Black-tailed Deer

Odocoileus hemionus columbianus

 

Front Track Hind Track
   
Front Track Size: Hind Track Size:
2 1/16-3 1/8 in. L x 1 9/16- 2 5/16 in. W 1 13/16-2 7/8 in. L x 1 5/16-2 5/16 in. W
 

Black-tailed Deer Tracks

 

Natural History of Black-tailed Deer

Fawn with spots near Albee Creek, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, CA. August 16, 2001. Photo by Kim A. Cabrera. Deer are common in my region of northern California. The deer here are a subspecies of mule deer known as black-tailed deer. They come out around dusk and dawn to feed in the edge areas, the transitions between forest and field. They may be active at mid-day as well. Deer are also commonly seen feeding in fruit orchards. In North America, there are several species of deer, including the white-tailed deer, also called whitetail, and the mule deer, also called "muley." The blacktail is found on the Pacific coast.

Deer tracks are some of the most common tracks found. The reason for this is that deer tracks have sharp edges and stand out from the rest of the tracks found in the wild, which have softer edges. Most of the animals that live in deer habitat have soft pads on their feet. Deer, and other members of the deer family, such as elk, moose, pronghorn, and caribou, have hooves, which leave deeper prints due to the hard nature of hoof material. Deer leave signs other than tracks as well. You will often find their scats and feeding signs. They are herbivores and eat only vegetation, so the feeding signs last a long time.

Some folks claim that you can tell the buck tracks from the doe tracks due to the presence of dewclaw imprints. (See photos below.) However, both bucks and does have dewclaws. During the rutting season, the bucks tend to follow does with their heads down, a posture which can lead to more dewclaw marks on the ground. However, this is not a perfectly reliable, year-round clue that will tell you if you are tracking a buck or doe. Trackers use other clues on the trail to determine if the tracks they are following are those of a buck or a doe.

 

deer young

Young deer listens for danger.


deer browsed willow
Browsing by deer on a willow.

   

blacktailed deer tracks showing stotting or pronk gait. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2006.

The tracks above show a gait known as stotting or the pronk. In this gait, all four feet are off the ground at the same time. The animal leaps and has a long airborne phase.

Which tracks are the fronts and which were made by the hind feet? Look at the dewclaw position in all of these tracks. Notice that the dewclaws are just about parallel to the toes in two of the tracks (middle and lower right). Those are the hind feet. The dewclaws of the front feet stick out sideways a bit, so they point outward from the direction of travel.

   
This tiny track belongs to a fawn less than a month old.

blacktailed deer fawn track. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

   
A doe resting in the woods on a sunny afternoon. This doe was tolerant of my presence until I got too close. Then she bounded off.

Doe resting in the woods in a shady spot. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

   
deer feeding sign plant browsed by deer
The two photos above show plants browsed by deer. Deer lack top incisor teeth and must grip vegetation in their teeth and tear it. This results in rough cuts as shown here. Animals with sharp incisors, such as rabbits, will leave neatly cut off plant tips.
 

The heart-shaped prints of deer are easy to identify and common in many areas. The pointed end of the print indicates the direction of travel.

Deer scat is an oval pellet. The pellets are easy to recognize by the dimple on one end and the point on the other end.

Their large ears, from which mule deer get their name, can move independently.

When the young are born, they have spots and lack scent. This enables them to hide from predators. They spend a lot of time curled up on the forest floor, sleeping. The spots provide camouflage. The lack of scent means predators can't smell them. Fawns can walk when they are only a few hours old.

When deer are walking, you can tell whether the track maker was a buck or a doe. Males tend to have wider shoulders, so the hind tracks (the ones on top) will fall to the inside of the line of travel. The doe's wider hips will cause the hind tracks to fall to the outside of the line of travel. This is true only when they are walking. Bucks have antlers which are shed once a year. The antlers of black-tailed deer (and mule deer) are forked. They don't branch from one main beam like those of the white-tailed deer do.

 

Dewclaws show in deer tracks when they are walking in soft mud, or when they are running. The toes spread and dewclaws leave imprints in these cases. The dewclaws on the hind feet are farther from the hooves than those on the front feet. This is a hind foot. If it was the front, the dewclaw marks would be closer to the rear part of the hoof. I have noticed that rutting bucks will often show their dewclaws. This is due to how they often walk with their heads held down and noses facing front when near a doe. It causes the feet to hit the ground with more force and the toes spread out. The dewclaws often show in these tracks.
 

Also see Black-tailed Deer Feeding Signs Page for more clues to deer presence.

 

 

For more deer signs, see the:

Deer Rutting Signs page for more signs left by rutting bucks.

