Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 18, 2007

Micmac Qalipu and Sami der

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:50 pm

  I was very surprised to find a small herd of reindeer in downtown Blissfield last weekend. Frankly, the sight blind-sided me because it was in downtown Blissfield and it was last weekend.  On the day of my visit the small southeast Michigan town was kicking off a Sunday afternoon Christmas shopping day of sorts.  While Nat King Cole crooned about roasting chestnuts from street-side loudspeakers, small herds of people were pausing to view some captive reindeer held within a red fence enclosure.  The weather was quite warm, the grass was quite green and the leaves hadn’t all left yet. So, you can imagine my reaction to this double shock.  A Christmas event on the 10th of November supported by real reindeer? Given the situation, fake reindeer and a few high school kids dressed in elf suits would have been more appropriate.

  Strangely enough I got all giddy, in a Christmas sort of way, upon seeing these genuine beasts in a genuinely odd situation. I’ve never seen one of these things close up before. I crowded in among the children and stuck my nose through the fencing to get a good close look.  The only camera I had with me was on my cell phone so I took a few grainy shots in order to record the situation.

  The enclosure was divided into two parts with two animals and a human caretaker in each.  Grabbing the reins of the largest animal, a buck sporting a hefty rack, Dave Aldrich patiently answered innocent questions from the gathered admirers. A Toledo schoolteacher asked him where he had come from.  Dave answered in true straight man style by saying “the North Pole,” but he immediately started to chuckle and admitted “I just can’t keep a straight face when I say that anymore, we’re actually from Clare, MI.”  He flipped out a business card at her request.  He runs the Rooftop Landing Reindeer Farm in that northern Lower Peninsula community. Clare is appropriately known as the “gateway to the north” and is a situated three and a half hours from Blissfield.  This is the start of the busy season for him and the current event was definitely the earliest one on his Christmas schedule.

  The reindeer at his side was a full grown male weighing in at about 350 pounds (see poor quality phone cam shot here). It was named Dasher (yeah, o.k., well, whatever) and sported a dense light brown coat which graded into white sides and a hefty white mane. Dasher, er, the male specimen, stood about 40 inches at the shoulder and possessed the stature of a Great Dane.  The females in the other section were just over three feet high at the shoulder and were probably a hundred pounds lighter (see another crummy shot here).  One advantage of seeing these creatures first hand is to get an appreciation of just how small they really are. No doubt this is an adaptation to pulling sleighs over narrow rooftops.

  Reindeer are actually Caribou under the influence of domestication. Selective breeding has reduced their body size, given them varied coat colors, and flattened their faces.  Our North American Caribou are exactly the same species, but much heftier in size.  Caribou are arctic wanderers that range over the entire northern half of the globe, but in northern Europe they are called reindeer.

  In the Scandinavian countries, these animals have been domesticated for 7,000 years. It is from the Old Norse tongue that we get the original name of this beast which was simply called a “hreinn.” A Middle English “der”, meaning animal, was added later.  The resulting “hreinn-der” quickly became “reindeer.” This hackneyed name also made sense, however, in that they are members of the deer family that can be fitted with reins.  As reined domestics, they serve as beasts of burden, milking stock and meat (2,000 tons of reindeer meat processed every year according to a Sami tribal website).

  The Micmac Indians of Canada call the North American version of this animal the “Qalipu.”  We derived the caribou name from hacking up this label.  In that tongue, the name means “snow shoveler.” Caribou, reindeer, dashers -whatever you call them -are all equipped with widely splayed hooves perfectly suited for clearing away snow in search of crucial winter food. They survive the bitter cold darkness by feasting on the tiny lichens which coat the frozen tundra soil. Looking at these compact deer in front of me I was drawn to their snow plowing implements. Not only are their feet huge in proportion to their body, but they stand flat-footed with their dew claws in contact with the ground.  Take one more look here and gaze through the pixilated haze to get some sense of a pair of reindeer feet.

  Unique among members of the deer family, all sexes and ages grow antlers.  A pinto colored calf was enclosed with the male and already sported a set of long thin antlers – still covered in velvet.  The mature buck had an impressive asymmetric rack that branched out in many directions.  A huge palmate extension, known as a brow tine, jutted forward over the eyes.  The antlers exhibited by the two females were lanky simplified versions of the buck’s pair. Dave fielded many antler questions with practiced confidence.  Yes they drop off and re-grow each year.  No, the bucks don’t usually fight with them – the one with the biggest rack gets all the girls, period.  Yes, the females can use their antlers to run a wolf through when they try to get at her calf. “It’s not a pretty thing to see,” he concludes.

  They had several bundles of shed antlers stacked up against the side of the building next to the enclosure.  I bought a pair from Dave and pointed to the smallest set there.  He commented that most folks want the big buck antlers but accepted my desire to have a pair of the delicate female ornaments.  The pregnant does retain their antlers until the following spring and drop them within a week of giving birth in March.  These fine little wolf-killing antlers enable the female to chase away potential predators during those critical early hours when her calf is wobbly and unable to run.

  Dave didn’t mention that most of the male reindeer drop their antlers immediately after the rut in November. By the time Christmas comes around, the guys are normally antlerless.  This can only mean one thing – all of the reindeer leading Santa’s sleigh must be pregnant females!

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