Black-tailed Deer

If you're on the West Coast between the Alaska panhandle and Central California, there’s a good chance that animal track you’re staring at belongs to the black-tailed deer. Apart from being the most visible four-legged creature in its region, it also has the most visible track. That’s because, unlike all the soft-pawed critters in the area, the black-tailed deer has sharp-edged hooves that leave deeper, longer-lasting imprints—and can be used as dangerous weapons if the animal is spooked.

Speaking of, those big threatening antlers on black-tailed bucks may look sturdy and permanent, but they're only seasonal. The antlers grow in spring and are used as part of the mating ritual in the fall, where a breeding hierarchy is determined though a series of sparring matches. The whole thing leaves a lot of bucks wounded and with twisted antlers, though by late winter, everyone’s have shed off anyway. The whole process starts again in the spring.

These coastal deer are distinguished from their cousins the mule deer, which they otherwise resemble, by their smaller size. Black-tailed bucks average about 140 pounds, compared to 200 pounds for the average mule deer buck. Two subspecies of black-tailed deer, the Sitka black-tailed deer and the Columbia black-tailed deer, divide the range between north and south respectively, with the midpoint being central British Columbia. Sitka deer are the smaller of the two.

While you may spot a black-tailed deer at any moment on your hike or ride, their preferred habitat is right at the edge of the forest, where they have ample access to food (grass and underbrush require sunlight, ruling out deep forest) and plenty of hiding spots to protect them from hungry predators and harsh weather conditions. They also, oddly, have a fondness for poison oak and, not so oddly, acorns. They generally forage at dusk and at dawn. Predators include mountain lions and coyotes.

Something you probably never knew about deer: they excrete pheromones from glands located on their lower legs as a primitive form of communication. This includes things like mutual recognition and a danger alarm. Their sense of smell is clearly quite acute, but so is their sense of hearing. Their ears move independently of each other like miniature satellite dishes picking up all sorts of potential threats.

—Aaron Carnes