Recently, a drenched Crossroads visitor waded into the Collins Learning Center and announced, “Your animals out there are lining up two by two. And I just heard that Santa will be driving Rain-deer this year.”
That may have been a stretch of the imagination, but hey, we never imagined that we would have fish in Big Creek in December, and they’re out there. Often, we don’t even have water in Big Creek during the holidays. We’ve had a lot of rain.
Santa’s reindeer are imaginary, but there are real reindeer. They are domesticated caribou. Unlike the pretty reindeer of the holiday specials and greeting cards, real caribou are bulky, ungainly creatures. To call them clumsy is to understate their lack of grace.
Scientists believe that caribou lived in Door County around the end of the last Ice Age, but not long after the glaciers melted, they were no longer able to survive our mild climate. Caribou are adapted for extreme weather. They probably couldn’t live at the North Pole, but they survive in very cold and snowy climates in the far northern countries of Europe in a region called Lapland.
Laplanders use reindeer in many ways. Reindeer meat, milk and cheese are dietary staples and historically, these people found uses for reindeer hide, bones and antlers. Most amazingly, Laplanders were able to train these animals to pull sleighs. I always assumed that they tamed the caribou and hitched them to sleighs and drove them with reins and that is why the domestic animals were called reindeer. I was wrong.
Apparently in the language of the Laplanders, the word “reino” means pasture. Reindeer were the caribou that could survive on the treeless lands above the Arctic Circle. Not many animals can. In summer, the tundra is very wet and boggy–kind of like Crossroads is this month. In the winter (which is very long) the tundra is covered with hard crusty snow and ice.
Santa’s reindeer are portrayed as dainty graceful creatures which look a whole lot like whitetail deer with dainty pointy hooves. They would never survive the tundra.
Real reindeer hooves, which are huge and nearly round, act much like snowshoes, preventing the 200-300 pound creatures from sinking into the drifts. The hooves also serve as shovels so the animals can reach their meals of moss and lichen hidden beneath the snow.
You know the song that goes, “Up on the housetop, Click, Click, Click.” Real reindeer feet and ankles click quite audibly with every step because of an unusual arrangement of bones and tendons. I’m told that reindeer hunters usually hear the herd before they see it.
The “prancing and pawing”? Yes! Yes! That does sound like real reindeer. These animals of the far north have to lift their knees to clear the snow. They leave much cleaner tracks than whitetails. But then, on Christmas Eve, reindeer fly and flying creatures leave no tracks, especially in standing water.
On Christmas Eve, even if the rain stops for a day or so, we offer an indoor program, a lecture called “Greeting Card Birds”. Learn a little about the natural history of the birds depicted on greeting cards, and learn what species is the Crossroads Bird of the Year. The lecture is free and open to the public.
The Collins Learning Center will be closed on the 25th, but on Saturday and Sunday, we will host a family activity at 1:00 that in the past we have called this activity Snow Sowing. This year we will call it a Seed Sowing Hike. Our friends from Wild Ones have provided us with seeds for wildflowers which are favored by butterflies and bees. Participants will scatter seeds in the wind, and perhaps in years to come, will return to see the flowers they helped plant. Free and open to the public.