Mule Deer vs Whitetail: Together, but Not Mixed

Although none attain the size of the great Canadian Deer, these are two of the great exponents of the Fauna of North America, protagonists of legends, and gods of the indigenous mythology of those latitudes.

Whether you want to have them in the sights of your shotgun or camera, it is interesting to know these two species, their customs, where to find them and more important is to have a general idea about mule deer vs whitetail comparison.

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At a first glance, they look very similar.Within these lines, we will discover their main differences which will be valuable, especially for hunters, because this way you can avoid incurring certain faults that can make you creditors to penalties when hunting the wrong species.

A Shared History

If we take a look at the natural history, we will see that in evolutionary terms, Whitetail deer are the oldest. It is estimated that its presence on the planet dates back 3.5 million years.

It is possible to find them on all the American continent, because as part of their capacity to adapt, they have developed anatomical characteristics and behaviors that have allowed them to survive in different ecosystems.

It is considered that its point of origin is located in Canada, the United States and the north Of Mexico, in its different subgenres. This aspect is the subject of divergences because it is thought that the Mule deer are a younger variety of the whitetail, with only one hundred thousand years of existence, which evolved independently due to their isolation during the glaciations.

Mule deer

This is the reason why its habitat is the northern part of the American continent.

They coincide in their point of origin and common areas of location, so it is not unreasonable to imagine that a mating of both species can occur. However, they may be together, but not scrambled, because, despite their genetic affinity, the resulting offsprings are not fitted to survive.

Once their gestation comes to term and they are born, they do not develop proper skills to survive in their environment, because they run slower than any of their parents, are clumsy when avoiding obstacles and when they try to escape, and they don’t flee or attack their natural predators, such as wolves, wild dogs, coyotes, and bears, so they do not reach adulthood to reproduce.


Undoubtedly, because of this biological kinship, these species share many characteristics, so it is easy to confuse them. We can start by noting that both share similar geographical areas, they are approximately the same size, their fur is almost the same(in autumn looks brown and changes to gray in winter).

Another shared characteristic is that in both cases, males are larger than females, they are the only ones that develop horns. A solitary life is another common thing, along with the mating season, autumn. When they are born, the offspring have white spots that serve as camouflage to protect themselves from their predators but the spots disappear during the first year of life.

One more point they share is that these species, like other deer species, spend most of their time looking for food, usually eating 8 to 12 pounds per day. This activity is carried out during the last hours of the day so as not to be exposed to energy wear by heat and, of course, to be less visible to their predators during the day.

How Do We Distinguish them?

Mule deer appearance:

  • Mule deer are slightly larger and sturdier, males weighing up to 400 pounds
  • They get their name because their ears resemble those of a mule
  • The tails are yellow with black hairs on the tip
  • Antlers also tend to be larger and they develop two main branches that extend forward
  • Faces are white from the muzzle to below the eyes, on which extends a spot of almost black hair
  • The hooves are better adapted for climbing because they are usually found in steep areas, although it is also common to see them on open terrain, and their speed when running is 45 kilometers per hour. Their jump is propelled by all four legs.

Whitetail appearance:

  • The whitetail is named because of the characteristic white hair at the tip of the tail.
  • They have major horns from which smaller ones branch
  • The faces show white rings around the eyes and snout.
  • Their legs are very powerful, characteristic of a runner;
  • Unlike its counterpart, they jump propelling themselves with the hind legs and land with the front ones.


The Mule deer’s diet is very poor, it consumes grass during the summer and in the winter they feed on coniferous and shrub branches. Because of this, they are less resistant to diseases caused by parasites.

Mule deer’s diet

While whitetail is more cosmopolitan, they have a diet that is considered one of the most varied for an animal in its natural habitat, since, although they are selective, when food is scarce, they can consume up to 500 different types of plants, depending on the area where they are.

They prefer the various varieties of green forage, because of their nutritional quality, but if they do not find it, they like soft-textured foods such as the dogwood and the apple, as well as the leaves and tender buds of the branches of red maple, oak, white cedar, hemlock, willow, spruce, and pine.

Habits and Behavior

This point requires taking some time for observation. A good clue for distinguishing them is watching their attitude towards danger, their general stance and their feeding habits.

Mule deer

It remains immobile when they detect a predator, but when they have it nearby they attack. When they flee, they prefer to do it in the high and rugged territories, since they have an advantage in jumps.

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They do not require much more energy in steep and unequal terrains compared to the open areas, but their predators do exhaust themselves in their pursuit through those surfaces. In addition, the direction of each jump is unpredictable, so the predators cannot anticipate the trajectory.

They often graze towards the southern face of the mountains, where there are steep areas and the food is more abundant. However, after the rains, mule deer move to the remote plateaus where they find water in the rocky cavities.

Mule deer

Another distinctive feature is the smell. This sense is an important resource for survival and the Mule deer knows how to use it very well. It determines many of their daily behaviors. For example, they use it to identify constantly changing air currents from the mountains to detect odors that warn them of potential hazards.

For this reason, they will move to highlands during the day when the air currents rise by temperature. When the smells diminish during the afternoon, they return downhill to feed on the prairies and to rest in their shelters in low areas. Check out our article on how to select the best deer scent for your next hunting trip.

