The Deer Family
Mule Deer and White-Tailed Deer
These deer are similar in size and appearance. Their color varies with the season but is generally light brown in summer, turning dirty-gray in winter. Though both species are considerably smaller than elk, the mule deer is a little stockier than the white-tailed deer. The mule deer has a white rump, a white tail with a dark tip, and large mule-like ears. It inhabits open forests along valley floors. The white-tailed deer’s tail is dark on top, but when the animal runs, it holds its tail erect, revealing an all-white underside. White-tails frequent thickets along rivers, lakes, and highways. They are especially prevalent on Vancouver Island. Sitka deer, a subspecies, inhabit the Queen Charlotte Islands.
The giant of the deer family is the moose, an awkward-looking mammal that appears to have been designed by a cartoonist. It has the largest antlers of any animal in the world, stands up to 1.8 meters (6 feet) at the shoulder, and weighs up to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds). Its body is dark brown, and it has a prominent nose, long spindly legs, small eyes, big ears, and an odd flap of skin called a bell dangling beneath its chin. Apart from all that, it’s good-looking. Each spring the bull begins to grow palm-shaped antlers that by August will be fully grown. Moose are solitary animals preferring marshy areas and weedy lakes. They are most common in northern British Columbia, often seen by travelers along the Alaska Highway, but also make their home throughout the Canadian Rockies. Although they may appear docile, moose will attack humans if they feel threatened.
The elk (also known as wapiti) has a tan body with a dark-brown neck, dark-brown legs, and a white rump. This second-largest member of the deer family weighs 250–450 kilograms (550–1,000 pounds) and stands 1.5 meters (5 feet) at the shoulder. Beginning each spring, stags grow an impressive set of antlers, covered in what is known as velvet. The velvet contains nutrients that stimulate antler growth. By fall, the antlers have reached their full size and the velvet is shed. Rutting season takes place between September and October; listen for the shrill bugles of the stags serenading the females. Elk are common in the Canadian Rockies, where large herds make a home in and around the towns of Banff and Jasper, often nonchalantly wandering along streets and feeding on tasty plants in residential gardens.
Native people named the animal caribou (hoof scraper) for the way it feeds in winter, scraping away snow with its hooves to search out food. The species seems ungainly, but has adapted superbly to life in the harsh northern climates. Standing approximately 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall at the shoulder, Caribou are smaller than elk and have a dark-brown coat with creamy patches on the neck and rump. Like the elk, they breed in fall, with the males gathering a harem. Above the treeline, they congregate each fall for a migration west to the boreal forest. As many as 400,000 of the animals may band together into a single herd. Each spring the process is reversed as they head east to summer calving grounds, high above the Arctic Circle. Small populations of woodland caribou inhabit the Yukon, northern British Columbia, and remote corners of the Canadian Rockies.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition