Confusing a whitetail with a mule deer is a common wrong identification many hunters make. They have a similar look, but these species also bear many distinct differences. A mule deer vs whitetail comparison will help you hone your hunting skills.
Humans have been chasing these deer for several thousand years. Be it a mule or white-tailed deer, they all offer a unique and exciting adventure that hunters cherish.
Some hunt both, but others prefer to go after just one of them. In either case, you should educate yourself about these animals, so you don't get confused in the field.
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Mule Deer Vs Whitetail
What does a mule deer look like? Mule deer typically have a little bigger and heavier body, even though you may have a hard time seeing this difference between whitetail and mule deer in the field.
The average mule deer weight in Colorado is over 250 pounds, while an Illinois whitetail buck weighs just around 200 pounds.
Nutrition, age, and environmental factors all have an impact on the mule deer vs whitetail size. And the actual size of a specific deer also varies across their range.
For example, white-tailed deer follow Bergmann's rule, meaning their average size gets bigger in the North. It is normal to encounter Saskatchewan bucks that weigh around three hundred pounds, while small-bodied deer are a common sight in southern Texas.
This relationship between body size and latitude doesn't apply much to mule deer.
It’s as obvious as blacktail deer vs whitetail deer, but mature white-tailed and mule deer feature slightly different changes in patterns throughout the year.
A reddish-brown is the common color they have in the summer. But when the winter comes, there is a clear contrast. While mule deer typically run a more grey color, whitetails often have a tannish body.
The antlers of whitetails are generally smaller than those of mule deer. The best explanation for this mule deer vs whitetail deer antlers is that to mule deer, antlers are their primary sexual ornaments, just like manes in male lions or jaws in male salmons.
The evolution happened in a more open country when it comes to mule deer compared to whitetail. Natural selection plays the biggest role in this and provides mule deer with big antlers so they can attract females from a far distance.
On the other hand, forests and marshes are where whitetails have evolved. These terrains have limited visibility, rendering larger antlers and their long-range attraction less necessary.
In addition to the size, the structure of antlers also sees big differences.
On white-tailed deer, single tines fork from the main beam. A typical mature buck has around 4 or 5 points on each side, including the brow tine or “eye guard”.
Mule deer antlers have a more bifurcated configuration. Their tines sprout above the beam. Most mature individuals feature four points in two forks, including two brow tines on the side.
Keep in mind that these are general descriptions. The actual structure can vary massively between individuals of each species. Many states also outlaw hunting for whitetail and mule deer spikes.
For instance, not all mule deer have forks. Some may have short brow tines, and a few of them even have none. Be cautious when deciding which species you're seeing.
White-tailed deer have less white on their faces. White tail deer faces also feature a slightly brighter forehead than mule deer as well.
There is a reason mule deer have such a name. It comes from the fact that they have relatively large ears that resemble those of mules.
Whitetails also have large ears, but not as big as those of mule deer.
Perhaps it comes from the evolution of mule deer. It gives them such a trait, which has a better heat dissipation. In hot environments, mule deer ears can cool themselves better.
For this exact reason, many mule deer living in a colder climate have a big part of their ears frozen and missing because of frostbite.
These big ears also give mule deer a tool to detect predators in their open habitats. Many hunters have experienced this first-hand. On a calm day, the slightest movement can be noticed by mule deers several yards away.
The rumps of most white-tailed deer have a dark, brown color.
Mule deer usually have a big white patch on their rumps, which is different from the rest of their body. This makes it easier to spot mule deer from a distance when hunting.
The face of mule deer is usually white from the eyes to the nose. White-tailed deer, on the other hand, have white rings around their nose and eyes, while their faces are mostly brown.
There is a white patch on the throats of both these species. But the larger ears of mule deer are usually set at an angle of around 30 degrees, while whitetails have round and standing erect ears.
Again, remember that between different individuals, there may be a color variation.
The female individuals of mule deer typically come in anywhere between 100 and 200 pounds, while whitetail does weigh in around 90-200lbs.
Female whitetails give birth more often, often breeding for the first time at six months old. A mule deer doe needs a longer time to mature.
The gestation periods of mule deer and whitetails are around 7 and 6.5 months, respectively.
Mule deer breed in the latter half of November. Whitetails mate from late November to early December.
These deer species have a lot in common in this department. Most first-year does have one fawn each year in May or June. Older does can deliver twins or triplets.
Most newborn fawns weigh around 6 pounds and have white spots on reddish skin. This color scheme has a camouflage purpose. They can stand within a few hours if their mothers nurse them immediately.
When fawns are still too weak to follow their mothers, the does often leave them alone and go off to feed. They often meet at mealtimes during the first few weeks.
Young fawns start to lose their white spots before the second month. It isn't easy to tell whitetails and mule deer apart in the first month. They typically stay with their mothers for the first year.