If they feel threatened in a certain area, they do not return to that place in a long time. They simply move to another area. In fact, their range of motion is from 100 to 200 square miles, and they usually cover a 5-mile journey from their night shelters to their feeding areas, through constantly changing routes.

The antlers of the males fall in the months of February to March.


We can point out that they have a higher reproductive rate than their counterpart: females can procreate when at a younger age, even before one year old. Their mating season oscillates depending on the sub-genres of this species and of the geographical area where they are located.

For example, in the northern zones, the mating season occurs in September, while in the south it usually occurs in February. They are a much more adaptable species so that it is often expanding its territorial range continuously.

See also: Whitetail Deer Hunting: Tips to Improve Your Game

The Whitetail are very attentive, observing their surroundings constantly and can perceive the changes in it, being able to escape at the slightest sign of danger.

Another important feature that characterizes them is that they raise their tail when they are alert and, in fact, do not stop doing it during the race.


They use the power of their legs and flee downhill, taking advantage of gravity to increase their speed and use the resource of concealment.

Usually, they prefer the lowlands and woodlands where the water is deposited after the rains.

The main habitat for whitetail deer are hardwood forests, but they are also found in southern pine forests. In fact, their preferred zones are those that coincide with the edge effect, which offers access to food and security. They prefer open areas where they can graze and the food is plentiful, but those areas must be in the vicinity of thick forests where they can flee and hide.

A typical herd usually moves in a very limited area, a range of approximately 5 to 10 square miles, so if they feel threatened somewhere, they move away, but return after a lapse of approximately 10 days.

Usually, they move from their refuges to feeding areas, through the same trails they transit constantly, without being distracted too much in consuming the herbs they find in the way.

Because of their curious temperament, when they flee for a long distance and consider they reached safety, they often turn around to find out what frightened them.

Although smaller in size, they are more aggressive in mating season, when a fight between males of both species arises. For this reason, usually the Whitetail wins, this being the reason why the great majority of the crosses between both species are the result of the paternity of this genre.

Whitetail deer are more numerous than the Mule deer, which, incidentally, have declined throughout the west and are no longer at the edge of their previous historical range. Because of this factor, Whitetail deer are not as quoted as Mule deer, which are usually a much sought after trophy and more valuable to hunt.

Which of Them Will I Eat?

Deer meat is a delicacy. It tastes even better if it’s part of the hunting adventure. But since our task is to point out the difference between the Mule deer and the Withe Tail, we must establish some points of comparison.

We already know that taste is divided into genres. But if we start from an objective criterion, then we must say that there are several factors to consider.

First, the diet that each species follows, this determines its taste. There are those who say that Mule deer offer a more “wild” flavor, and that is because their food is restricted to certain shrubs, as we have seen before, while whitetail has a more tolerable range of other foods.

Which of Them Will I Eat

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Another factor to consider is the age of the prey. If you hunt a male during the mating season, the hormone level is higher, resulting in a more musky taste than in the rest of the year. This is why the meat of the deer hunted with a bow is more appetizing, since its hunting season normally is before the mating routine.

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Another important factor is the time when you prepare the meat, because if it is separated from the skin before it cools, it is much better since there is no contact with fur when the process of putrefaction begins. Special care must be taken so the meat does not contact with gastric juices or fecal material.

Usually, the fat is not used because of its unpleasant taste, even if it is frozen. Meat, on the other hand, can be used to make grilled embers and in hamburgers, but also braised, roasted, or barbecued. Anyway, it’s a pleasure to enjoy it.

In Conclusion

Knowledge of shared characteristics, but especially those that distinguish them, will make our favorite activity – hunting or observation – a more interesting and fun practice, because the next time we have an encounter with a specimen we will know if we are facing a Mule deer or a Whitetail, as well as the precautions that we must take.

For guidelines on the top deer rifles available, see our must-read article on this hot topic.


Shawn Harrison

Shawn Harrison is our expert in hunting. He was born in Alaska, so hunting was his hobby since high school. Later, Shawn took a Hunter Training at Alaska Department of Fish and Game to structure his knowledge and now he is open to share his knowledge with our readers. Shawn is taking ‘Safety First’ approach on all of his trips, especially is some people are going hunting for the first time.


  • So many details in this article… I find it very interesting that these two can’t have thriving offspring. I think that the nature shows us its power in that way. A few weaknesses and you’re gone from the face of the earth.
    I’ve found some people online who are claiming to have shot hybrids and they even posted pictures. Could it be true, or are those animals just rare anomalies?

    • There are some rare instances, but it is not something impossible. We really collected some helpful details to help improve your hunting knowledge because we believe it is important to identify the important differences, and which ones occur more frequently in the field.

  • In my humble opinion antlers are not a reliable characteristic to make distinction between the two. That’s because there’s too much variation of them. Two two-year-old mule deer is often mistaken for a hybrid because of the size of its antlers. A young mule deer looks like a very big whitetail. Some hunters claim that you can know for sure which is which by the size of their metatarsal glands, and you can even identify a hybrid by determining its size, but I’ve never checked those claims.

    • Thanks for pointing that out, Michael. Antlers can be misguiding at times, especially when we are not familiar with antler patterns as a budding hunter. But overall, this article can be a very helpful starting guide.