An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter of April 17, 2005

issued from California's Sierra Nevada Foothills

MULE DEER & WHITETAILS

I see lots of deer here, as well as deer damage. Last fall I planted a small fig next to my trailer looking forward to watching it leaf out now. Instead, it's just standing there with its topmost bud neatly snipped off.

I'd been thinking of these deer as the same as those with whom I've coexisted in the East, but the other morning when one spooked along the road instantly I saw that they were not the same. Instead of leaping up with one paw extended beyond the other, it kept the lower parts of its front legs bent backwards and its body more or less horizontal all the time. The deer appeared to be bouncing from spot to spot, using its legs like springs instead of running on them.

These were Mule Deer, ODOCOILEUS HEMIONUS, not Whitetails, ODOCOILEUS VIRGINIANUS. The two species are similar, which might be expected since they belong to the same genus. The easiest-to-see difference is that the Mule Deer's down-hanging tail is narrow and white but black-tipped, while the Whitetail's down-hanging tail is wider and black with a white fringe. You can see these and other differences, plus a distribution map at www.mun.ca/biology/scarr/Odocoileus_variation_&_distribution.gif   

The above map shows that Whitetails occur across North America, clear through Central America into South America, while Mule Deer are strictly a Western species. In the map, the darker area represents the Mule Deer's distribution almost entirely inside the Whitetail's. Mule Deer favor coniferous forest, desert scrub and grassland with shrubs while Whitetails live in forests, swamps, open brushy areas and, nowadays, suburbs.

I've also seen Whitetails here. I read that during the summer Whitetails stay at the higher elevations but during cold months they move lower. Right now the Sierra Nevada peaks and plains above us lie beneath a snow pack about one-third deeper than usual, 26 feet in places.