Deer Feeding Signs page

Deer Scats page 1

Deer Scats Page 2

Deer Bucks Photos

Fawns!

Deer Tracks and Feet

 

 

 

Personal Notes on Black-tailed Deer

There is a high population of deer here where I live on the northern coast of California. I see them feeding along the busy highway, in pastures with the cattle, in orchards, and everywhere on the property I caretake. I've seen them out feeding in the rain and even lying down to rest in the open when its raining. They seem oblivious to it. Whenever I arrive home after dark, I see the deer in the field near my place. Their eyes reflect my flashlight beam and show up as two bright dots in the darkness. It's always fun to see the does with their new fawns.
   

Doe at Cuneo  

Deer in Cuneo orchard

Young doe feeding in an apple orchard - Cuneo Creek Campground, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California

   
This fawn was seen along with two others following its mother along Bull Creek in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California. It is unusual for a doe to have three fawns. The usual number is one or two.

Fawn near Bull Creek, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, CA. August 16, 2001. Photo by Kim A. Cabrera.

   

Fawn photo by Kim A. Cabrera. Copyright 2007. Do not use without permission.

A small fawn with spots on its coat. The doe and this fawn's twin were on the other side of the fence. The little fawn was trying to figure out how to get to the other side.
   

An older fawn that was grazing with a doe and a yearling in some tall grass.

Fawn photo by Kim A. Cabrera. Copyright 2007. Do not use without permission.
   

Fawn photo by Kim A. Cabrera. Copyright 2007. Do not use without permission.

The same fawn when it looked directly at the camera!
   
This older fawn was attempting to nurse. The doe tolerated this behavior for a minute and then just simply walked away. The fawn got the idea and went back to food more appropriate for its age.

Older fawn trying to nurse. Copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2007.

   

Deer feeding signs on acorns. Photo by Kim A. Cabrera 2007.

Deer feeding signs. These acorns were cracked open by deer. The animals take the acorn between their teeth and grind it open. They manipulate the opened acorn with the tongue to get the nut out. They spit out the shells and eat the nut.

   
Why are they called blacktailed deer? Well, have a look at the tail of this one. :)

Why they are called blacktailed deer. Photo  Kim A. Cabrera 2007

   

Blacktailed deer fawn. Photo  Kim A. Cabrera 2007

Blacktailed deer fawn. Photo  Kim A. Cabrera 2007

A doe and her fawn feeding on blackberry leaves.

   

Spike horn buck. Photo  Kim A. Cabrera 2007

Rutting buck sign. Photo  Kim A. Cabrera 2007

Even though they are commonly called "spike horn," deer do not have horns. They have antlers. The difference is that antlers fall off each year and horns to not. The ground here was torn up by a buck in the rut. The mating season for deer is in the fall, when the bucks have their antlers. You will find plants torn up in similar fashion.
   

Clustered form of deer scat.  Photo  Kim A. Cabrera 2007

Blacktailed deer standing on hind legs to reach the tasty plant parts. Photo  Kim A. Cabrera 2007

Clustered form of deer scat. The moisture content and the type of food can affect the appearance of the scats produced. This doe stood on her hind legs to reach the best parts of the plant she was eating. Blackberries!
 

Blacktailed deer scat. Photo  Kim A. Cabrera 2007

Typical deer scats are pellets.

 

Blacktailed deer scat. Photo  Kim A. Cabrera 2007

Deer scat in pellet form.

   

Deer scats. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

Some deer scats found on a gravel river bar. The river had been near flood stage earlier in the week. These scats were deposited after the water receded.
   
Deer pellet scats. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.
Deer scats in dry grass. These are summer scats and very compact. Less moisture in the diet makes the pellets hold their form well.
 

 

Deer track in mud. Photo  Kim A. Cabrera 2007

A deer track in dried mud.
   

Blacktailed deer buck. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2007. Do not use without permission.

Blacktailed deer buck. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2007. Do not use without permission.

A handsome four-point blacktailed deer buck. This buck was following around a small doe in the evening. The doe would run a little way, then stop to try to feed. The buck was not far behind and kept on chasing her. The fall is rutting season for blacktailed deer.
   

Blacktailed deer scat. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2007. Do not use without permission.

A close-up showing deer scat. You can clearly see the small dimple on one end of the scats. The other end is often somewhat pointed.
   
Doe and fawn.  Copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2005.

Doe and fawn peering over a rise.

 

 

Rub urinate posture of a rutting buck.  Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2007.

