Whitetail and mule deer make up the vast majority of deer in the United States. While wildlife management is responsible for part of that, the reduction in wolf and mountain lion populations throughout the country has certainly helped.
While their territories come together in several areas throughout the country, the species are distinctly different. Hunters and newbie hunters would do well to know the differences and avoid confusing one for the other.
Mule deer vs whitetail starts and ends with the size difference between the two deer. This is mostly because it’s their most distinctive difference.
Mule Deer vs. Whitetail
Key characteristics of each
If a mule deer buck and a whitetail buck stood shoulder to shoulder, you could probably tell the difference immediately. Mule deer are generally 50lbs bigger, on average, than a whitetail.
- Coloration – Reddish brown in the summer/grey in the winter
- Antlers – Smaller with a primary beam
- Size – 90 to 175lbs
- Tail – Solid white underneath
- Ears – Smaller than mule deer with white lining
- Behavior – Skittish and spooks easily
Mule Deer Characteristics
- Coloration – Shaggier in appearance, with similar coloration
- Antlers – Large and wider with bifurcated rack
- Size – 100 to 200lbs
- Tail – Black-tipped
- Ears – Much larger and more prominent
- Behavior – Much more laid back and curious
One of the most distinctive differences, besides their weight and size, is the ears. A mule deer’s ears are twice the size of a whitetail and they really stick out when a mule deer is on alert.
The ears of a mule deer lack the white lining you typically see in a whitetail. The inner lining of a mule deer’s ears are black, grey, and brown. You can’t really miss it since their ears are the size of satellite dishes.
Whitetail also behave very differently from their mule deer cousins. They tend to be far more skittish than mule deer. Even first-time hunters have probably had an opportunity to spot that bright white tail flick up a time or two.
Mule deer tend to be more laid back. That doesn’t mean they won’t spook, just that they are slower to do so. They’re more curious and liable to wander out into the middle of a field, even when the crickets have grown quiet.
The average mule deer will top a whitetail by about 50lbs. It’s enough so that the size difference is noticeable, even though a whitetail buck can get pretty thick. At the shoulders, a mule deer stands between 31 and 42 inches.
A whitetail stands 21 to 36 inches at the shoulders, with a length between 3 feet and 7 feet.
Antlers and Heads
We’ve briefly mentioned the heads, specifically the ears. A mule deer usually has a bigger rack that’s bifurcated. A mule deer’s rack is generally wider and taller than anything you will see from a whitetail.
That doesn’t mean that whitetail can’t sport some big racks. Head up north and you’ll find larger whitetail that can have some pretty enormous racks with a primary beam from which the points form in different directions.
The most eye-catching difference is the cotton-white tail. When a whitetail spooks, that tail flicks up, blinding white. Mule deer have a shaggier appearance and, although their colorations look similar, there are more black colorations, especially around the ears.
Whitetails have reddish-brown fur in the summer that fades to a grey/brown appearance later in the year when it gets cold.
Female mule deer are much smaller than male mule deer in terms of average weight. A mule deer doe can weigh up to 165 lbs. A large whitetail doe will weigh around 125 lbs, depending on the time of the year.
Like a whitetail buck, a doe is a little bigger up north than it is in the south.
Whitetail may have a lot of physical differences between themselves and mule deer, but there is one place mule deer can’t compete—good venison. Whitetail are far more popular in terms of food. Mule deer taste great but they also tend to taste gamier than whitetail.
On the bright side, for those hunting mule deer, you’ll generally get more meat off a mule deer. Both deer dominate the deer hunting machine of North America, with mule deer a very distant second place.
Despite their differences, one thing is for sure, they’re both plenty of fun to hunt and you will get just as excited sighting in on a mule deer as you will a whitetail.
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