At the beginning of the holidays, right after the turkey pardoning and Thanksgiving, many visitors come to enjoy viewing the animals in the colder weather. Thoughts turn to Christmas and Santa Claus, for those who celebrate this holiday. Often, when I am out in the pasture taking care of the deer and turkeys, and I hear many children and their families refer to our deer as reindeer. Although the deer we have may sort-of, kind-of look like reindeer, they are actually a different species. White-tailed Deer, or Virginia Deer,(Odocoileus virginianus), are a small to medium sized deer. These animals are found throughout the southern half of the southern tier of the Canadian provinces and most of the US except in the far southwest. Reindeer, or Caribou (Rangifer tarandus), as they are called here in the US are found much further north than the lower US. These animals are a little bit larger and are found in Arctic and Subarctic taiga,tundra, and boreal forests. Their range is typically throughout Alaska, and most of Canada from British Columbia, to eastern Washington and northern Idaho, then south to Lake Superior, and east to Newfoundland. Reindeer and caribou are believed to be the same type of cervid, although here in the US, they aren’t referred to as reindeer usually. It is thought that reindeer are mostly European in origin while caribou are more North American in origin, but of the same species. Caribou are well-adapted to survival in the colder regions up north, where they are able to sustain themselves by feeding on lichens, mushrooms, grasses, sedges, many other green plants, birch twigs and willow twigs, and fruit as available in the summer. During the cooler winter month, lichens are the main forage, supplemented by horsetails and the willow and birch twigs. Food intake is much reduced during the winter months, so the animals loose quite a bit of weight. During the summer, the caribou take in high-quality forage to supply the energy needed for reproduction, growth, and winter survival. Both males and females will carry antlers, although in females, or cows, that carry antlers, antler growth is not as spectacular as that of the male, or bull. Both sexes drop their antlers, but at different times of the year. Males typically shed their antlers in winter or early spring, while females drop them in the summer. Caribou also have spongy footpads in the summer for movement over the boggy summer tundra. In the winter, the foot pads shrink and harden, and are covered with tufts of hair. The hoof rim that remains bites into ice or crusted snow to prevent slipping.
As for whitetails, they are found in the lower states. Deer graze on green plants, to include aquatic plants in the summer. They also forage on acorns, beechnuts, a few other nuts, and corn in the fall. During the winter, they browse woody vegetation including twigs and buds of viburnum, birch, maple, and conifers. Male deer, bucks or stags, are the only sex to carry antlers. They will shed their antlers in the winter to early spring, after breeding season. In late spring, the antler growth starts anew. As the antlers grow from spikes to full racks, they are often covered in a soft protective velvety encasing while they grow. Antlers will continue to grow until they reach a certain point, right before breeding season in the fall. At this point, the velvet is rubbed off in preparation for establishing a dominance hierarchy. The bucks will then battle to establish breeding territory and win the favor of the most receptive females, or does. Breeding occurs from November through January or February, depending on the location of the herds. Deer do not have the spongy footpads that their northern cousins sport, as it is not needed in the areas where whitetail thrive. Whitetail hooves are hard and flinty and serve them well in the territories they frequent.
So although the white-tailed deer may be referred to as a “reindeer” around the time of the holidays, they are most definitely a different species from the northern ranged North American Caribou. A final thought or observation, as for Santa’s Reindeer, may or may not be females, depending on when reindeer would drop their antlers. Since female reindeer would still have antlers around that time, and the males would most likely have no antlers around then, they may very well be females that would be pulling Santa’s sled, depending on what you would choose to think. Reindeer were initially associated with Santa Claus through the poem of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” or ” The Night before Christmas” by Clement C. Moore in 1823. Before then, reindeer weren’t thought of as companions to Santa Claus.
So as the holidays approach, spend some time with your families, and perhaps when you settle in to listen to a reading of ” A Visit From Saint Nicholas” by Clement C. Moore, consider the differences between the White-tailed Deer and the North American Caribou. And enjoy some cookies and milk or coffee or tea, whatever you prefer.