One of the biggest mistakes any new hunter can make is to be lax about whether they can identify the difference between whitetail and mule deer. Verbally memorizing traits isn’t enough to cut it when you’re staring down at a deer in your binos with your heart in your throat.
Being able to correctly identify a whitetail from a mule deer when your adrenaline is pumping is a necessary part of being a hunter – and getting it wrong can be a terribly costly experience.
In the worst case scenario, if you misidentify a deer, you could kill the wrong species of deer, costing the deer its life, as well as forcing you to deal with an extremely large fine, confusing paperwork, and a heck of a lot of heartache (not to mention the negative impact on the environment).
However, despite the serious and potentially fatal consequences of not knowing the difference between whitetail and mule deer, it’s surprisingly common for hunters to have trouble identifying between the two species. Though no one ever wants to talk about it, misidentifying deer species happens more than you might think.
A large part of why it’s so hard to tell the difference between whitetail and mule deer is that their names are completely misleading. While I’ll get into that more later, suffice to say that relying on verbal cues from their names, such as, “whitetails have white tails,” doesn’t cut it.
There are actually a lot of different reasons it could be difficult to tell the difference between mule and whitetail deer. It’s not unheard of for individual deers to show atypical features that are confusing. Relying on some traits, like hide colour, can be difficult in the bush. On three-point mule deer bucks, it can be hard to tell whether the antlers are forking or off-shooting.
I’ve found that being able to visually identify multiple difference between whitetail and mule deer has helped me be able to distinguish between the two species far more accurately than using a verbal laundry list of traits that I memorized from the CORE class.
Having my partner quiz me on the different species has also been extremely helpful, which is why I’ve put together a little quiz for you at the end of this article. Read through the whitetail and mule deer traits, and then go through the pictures to test whether you can tell the difference between whitetail and mule deer quickly and easily.
I hope this article will help you quickly identify the differences between whitetail and mule deer so that you can follow the BC hunting regulations with confidence – and avoid painful and potentially tragic mistakes.
Differences Between Mule Deer and Whitetail Deer
Mule Deer Traits
White Face With Heavy Brow
Mule deer have very distinctive facial colourings that make them identifiable as different from whitetail deer. Mule deer have a white or light coloured face with a medium to heavy brow over their eyes.
However, I’ve seen whitetail deer with medium brows over their eyes, as well. I would not recommend using the brow alone as a species identifier. Mule deer have light or white faces, while whitetail deer do not.
Large Mule-Like Ears
The mule deer gets its name from its large, mule-like ears, However, in the heat of the moment, telling the difference between “large ears” and “not as large ears” can be difficult.
Despite this, mule deer do have significantly larger ears than whitetail deer. I wouldn’t rely on using just the ears to tell the difference between the two species, but the difference is useful to know as a secondary identifier.
White Ropey Tail With Black Tipped End
Mule deer have a white tail that is distinctly ropey, long, and relatively thin, with a black-tipped end.
Despite the whitetail name, mule deer actually have a white rump, which is extremely confusing for hunters who aren’t very familiar with either species of deer. Mule deer have a white rump that is always visible, whether or not they are running.
Run Without Lifting Tail Up
Mule deer do not run with their tails lifted up, which is different from whitetail deer. Mule deer also tend to run with a bounding hop, instead of a gallop.
Forking Antlers (Buck)
Mule deer bucks have antlers that appear to fork off into sections (bifurcated), instead of growing off of a main branch.
Gray-Brown Coloured Hide
Mule deer tend to have a gray-brown coloured hide, though hides colour can vary a lot between individual deer and throughout the season.
Less Graceful Body
Mule deer also have a less graceful body than whitetail deer, though it can be very difficult to tell the difference between whitetail and mule deer based on body shape alone.
Whitetail Deer Traits
Brown Face With White Circles Around Eyes and Nose
Whitetail deer have a distinctively brown face with significant white circles surrounding the eyes and nose. Some whitetail deer have the presence of a brow, while others appear not to.
It’s important to note that mule deer can also have white surrounding their eyes and nose, as well as a medium brow. Use the colour of the overall face, not the white circles or brow, to distinguish between whitetail and mule deer.
Whitetail deer have smaller ears than mule deer, though I wouldn’t rely solely on the size of a deer’s ears to distinguish between whitetail and mule deer species in the field.
Fluffy Brown Tail With White Underside
Despite the name of whitetails, whitetail deer have fluffy brown tails that are only white on the underside. This means that if whitetail deer are not running, they do not appear to have a white tail.
Whitetails have tails that are brown on the exterior, which means that when they are standing still, they have brown tails. When they run, the white underside of the tail is flipped up and exposed.
Whitetail deer have a brown rump when they are standing still, as the rump itself and the exterior of their tails are both brown.
Run With Tail Lifted
When whitetail deer are running, they run with their tail lifted, which shows off the white underside of their tails. This is why they’re called whitetails. Whitetails flip up their tails to alert other deer of perceived danger, similar to waving a danger flag.
Whitetails are also known to gallop when they run, in comparison to mule deer, which hop.
Antlers Grow Off Main Beam (Buck)
Whitetail buck antlers grow tines off of a main beam or branch, instead of forking off like mule deer bucks.
Reddish-Brown Coloured Hide
Whitetail deer tend to be reddish-brown coloured, though their colouring can vary between individual deer and during the season. In the later winter months, whitetail deer hides can turn grayish, which makes using the colour of their hide unreliable as a species identifier.
Whitetail deer tend to have a more graceful body than mule deer, though individual deer vary, as do the general sizes of whitetail deer, depending on their habitat.
Difference Between Mule Deer and Whitetail Deer: Quick Chart
|Mule Deer||Whitetail Deer|
|White face with heavy brow||Brown face with white circles around eyes and nose|
|Large mule-like ears||Smaller ears|
|White ropey tail with black tipped end||Fluffy brown tail with white underside|
|White rump||Brown rump|
|Run without lifting tail up||Run with tail lifted|
|Forking antlers (buck)||Antlers grow off main beam (buck)|
|Gray-brown coloured hide||Reddish-brown coloured hide|
|Less graceful body||Graceful body|
The Most Reliable Difference Between Whitetail and Mule Deer
In my experience, the most reliable identifiers between whitetail and mule deer are their overall facial colouring, their rumps, and their tails. The other species traits are better used as secondary qualifiers, which you can use to work towards positively identify the deer you’re looking at.
Whitetail and mule deer traits vary from deer to deer, season to season, and many are dependent on time or year or specific individual. To be honest, telling the difference between whitetail and mule deer can require a lot of practice and visual quizzes before you’re confident in your deer species identification.
However, the overall colour of their face, the colour of their rumps, and the shape and colour of their tails are traits that you can use to reliably determine the difference between the two deer species.
Mule deer have light or white faces, white rumps, and white, ropey tails with black tips. Whitetail deer have brown faces and fluffy brown tails with white undersides that flips up when they run.
What’s the Difference Between Whitetail and Mule Deer: A Hunting Quiz
Test whether you can positively identify the differences between whitetail and mule deer using these pictures of deer. The answers are in the photo captions at the bottom of each photo.