Tails are one of the biggest clues to distinguish these species. Only the underside of white-tailed deer's tails is white, which can be seen only when they hold their tail afloat.
Whitetails do this a lot when they want to send signals to other deer. Whitetails get their name from this part of their tails. The image of these tails held high is one of the most iconic parts of hunting whitetails.
Meanwhile, there is a wide range of bright colors on the tails of mule deer. They are smaller and usually come with a black tip at the end.
A mule deer typically lives in a wider home range. Most whitetails can stay within a small area (about a few square miles) around their birthplaces. The natural habitat of lowland whitetails has plenty of food resources, so there is no need for them to travel too far from their home to survive.
For mule deer, the story is different. They often spend their summer in high alpine terrain, where food sources are plentiful.
But snow levels become unmanageable when the winter comes. And mule deer are forced to move downhill to lower sagebrush and river valleys habitat.
These places provide them with more accessible food. The distance between them can go up to a hundred miles. As a result, mule deer can migrate farther than most land animals.
Unlike elk, which are grazers, whitetails and mule deer are primarily browsers. They can eat a slew of different plants. Their preferred foods are shrubs and forbs instead of grass.
That said, mule deer and whitetails also seek green grass in the spring. During the fall and winter, mule deer mostly eat sagebrush, aspen shoots, and mountain mahogany. Young saplings, acorns, food plots, and waste grain are favorites of whitetails during this period.
Dawn and dusk are when these big game animals travel and feed most actively. Whitetails and mule deer tend to rest and chew their cuds in the meantime.
In the hunting seasons, mule deer prefer shady spots near ridges, while whitetails often choose thick bedding areas to scan for danger.
These species breed or rut mostly in November. It is rare, and the offspring often don't survive to adulthood, but hybridization between them does happen.
The rut of whitetails hits its peak during the first half of November. This period for mule deer happens in the third and fourth weeks.
During the rut, white-tailed deer are also on the move, but they don't travel as much as mule deer. That isn't necessary as their home range often has a high density of options to pick from.
Mule deer don't have that benefit. They don't have much of a choice when the densities of productive areas are lower. These bucks have to cover much more ground to find does. Their nomadic nature is also a big part of this when the winter migration is often coincident with their rut.
Both these deer species own amazing sensory capabilities in terms of hunter and predator avoidance. Their good eyesight helps them pick up movement from a long distance. They also utilize their strong sense of smell to reduce the chance of being shot at or eaten.
When their ears and eyes haven't sensed anything dangerous yet, they can also rely on their noses.
The big ears of mule deer are also a massive advantage of theirs. But they tend to take a longer time to verify if something is actually a threat. Mule deer live in open country, and waiting for a confirmation prevents valuable energy from being wasted on long unnecessary runs.
Mule deer and whitetails run in very different ways. Whitetails tend to run fast immediately with bounding leaps when they need to escape predators. Mule deer gallop or trot more slowly at first before proceeding to slot when alarmed.
Slotting is a unique ability of gazelles like mule deer when they lift all their body in the air with high bounds and stiff legs. Also known as pronging, this skill allows them to jump farther at downhill or uphill angles. Mule deer can also change direction in uneven terrain easier while slotting.
Spooked mule deer have a habit of stopping and checking for further running. It is very rare for hunters to see whitetails do this as they tend to spring fast to cover themselves.
Most hunters see whitetails as the more paranoid species under pressure. This trait comes from thousands of evolutionary years, making them more experienced in avoiding predators.
Because of this, most hunters use ambush tactics to kill whitetails. It can be the best method as in the South, Northeast, and Midwest, food sources in the open look appealing to whitetails.
Hunting mule deer in the west may need different tactics. Spot and stalk is the most popular method. Learn where to shoot a deer to hunt them in the most ethical way. If you want to improve the accuracy of your shots, look at the best AR 15 bipods.
Frequently Asked QuestionsAre mule deer bigger than whitetail?
Generally speaking, mule deer tend to be bigger than white-tailed deer.
Do mule deer eat snow?
No. They typically move down out of the mountains when their food is covered by snow.
How Big Can A Mule Deer Get?
Mule deer can range up to 7 feet long and 3.5 feet high, with a weight of up to 280 pounds. Female individuals are smaller than mule deer bucks.
Does Mule Deer Vs Whitetail Taste Better?
This mule deer vs whitetail taste is a matter of preference. Most people prefer whitetail, the reason they're more sought after. But many also think mule deer taste as good as them.
From tails to behaviors, there are many differences between mule and white-tailed deer, two of many species in North America.
In addition to the look, there are also a ton of differences in how these big game animals behave. When you're hunting in overlapping areas where they may coexist, a good understanding of whitetail vs mule deer is a must.