Source: Arizona Game and Fish
Arizona Mule Deer's Feeding,
Watering, Bedding and Traveling Habits
Mule Deer Description:
A moderately large deer with large ears; antlers typically
dichotomously branched and restricted almost entirely to males; metatarsal
gland 8-12 cm long, narrow, and situated above midpoint of shank; upperparts
in winter cinnamon buff suffused with blackish, more reddish in summer; brow
patch whitish; ear grayish on outside, whitish on inside; tail usually with black
tip and white basal portion; underparts white.
Mule Deer Distribution in Arizona
Distribution in Arizona. Occurs over 90% of Arizona.
Mule Deer Distribution in Arizona
Mule Deer Habits
Mule deer occupy to some extent almost all types of habitat within their range but,
in general, they seem to prefer the more arid, open situations in which sagebrush, juniper,
pinyon pine, yellow pine, bitter brush, mountain mahogany, and such plants predominate.
Rocky hillsides covered with yucca, palo verde, aspen, mushrooms, yucca flowers, shrubs,
oak, mesquite beans, janusia, cliffrose, sagebrush, juniper, coffeeberry, cacti fruit,
and filaree in season provide the essentials.
The mule deer is noted for its peculiar, high-bouncing gait. Estimates of their speed
vary, but Donald McLean was able to force one to a speed of 58 km an hour on a dry lake
flat in California. After the first short burst of speed, the animal dropped to about 35 km
an hour and was badly winded after a chase of less than 1.5 km. When allowed to choose their
own gait, they are able to travel at about 30 km an hour for a considerable period of time.
In rough, broken country they are at their best. There, the long, high bounds send them over
the rocks and brush much faster than the average running animal can go through or around the
obstructions. The longest bounds are generally made when the animals are going downhill or
leaping across gullies.
Although equipped with acute senses of sight and hearing, these deer rely largely
upon the sense of smell in detecting danger. Stationary objects are easily overlooked by
them, but they readily detect any that are in motion.
Mule deer of both sexes normally do most of their feeding in early morning before sunrise
or in late afternoon and evening after sundown. They spend the middle of the day bedded
down in cool, secluded places. In summer, the bucks retire as soon as the sun shines where
they are feeding and go to the dense shade of some grove to bed down for the day. In
general, mature bucks prefer rocky ridges for bedding grounds because there they seem
to feel more secure from the approach of danger. Does and fawns are more likely to bed
down in the open. In winter, however, they often seek out sunny places well screened
on at least three sides by vegetation. At night, they usually bed down in the open away
from trees and bushes.
The food of the mule deer is quite varied. The mule deer enjoy the flowering stalks of
lechuguilla, the basal parts of sotol, mesquite, juniper, and a number of forbs contribute
to their diet. Feeding time varies with the weather, the phase of the moon, the time of
the year, and type of country. During cold, snowy, winter months when food is difficult
to obtain and a considerable amount is required to maintain body heat and energy, deer
feed at all times of day and night. During the rutting season, feeding is often erratic,
especially with bucks. During the hunting season, when many hunters are on the range,
bucks do the major part of their feeding at night. Deer are more prone to feed on dark
nights and are relatively quiet and bedded down when the moonlight is intense. In spring
and summer, mule deer tend to feed to a greater extent upon green leaves, green herbs,
weeds, and grasses than they do upon browse species; the reverse is true in fall and winter.
The rut begins in the fall, usually in November or December, but varies with
locality and climatic conditions and continues until the latter part of January
or even into February. During this period, the bucks have terrific battles in
which the antlers are used almost exclusively. Bucks that are evenly matched in
size and strength may fight until almost exhausted before one or the other is
the victor. The animals are polygamous. The stronger, more virile bucks attract
females to them and attempt to defend them against the attentions of the younger
bucks. Small, persistent bucks can lead a large buck a miserable life, leaving him
little time to take care of family duties or even to eat, because of his continued
attempts to drive them away. In this period the necks of bucks become swollen,
a development that is closely associated with reproduction.
The gestation period is approximately 210 days, and the fawning period extends
over several weeks in June, July, and August. The female sequesters herself and
drops her fawn in a protected locality where it remains for a period of a week
or 10 days before it is strong enough to follow her. At birth fawns are spotted
and weigh approximately 2.5 kg. They are nursed at regular intervals by the
female, 10 minutes of nursing usually sufficing for a full meal. The young
ones are weaned at about the age of 60 or 75 days, at which time they begin
to lose their spots. The weaning time is a critical one because if green
forage is not available, the fawns seldom make their transfer from milk to
a diet of vegetation. If the fawn is not weaned, both mother and fawn are
likely to experience difficulty in surviving a severe winter. Sexual
maturity is attained at the age of about 18 months in does but ordinarily,
young bucks are not allowed to participate actively in the rut until they are 3 or 4 years old.
