Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Reindeer and Caribou
Nature Bulletin No. 400-A   December 19, 1970
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Clement Clarke Moore's only known poem is so familiar to American children that its opening words, "'Twas the night before Christmas ", instantly call up visions of a team of reindeer. Of all the animals in the world Santa Claus could not have picked a better one for whisking his sleigh load of toys down from the Far North on Christmas Eve. With their broad hoofs, speed and endurance no other draft animal can travel so far or so fast in the snow. Youngsters of the Old Stone Age must have dreamed about reindeer, too, because we find wonderful pictures of them drawn on the walls of caves, -- 30,000 years ago.

Reindeer is the name given the Old World Caribou by the early Lapps or Finns and merely means "the animal that pastures. " Because it was the only grazing animal known to these people of arctic Europe, no further description was necessary. In Lapland and neighboring countries where over the centuries it has become a domestic animal there are still many people who depend on it almost entirely for their livelihood. At one time the Old World Caribou ranged from the Scandinavian Peninsula eastward to the Bering Straits but now the only remaining wild ones are found in northern Siberia. Many thousands of years ago, before it was domesticated, the "Reindeer Men", as they are called by archeologists, followed the milling herds of caribou as they moved back and forth between their summer and winter pastures.

To the people of Lapland as well as in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Siberia, reindeer are the chief wealth and staff of life. They stand 40 inches high at the shoulder and weigh 300 pounds. Requiring no fences, barns, hay or other maintenance except herding, they forage for themselves. When the summer diet of grass is covered with snow they use their horns or sharp hoofs, which cut ice like skates, to uncover shrubby willows, moss and especially the lichen called "reindeer moss". A working reindeer in Lapland can carry 90 pounds or pull a 450-pound load forty miles a day in one of their boat- like sleds.

A female gives about three cups of milk daily which is as rich as cream. This is drunk fresh, churned into butter, or made into cheese. The flesh is eaten, the bones cracked for marrow, the antlers used to make tools, and the hair used to stuff mattresses. The hides are sewn into parkas, gloves, trousers, shoes and tents using thread made from the sinews. If an owner wants a drink of milk or to take a ride he goes out and lassoes one.

The caribou of North America, quite similar to the reindeer and Old World caribou, range from the North Woods and into the tundra, often beyond the Arctic Circle in Alaska and Canada, farther north than any other hoofed animal except the muskox. American caribou are divided into three races or species -- the Barren Ground, the Woodland, and the Mountain Caribou.

Unlike other members of the deer family both sexes of caribou have picturesque antlers that sweep back and up and then bend forward. The stags shed their antlers in autumn but the does carry theirs until after the dappled fawns are born in May. They travel with a fast- swinging trot that they can continue almost indefinitely and easily outdistance wolves. Even when swimming they are very fast, keeping pace with an expert canoeman. Still abundant in the Canadian Rockies and the Barren Grounds, they once were vastly more numerous in the past. The naturalist, Seton, described a single herd of 25 million in Canada that took 4 days and nights to pass by in a stream 20 miles wide.

We wish you a very MERRY CHRISTMAS with this 400th issue.

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