Getting to Know the Mule Deer

mule deer

Picture by teveritt

Though mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) are relatively well known in North America, this is a North American species so people living in countries other than Canada, United States and Mexico might be unacquainted with the animal. It is a deer that mostly lives in the western part of North America, so people in the east may also not know this species, though they may have seen many white tailed deer, which are related.

General characteristics of mule deer

Fully grown, this is often a large animal. It can get nearly four feet tall at the shoulder, nearly seven feet long from the snout to the tail and may weigh as much as 325 pounds, with large bucks sometimes exceeding this. The color varies from rich brown in the summer to grayish brown in the winter. The underside is pale and both the does (females) and bucks (males) have light throat and rump patches. The tail is white except for a black tip.

Mule deer are named for their ears, which are large like those of a mule. Only the bucks have antlers, which are not true horns and are shed every year. Unlike white tails, which have antler tines that stem upward from the forward facing central tine, a mule deer has antlers that branch directly upward, first outward and then inward, and it isn’t uncommon for the smaller tines to have even more tines.

Mule deer behavior

Mule deer have a separation of the sexes during most of the year, with the does forming large herds and the bucks either solitary or in small, loose herds of their own. During mating season, called the rut, the bucks do battle for the right to breed with a harem of does. It isn’t unusual for a single buck to have a harem of a dozen does and to breed with any that are receptive. The rut occurs in the fall.

Does give birth in the spring, normally to one or two spotted fawns. Rarely, a doe may have triplets and even more rarely, an occasional doe has been seen with four fawns.

Fawns are born without a scent and the doe often leaves them when she goes to feed. She might be absent for hours, but she hasn’t abandoned them. With their coloration, the fact that they remain motionless and don’t have a scent, a predator can pass within feet of a fawn without ever knowing that it is there. People sometimes “rescue” the fawns, thinking they are abandoned. The mortality rate of rescued fawns is over 90%. The fawns should be left alone, since the doe will almost certainly return to care for the young.


Mule deer are vegetarians and they eat grass, weeds (forbs), tree leaves and in the winter, bark and twigs. They have a fondness for apples. Since their food is often low in minerals, they are attracted to salt, too. They’ve been known to gnaw on discarded antlers to get the minerals they need.

These are ruminants, meaning that like cattle, they have a compartmentalized stomach. This allows them to eat quickly, while moving to and from water. Later, at their leisure, they can lay down to ‘chew the cud’. The cud is material that they’ve eaten and which has been stored in the first part of the stomach. This is forced back up into the mouth so they can chew it thoroughly before passing it to the second stomach for digestion.

Role of people

Because man has eradicated large numbers of the natural predators, deer populations have exploded in many places in North America. In a lot of areas where mule deer are present, the land can no longer support the increasing population of deer. Many deer die from starvation; a particularly gruesome way to perish.

For this reason, deer hunters are of extreme importance for keeping deer herds healthy and strong. In many areas, not enough mule deer are taken yearly, though. In these places, many more deer usually die in collisions with cars.

Locally, the mule deer population is extreme. In each of the last three years, most of the does have given birth to at least twins, with several having triplets. There are two does with quadruplets this year, in the local herd. As the climate continues to get colder, this means that even with the number taken by hunters and that die in car accidents, the winterkill numbers are likely to be large this winter and disease may also take a heavy toll.

Thankfully, the meat is very edible, tasty and much healthier and lower in fat than beef.

Mule deer are beautiful creatures. In most of their range, their numbers are increasing. This animal is nowhere close to being endangered. In the west, they are incredibly common, even in towns and cities. People here tend to take them for granted, unless the people grow gardens, in which case they often think of the mule deer as pests.

Having mule deer walking past our house and through the yard has become a daily occurrence, often more than once a day and regardless of the weather.

Have you ever seen a mule deer in the wild?


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