It was the ears that came first.
The inordinately large ears peeked up from the meadow just as I was about to turn the corner. In a flash, they were gone. Then, just as quickly, the ears re-emerged, followed by big brown eyes – very alert and very wary of my presence.
I reached for my camera, thrilled that I had finally seen a baby mule deer. As I fumbled to remove the lens cap, it was mere seconds before this tiny little body with long, long legs emerged from the grass and darted away. Still no photo.
I have spent some time lately watching, or rather trying to watch the mule deer.
It all stemmed from a theory I have that mule deer are the least-popular animals at the preserve. I have absolutely nothing to back this theory up except that I have never once met anyone who claimed them as a favourite. I wanted to know why.
I have thought, at times, that it might be because their antlers pale when compared to the elk, caribou and moose. I have also considered that it might be their relative smallness in comparison to most Northern mammals. But, watching visitors’ fascination with ground squirrels quickly proves that theory wrong.
It cannot be their appearance. They have those fabulous ears. And with their beautiful colouring and incredibly expressive faces, they are, undeniably, attractive animals.
Relative newcomers to the Yukon, mule deer live in herds and prefer a habitat where woodland and meadow meet. When they run, mule deer bound in a “stot” with all four hooves landing at the same time. Reminiscent of the gazelles of Africa, a herd of mule deer, stotting across the meadow, is an incredible sight.
But that might also be the problem. The most common view of a mule deer is watching them run in the other direction. Mule deer are nothing if not suspicious, and any attempt to come close inevitably ends of with a perfect view of their black-tipped tail.
I think I might be on to something …
It is hard to feel affection for something that runs away every time you come close. I had to spend a lot of time sitting and standing perfectly still before any mule deer wandered close enough to admire. Even those resting, perfectly camouflaged by the trees and the meadow, bolted as I wandered close enough to them to be sure I knew they were there.
Their suspicion and instinct to run has undoubtedly contributed to their successful migration to the Yukon. Mentioned as early as the 1920s, mule deer have only become common in the past 50 years, now living as far north as Dawson, despite living precariously through the Yukon winter.
Eventually, I expect, my proximity to their food overruled their instinct to run and I finally got my photo. I also came to appreciate mule deer more, and while they still aren’t my favourite, they are in my preserve Top 10.
Krista Prochazka loved the Yukon Wildlife Preserve so much that she made her family move to the Yukon to become executive director of the preserve. Contact her at [email protected]