This buck is rub-urinating. The bucks do this during the rutting season. They rub their hock glands together, then urinate on them. This makes a scent marker that lets other bucks know whose territory they are in. Bucks will also thrash vegetation with their antlers and rub on trees.
   
A doe urinating. In contrast to the buck above, who urinated directly on the glands on his hind legs, the doe is not marking scent.

Doe urinating. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera.

   

Two deer urinating in the Eel River to hide scent. Copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2002.

These two deer walked across the Eel River. However, their first act upon entering the water was to both urinate in the river. I think this is a way of hiding scent. Deer, being prey, must be careful to hide their presence from predators. While predators will mark frequently with scent in their territory, it would likely not serve prey species well to do so. They must hide from predators. Urinating in the river probably is a good way to hide scent. This was the first time I had seen this done, however, I have observed other deer doing this in other locations since then.
   
Antler rubbing damage on willow. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera. Antler rubbing damage on willow. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera.
During rutting season, bucks rub their antlers on trees and saplings, causing damage.
Antler rubbing damage on willow. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera. Antler rubbing damage on willow. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera.
These willows were along a river edge. The buck seemed to have rubbed on all the bigger willows.
   
Antler rubbing damage on Douglas fir sapling. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera. Antler rubbing damage on tan oak sapling. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera.

A small Douglas fir sapling with a small scar, and a tan oak tree with fresh scars, and old scars, from bucks rubbing their antlers.

   
Antler rubbing damage on sapling. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera. Deer track showing splay of hoof due to slippage in mud. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera.
A small sapling with a rub mark. This deer track shows a lot of action. The front hooves splayed out and left a long mark when the animal slipped in the mud. The two dewclaw marks show how the slip was stopped.
   
Buck with velvet antlers.  Copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2005.

A buck with velvet on his antlers. This is early in the season.

   
Healthy, energetic buck during rut. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera. Very tired buck after rutting season. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera.

These photos show the same buck. The left was taken November 11, 2006. The right was taken on December 21, 2006. They are of the same buck. On the left, he is in the prime of the rutting season and has lots of energy. At right, he is at the end of the rutting season and is exhausted. Bucks spend a lot of time following the does around and expend a lot of energy. They don't eat as much during this time. At the end of the season, they are very tired. The buck on the right was just laying in the grass, trying to sleep, and getting rained on. He was gone the next morning, but he allowed me to approach quite closely for the photo.

   
Two fuzzy fawns. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera.
Two fuzzy fawns in early fall.

 

 
doe with four fawns. Photo by Kim A. Cabrera

There are four fawns around this doe. They are not all hers though. What happened was the doe who was the mother of two of these fawns got locked on the wrong side of a fence. Her fawns were stuck on the other side, trying to get to their mother so they could nurse. They were hungry! So, when the second doe and her two fawns showed up, the other fawns immediately ran to her and started bleating to be fed. She sniffed at them and would not feed them. Then she chased them off. She is a really skinny doe and likely didn't have any extra milk to give the other fawns.

 
 
Acorn husks left after feeding by deer. Deer ate the acorns. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera.

These acorns shells were all that was left after deer fed on the nuts. The deer take the acorn and use their teeth to crack the shell, then use the tongue to maneuver the nut out. The shell is spit out.

   

Deer scat. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2007.

Deer scats in river gravel. These scats show the typical form with a point on one end.
   
Odocoileus hemionus columbianus photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera.

Four Columbian blacktailed deer in tall grass.

   
Buck with velvet antlers. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2003.

A buck with velvet antlers eating an apple in a campground. This campground is located in an old apple orchard and many animals feed on the bounty at the end of summer, when the fruit falls from the trees.

   
   
   

Scat comparison. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera.

Deer scats compared to those of other herbivores often found in the same environment.

   

Beautiful deer track in mud. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

A beautiful track in mud. This was on a dirt road that had been recently graded, so the soil was nice and flat.
   
Fine deer track in dust. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.
A beautiful deer track in fine dust.
   
Overlapping deer tracks in mud. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

This is the typical overlapping trail of a deer. The hind track is on top of the front track. Deer have sharp hooves, which they can use to defend themselves. My cat was once chased by a mother deer who perceived him as a threat to her fawn.

   
Pair of deer tracks. Deer have very sharp hooves. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

This hind track had nearly perfect register on top of the front track. Many deer tracks overlap. You have to look closely to see it sometimes.

   
Another pair of deer tracks showing overlap of front and hind feet. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.
Another pair of overlapping deer tracks. Notice that only the edges of the hooves left imprints in this muddy surface.
   
Deer track showing splay of the toes caused by a running gait. The direction of travel is to the right in this photo.