Antlers are shed after the breeding season, from mid-January to about
mid-April. Most mature bucks in good condition have lost theirs by the end
of February; immature bucks generally lose them a little later. New antler
growth begins immediately following the shedding of the old. Growth is extremely
rapid, and massive antlers develop fully in about 150 days. While the antlers
are growing, the bucks remain on the open slopes and benches where the brush
is short or scattered to avoid injuring the soft, new growth. Mature bucks normally
have four main points on each antler, but beyond the third year there is little or no
correlation between the number of points and the age of the deer. Beyond the prime
of life, the so-called "Pacific buck" type may develop, which consists of only
two points, or a spike, on each side of a large set of antlers.
The age of mule deer can be determined fairly accurately up to about 24 months.
At birth the fawn is equipped with upper premolars, the third and fourth lower
premolars, the lower canines, and the entire lower incisor series. The second lower
premolar may erupt shortly after birth or within the first 60 days. By the age of
3½ months, the first upper molar is functional. At the age of approximately 1 year,
the middle lower incisor is shed and replaced by a permanent one. Each permanent
incisor is wider than its predecessor. At the age of 15-18 months, the molars erupt
and take their place in the series, and at the age of 24-25 months, the premolars
are replaced by the permanent dentition.
Mule Deer Hunt History
As befits Arizona's principal game animal, deer received some protection as early as 1887
when a four-month season of October 1 through January 31 was established by the territorial
legislature. Buck-only hunting was instituted in 1893, and the season was gradually reduced
until 1913 when the new state legislature authorized a two-month season and a two-buck bag
limit. Even this was deemed excessive by the state's sportsmen, and a public initiative in
1916 reduced the limit to one buck deer to be taken during the month of October.
Despite a serious overpopulation of deer on the North Kaibab in the 1920s, deer numbers
appeared to decline in the rest of the state. In 1929, the mule deer season was closed
south of the Gila River, and even as recently as 1946, fewer than 5,000 mule deer (more
than 80 percent of all deer killed) were harvested in Arizona. Then, for reasons that are
still unclear, deer populations began to increase. As the populations rose, doe and "any-deer"
hunts were authorized. In 1961, an all-time high of 91,120 deer hunters took 35,897 deer.
More than 86 percent of these were mule deer and nearly 10,000 were antlerless animals.
Archery deer hunting was also now beginning to provide a significant hunting opportunity.
A series of years of poor fawn survival followed. By 1970 fewer than 16,000 deer were
taken, and hunt success had fallen to 16 percent. With the institution of permit-only deer
hunting the following year, hunter numbers dropped from more than 97,000 to fewer than 68,000.
Only about 9,500 mule deer were reported harvested.
Deer permit numbers gradually increased after 1972, leveling off at around 70,000 per year
between 1976 and 1982, when hunters took more than 12,000 mule deer, approximately 75 percent
of the total deer harvest. Then, a series of wet winters resulted in an increase in fawn
survival rates, and hunter numbers and the numbers of deer bagged increased accordingly until
1986, when nearly 86,000 hunters took 25,566 deer, of which 77 percent were mule deer.
Since then, another series of droughts has occurred, and deer hunting opportunity is again
being curtailed. In 1998, 44,524 hunters reported taking fewer than 10,500 deer. Of the total
deer harvested that year only 60 percent were mule deer. Prospects in the near future are even
more discouraging, but mule deer are "boom and bust" animals. With the advent of better than
average winter rains, mule deer populations will once again improve. The only question is when.
Mule Deer Behavior:
Deer feed on grasses and forbs in the spring and summer, however, they are primarily
browsers. They eat such items as twigs, bark, buds, leaves, and nuts. Important plants in a
mule deer's diet include mountain-mahogany, buckbrush, cliffrose, sagebrush, buckthorn, juniper,
and oak. Most feeding is done at dawn and dusk, although human activity may cause a shift to more
feeding at night. In Arizona, predation on deer is mainly by coyotes, bobcats, and mountain lions.
Mule Deer Resources:
Mule Deer Hunting Guides:
Mule Deer Statistics:
- Breeding Period: November-December
- Young Appear: June-August
- Average Number of Young: 2
- Distribution: 90ft-10K ft, statewide except extreme southwest corner of state
- Habitat: Desert shrub, grasslands, pinon-juniper, pine, aspen-fir, and mountain meadows
- Food Preference: Weeds, palo verde, aspen, mushrooms, yucca flowers, shrubs, oak, mesquite beans, janusia, cliffrose, sagebrush, juniper, coffeeberry, cacti fruit, and filaree in season
- Range: 30-50 sq. miles
- Live Weight: M-200-225lbs.; F-110-125lbs.
- Predators: Mountain Lion, Coyote and Eagle