forests, wooded hills, urban areas, and chaparral
Range: Found throughout western and central North America
Diet: Mule deer eat grasses, flowering plants, buds, twigs, leaves, and stems of woody plants. They have no canine teeth and have a multi-part stomach, the first two chambers of which act as temporary storage bins
Predators: Humans, coyotes, mountain lions, eagles, bears, wolves, and bobcats
Life Span: Usually live 9-11 years
Size: Mule deer range from 3.0-3.5 feet tall at the shoulder, 4.5-7.0 feet long, and have a tail that is 5.0-8.0 inches long. They can weigh between 130-280 pounds. The female deer are smaller than the males
Did you know?
- During the heat of the day, Mule deer are generally inactive in order to regulate temperature and conserve water. They are more active in the early morning, late evening, and overnight hours
- During the spring and summer, their antlers are very soft and tender, coated with velvet. Damage can easily occur to the antlers in this period. In August, antler growth stops and the antlers harden
- Major threats to mule deer include automobiles, hunting, and large carnivores like bears, mountain lions, and coyotes
- They are not well equipped for fighting, so they stay alert and rely on their speed to avoid predation and human-inflicted harm
- Mule deer can reach speeds of 45 miles per hour while running and are capable of changing directions in a single bound
Mule deer range map
NPS photo by Kait Thomas (Arches Nat. Park)
Mule deer buck, by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Mule Deer Defenses
- Their sense of smell is 1,000 times stronger than a human’s. They can detect predators a half mile away and smell water that is 2 feet below ground
- Because their eyes are located on the sides of their heads, mule deer can see a 310 degree view around themselves. They have better nighttime vision than humans but are not very good at detecting motionless forms
- They have a unique leaping gait, in which all four of their legs touch the ground at the same time while running. With each bound they may jump as high as two feet and as far as 15 feet
Mule deer are easy to identify due to their large mule-like ears. They are brownish-gray in color, have a white rump patch, and a small white tail with a black tip. The male deer grow antlers during the summer and fall and shed them each spring. The fawns are reddish-brown with a distinctly speckled white back.
(Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies)
Female mule deer, photo by U.S. Forest Service
The Rocky Mountain Mule Deer
The Mason Exhibit collection also includes a beautiful Rocky Mountain Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus hemionus) which is a subspecies of mule deer.
The Sitka Blacktail Deer and Columbian Blacktail Deer, both of which are represented in the Exhibit, are also subspecies of mule deer.
Rocky Mountain Mule Deer doe and buck, image from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Mule deer distribution; Rocky Mountain Mule Deer are shown in bright orange
Sitka Black-tailed Deer
Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis
Common Name: Sitka Black-tailed Deer
Scientific Name: Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis
Size: Bucks weigh 120-260 pounds. Does weigh between 80-100 pounds, and fawns weigh 6-8 pounds at birth
Diet: Summer browse is green, leafy herbs, and shrub or evergreen leaves. Winter diets are ferns, twigs, and lichens
Longevity: Average deer live to be 10 years, but some have attained an age of 15
Image by Gillfoto on Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Did you know?
- Sitka black-tailed deer are a subspecies of mule deer
- They are reddish-brown in the summer and gray-brown in the winter
- They have no upper incisors and digest vegetation through grinding plant material between their upper and lower molars
- Normal adult antlers are small in size and usually develop a maximum of 3 points per side
- Sitka deer swim well and are found on many of the surrounding islands off the Gulf of Alaska
- Their moving ears can pick up any sound that may pose a danger. If startled, these deer run with a high bounce
Sitka black-tailed deer fawns are born in late spring, following the breeding season in late November. Breeding bucks spend little time foraging and by late November have used up much of their fat reserve, while does generally enter December in prime condition. Does breed during their second year of life and continue producing fawns annually until they reach 10 or 12 years of age. Prime-age does (5-10 years) typically produce 2 fawns annually.
Distribution and Habitat
The Sitka black-tailed deer is native to the wet coastal rainforests of Southeast Alaska and North-Coastal British Columbia. Sitka deer can be both migratory and residential, depending on their habitat, but during winter they primarily reside in old or mixed-age forest growth.
Range of the Sitka deer. You can see that it resides in wet coastal areas and islands.
A Sitka deer in its habitat in Naikoon Provincial Park. Photo by Murray Foubister on wikimedia commons.
Two Sitka deer fawns
Columbian Black-tailed Deer
Odocoileus hemionus columbianus
Common Name: Columbian Black-tailed Deer
Scientific Name: Odocoileus hemionus columbianus
Habitat: Forest edges with sufficient shelter and abundant meadows
Size: Adult bucks are 4.5-5 feet long, 3 feet high at the shoulder, and weigh 130-200 pounds. Does are slightly smaller. At birth, fawns weigh 6-8 pounds.
Reproduction: Rutting season is November. Gestation is for 7 months, with fawns born in June. Twins, even triplets, are common.
Diet: Black-tails are browsers, primarily eating shrubs and trees
Longevity: Average is about 9-10 years, but many live past age 15
Buck with spikes.
Cover image from California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Did you know?
- Black-tailed deer once lived from the west coast east to Wyoming
- They can be distinguished from Mule deer by their larger tail, the back of which is completely covered with black hairs
- Their ears are large and can move independently, giving them an excellent sense of hearing. They also have good sight and can see other animals at a distance of up to 2,000 feet
- They often break into a bouncing, pogo-stick-like gait called “pronking” or “stotting” that allows them to move quickly and safely over brushy vegetation and fences
- Bucks have antlers, does don’t. Male fawns begin growing buttons at 7 months old, becoming full-size in five years. Antlers are shed every year
- Black-tailed deer spend their entire lives in areas less than 3 square miles
- They communicate with each other using more than 10 unique vocalizations
A young buck with “buttons”, the beginnings of antlers.
A full grown buck.
A female (doe) with twin fawns.
Range and Habitat
The Columbian black-tailed deer is found in California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and the Alaskan panhandle. They only inhabit a narrow strip of land from the shores of the pacific ocean, inland for about 100 miles.