Hind foot.

Deer track showing splayed toes. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

   

Another deer track with toes splayed.

This is a front track. You can tell by looking at the position of the dewclaws. The dewclaws on the front feet are angled away from the foot. The dewclaws on the hind feet are set at a more parallel angle.

   
deer track with dewclaws. Photo by Kim A. Cabrera
Deer track showing the dewclaws. These are often mistaken for buck tracks. The reason for this is that bucks frequently leave tracks like this during the rutting season. When they follow the does, they sometimes lower their head and walk like that. This leaves tracks that show the dewclaws because the feet are supporting the weight of the head and antlers at a lower than normal angle. So, there is some truth to the tale that these are buck tracks, but the rule of thumb is that they are not ALL buck tracks. Examine the trial carefully for other identifying features before making a determination.

This is the hind track. You can tell by looking at the orientation of the dewclaws. The dewclaws on the hind feet are oriented fairly parallel with the hooves and the direction of travel. Those on the front feet are angled outward.

   

Twin fawns crossing a road. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2005.

Doe with twin fawns. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2005.

A doe and her twin fawns cross a dirt road. Does can have either one or two fawns at a time. Three fawns is rare, but does occasionally happen.
   

Doe and small fawn. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2005.

A doe and her fawn emerge from the brush and cross a dirt road.
   
Blacktailed deer fawn. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2005.
A small fawn entering the brush.
 

Fawn crossing a meadow. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

A young fawn crossing a meadow. This one had another fawn with it, as well as two does. The does walked ahead and behind the two fawns, who stayed in the middle. This method of travel must be a way for the adult deer to protect their young from predators. This fawn is about two months old.
 
Blacktailed deer fawn licking doe. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.
A fawn licks the head of a doe.
 
Blacktailed deer family. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.
Family of blacktailed deer.
 
Blacktailed deer family. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

Family of blacktailed deer. Notice how skinny the doe is. This is common for late summer. When acorns fall in the autumn, they fatten up by eating them.

 
Blacktailed deer scats. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.
Blacktailed deer scats in pellet form. Scat shape and consistency can vary depending on diet.
 
 
Close-up of a doe. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

This doe was feeding on acorns in early fall. The late summer diet of berries changes as the crops change. Few berries are available this time of year, so the deer switch to the newest crop, which happens to be acorns. These nuts are very rich in nutrients and help the deer gain back some of the weight they lose when they raise fawns all summer.

 
Doe under an acorn-producing oak tree. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

Doe under an oak tree. During fall, the deer tend to spend a lot of time foraging under the trees where they find nutritious acorns. This one spent most of the morning and afternoon under this same tree. Why expend the energy to go to another tree when there are plenty of acorns right there? Animals need all the energy they can get to make it through the lean winter months.

 
Doe peering around a tree. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

This doe was curious about hikers on the trail below her. She peeked around the tree and gave them a look, then went back to feeding. In parks, many animals become accustomed to the presence of people.

 
Fawn in brush along the river's edge. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.
A young fawn with fading spots was feeding along the river.
 
Fawn resting at the edge of a meadow. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

This fawn was resting at the edge of a meadow. Deer like to find places to rest where they have a view of their surroundings. This helps them stay aware of predators.

 
The back end of a fawn as it bounds off into the brush. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

Often, this is the only view you will get of a deer as it bounds away from you. Sometimes they can be skittish and run off at the approach of people.

 
 
Herbivore teeth. Deer teeth from a skull. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

The teeth of a deer are large and relatively flat on top. This helps them grind up their food. Some foods, such as acorns, can be very tough and these are the perfect type of  teeth needed to break them apart.

 
Deer skull found along the river. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

Side view of a deer skull found along the river. Deer lack top incisor teeth, but have excellent grinding teeth on the sides.

 

The mortality rate of young deer can be high, depending on the number of predators in the area. In this case, a yearling was killed by coyotes. Coyotes tend to drag parts of the skeleton all over the place, rather than feeding in one location. Several days after this photo was taken, the remains disappeared, likely moved off into the brush so the bones could be opened for the marrow. Animals in nature do not waste anything, especially a food source.

 
Deer eye shine at night. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

Eye shine from a deer at night. Using a flash on the camera, or a flashlight, will allow you to see the eyes shining back at you.

 
Deer eye shine at night. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.
The eyes of a deer shining in the light of a camera flash.
 
doe with lupine flowers
Blacktailed deer doe in front of spring flowers - lupine.

 

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Copyright 1997, 2009, 2012. Text, photos, and drawings by Kim A. Cabrera

Updated: July 7, 2012.

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