Deer are a ubiquitous presence in much of the Tehachapi area. From Sand Canyon to Bear Valley Springs, from Golden Hills to Stallion Springs, small groups of deer can be seen daily. They range from the oak woodlands to people's front yards, and most places in between. There must be several thousand of them scattered throughout the Tehachapi Mountains.
From time to time I get asked questions about what kind of deer these are. It is an easier question to ask than to answer, but after years of photographing deer in the Tehachapi Mountains and researching the subject, I conclude that the deer in our mountains are mostly California Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus californicus) with some Black-tailed Deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) genes mixed in. Here's why:
Mule Deer are the genus Odocoileus and the species hemionus. There are different subspecies of them, so scientists tack on a third name. In the case of California Mule Deer, that third name is californicus.
There are currently 10 different recognized subspecies of Mule Deer, including Rocky Mountain Mule Deer, whose bucks occasionally exceed 400 pounds. The Mule Deer in our area don't reach that size.
Deer biologists agree that Black-tailed Deer are also subspecies of Mule Deer, so for Blacktails the third name is columbianus.
So what are the differences? Well, they are similar in appearance, but in the case of California Mule Deer, they generally have a white tail that ends in a black tip, like a black tassel at the end. In the case of pure Black-tailed Deer, not only is their entire tail black, but a dark stripe extends up the tail and all the way along their back.
Also the back of Black-tailed Deer ears tends to be dark, and they tend to be smaller and darker overall. Their antler pattern is very similar, but there is a big difference in the length of the metatarsal gland — a gland that produces breeding season scents, located above the mid-point of the shank on their hind legs. This gland averages 5 inches long in Mule Deer, and only 2 inches long in Blacktails.
Because these two deer are subspecies of the same deer, they can readily interbreed. The Coast Range tends to have purer Black-tailed Deer, and the Sierra Nevada tends to have purer Mule Deer. Since the Tehachapi Mountains serve to connect the two, with help from the Temblor Range, deer in our mountains show characteristics of both, though the California Mule Deer genes seem dominant.
Here is a quote from a scholarly California Fish and Game (now California Fish and Wildlife) publication called Distribution and Variation in Deer in North America:
"Beginning with O. hemionus to the northward, this transition is accomplished along a U-shaped path coursing down the Sierra Nevada, through the mountains around the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley (which would be the Tehachapis and Temblors) and back northwards up the Coast Range and Central Coast into O. hemionus columbianus. Along this path of intergradation the transition from one race to the next is so complete, comprising as it does gradual change in nearly every important differential feature and involving nearly all deer in a given region of change, that the term intergradation as opposed to hybridization is unquestionably applicable."
So most of the deer in the Tehachapi Mountains look like California Mule Deer while there are some that show more Black-tailed Deer characteristics. It is likely that all of them are intergrades of the two subspecies. That's my take on it, anyway — I'm not aware of any DNA testing of local deer that might offer more information.
I'm always interested in learning more, so if you have deer in your area, look at them and note their appearance. If possible, take photos and we'll keep building a photographic inventory of local deer. Most of the photos on this page were submitted to the News by local residents.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.