Black-tailed Deer of California
by Keith Smith
Author, Keith Smith, has spent two years taking 1,500 photographs of black-tailed deer and researching everything he could find on California black-tailed deer in preparation for his book Black-tailed Deer of California. is pleased to bring you Smith's photographs and research as a weekly series.
Part I


California’s black-tailed deer are among our most visible and widespread wildlife species, inhabiting most of the state's wildlands. Black-tailed deer can be enjoyed for viewing in the mountain meadows of the Trinity Alps Wilderness, along the 17-mile drive on the Monterey Peninsula, at Point Reyes National Park, or in just about any of the wildlands within their range. Of all the wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, the black-tailed deer is the most popular, most adaptable, most hunted, most watched, widely distributed, and best loved. Because of their role in nature, their widespread distribution, and longstanding popularity with hunting as well as nonhunting Californians, the conservation of black-tailed deer and their habitat continues to be one of the most important aspects of wildlife management in California.

Throughout history the black-tailed deer has been of great service to man in providing meat for food, skins for clothing, and sport for recreation. As well as being an integral component in the food chain, filling their role as grazers/browsers of wildland plants to their role as prey for California’s top carnivores such as the mountain lion, black bear, coyote, and golden eagle.

Black-tailed deer, along with mule deer, inhabit about 75 percent of California’s wildlands in a wide variety of habitats. Most of that habitat is administered as public land by the federal government (United States Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and military) or is privately owned (timber holdings and ranches).

These deer are also California’s most popular game mammal, attracting between 165,000-200,000 hunters to the field annually. The opportunity to go deer hunting provides for thousands of Californians and their families the chance to get out of the workplace and enjoy the state's wildlands. The economic impact of deer hunting is surprising, contributing an estimated $450 million annually.


Black-tailed deer are among the most studied wildlife species in California, thanks to decades of interest in them as a popular game animal. For some herds, data exists as far back as the early 1900s. From this long study, we have learned that black-tails often respond predictably to California’s changing wildland environment. Because of the existence of long-term data on their abundance, ranges, popularity, and economic value, black-tailed deer are a premiere wildlife species in California. They are often the focus of attention within the Department of Fish and Game, United States Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management.


The black-tailed, mule, and white-tailed deer constitute a genus called Odocoileus. Based on anatomical similarities, deer belong to the order of Artiodactyl. All artiodactyls share characteristics of being even toed and hoofed with males having antlers or horns. Deer are ruminants, which means they have a four-chambered stomach, chew a cud, and regurgitate food more than once before finally swallowing it. They also have canine teeth and upper incisors that are reduced or missing. Deer are classified in the Phylum Chordate because they have a backbone, Mammilla, because it is warm blooded, has a four-chambered heart, a covering of hair on its body, gives birth to young alive, and has mammary glands with which to nurse young.

Deer belong to the cervidae family which has five general characteristics, only males have antlers, they have no gallbladder, dew claws show, feet are four toe (two dew claws and even toe hooves), a lachrymal depression in front of each eye, and thirty-two teeth. However, there are several other less obvious distinguishing features between the three species of deer such as size, weight, height, coloring, tail, ear length, metatarsal gland, antlers, gait, and behavior.


The Columbian black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) is also known as; black-tail, coast black-tail, Columbian deer, and Pacific buck. The black-tailed deer is currently considered a subspecies of the mule deer and interbreeds with the Rocky Mountain mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus hemionus) and the California mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus californicus) where their range overlaps.

The black-tailed deer obviously gets its name from its black tail. They are also characterized as the smallest and darkest deer of the three deer species. There are two species of black-tailed deer, the Columbian and the Sitka. The Sitka resembles white-tailed deer and are larger and more reddish than the Columbian black-tailed deer. The Columbia black-tailed deer inhabits the area between Central California to British Columbia and the Sitka inhabits from British Columbia on up.

Black-tailed bucks; total length, 58 inches; 36 inches high at the shoulder; 6 1/2-inch tail; 8-inch ears; and 2-inch metatarsal gland. Doe: total length; 54 inches; 36 inches high at the shoulder; 6 1/2-inch tail; 7 3/4-inch ear; and 2-inch metatarsal gland. The color of the coat changes with the season, from a generally reddish-brown in summer to grayish in winter. Their weight usually varies, although the larger bucks may be over 140 pounds. The natural life span is 9 to 10 years (17 to 20 yrs. in captivity,) although many live far less since they are either hunted or killed by predators. It is believed that where heavily hunted, bucks live for only about 3 to 5 years.


Fawns are the newborn deer. They are born in the spring and spend most, if not all, of their time with their mothers. The fawns camouflage coat is their main means of survival. The white spots that are scattered about their reddish-brown coat blends with the fallen leaves on the forest floor. The fawns eventually lose this birth coat when it is weaned, and grows a grayish winter coat, which provides camouflage in the fall forests. Winter is a hard time for fawns as food is scarce and their fragile bodies sometimes cannot outlast the cold, resulting in a high mortality rate.

Their behavior begins in small family groups. Within these groups fawns learn how to run, jump and react quickly to danger and predators by playing games. Fawns must be careful at this stage; they are very fragile and susceptible to injuries. Rearing fawns is best when there is an adequate supply of food and protective cover for hiding.


The doe is a female deer. Does lead a very separate life style from a buck and travels in a small family group consisting of an older doe and her relatives. The family group leader, or alpha doe, tends to be the older mother. The lead doe usually breeds and fawns first, as well as the one who picks the most favorable fawning areas. Does will stay within a familiar area for most of their lives, unless harsh weather or harassment forces them to temporarily relocate.


A male deer is called a buck. The size of the buck depends on many factors, including genetics, age, nutrition, and environmental conditions. The most unique feature of a buck is his antlers. Antlers are bones, which protrude from the buck's head. They are believed to have developed as a weapon to gain dominance over other bucks during breeding season. Each winter the buck sheds his antlers, only to grow a new set the next spring.

Black-tailed deer are sociable only within their own sex. Therefore, upon reaching a mature age, around 16 or 18 months, a young buck leaves the family group where he was raised and sets out to find a male bachelor group. When he arrives in this bachelor group, he must prove himself and establish his status among his peers through sparring.

Dominance is very important to bucks. If challenged by a lesser buck the dominant buck will engage in a bout of sparring with the challenger. The challenger will usually spar for a short time and then disengage.

Sparring matches are very common. However, if the bucks are of equal size, the challenge could result in fight. Although sparring is very common, fights between equal bucks are rare, but these fights can be brutal and in some cases even fatal.

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