By Chuck Nottingham
Since this column frequently deals with game identification, many questions come in about deer (Cervidae) during end-of-year holidays. Readers ask:
"Do deer pull sleighs?"
"Can deer really fly?"
"Why is Santa's team all bucks and no does?"
"Who's in the number seven harness spot? 'Donder' or 'Donner'?"
Well, kiddies, it's not a only a new year and new century, but we're in a brand-new millennium. Time to grow up and face the cold, hard facts about sleigh deer.
Deer native to Montana are mule deer (Cervidae Odocoileus hemionus). White-tailed deer (Cervidae Odocoileus virginianus) are relative new-comers to Montana. Neither are good sleigh-pullers, and while fabulous jumps have been reported, sustained flight has not been confirmed.
However, Lapps (Homo Sapiens frozenus) constitute a very powerful deer lobby in some circles - namely the Arctic Circle, a line surrounding the North Pole. (Havreites believing that line to be imaginary can see it. A sign on the 600 block of First Street (Highwayus deuces) clearly states "Arctic Circle.") Anyway, Lapp photographic records substantiate beyond a shadow of a doubt that reindeer (Cervidae Rangifer tarandus) do indeed pull sleighs.
Reindeer flight was documented earliest by an eye-witness account in 1822 by New York clergyman, Reverend Clement C. Moore in "'Twas the Night before Christmas."
If the word of a preacher isn't enough, then examine the cover of Wildlife Ecology & Management on which a reindeer is about to take flight. Ironically, it's Eric Nolen and William Robinson - authors of that very text - who reveal the real reindeer myth-buster.
Most people assume Santa's deer are bucks. Wrong! Professors Bolen and Robinson profess both male and female reindeer - called bulls and cows, not bucks and does - grow annual antlers.
Furthermore, bull reindeer drop their antlers at the beginning of winter, usually late November to mid-December. Cow reindeer retain their antlers until after calving in the spring. Therefore, if Santa's reindeer have antlers as late as Dec. 24, they are most decidedly FEMALE.
Not completely cowed by facts, some folks stand there like Cervidae in the headlights and ask, "But what about their names? Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen! On Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donder and Blitzen!"
Come on! How many guys do you know named Prancer or Vixen? Actually, all those names are androgynous ... like Frances and Francis, Michael and Michelle, Chuck and Chucklette.
"Yeah, well," some shoot back. "How many gals do you know named Rudolph?"
Okay, okay. Rudolph is indeed male, but he's only up front for illumination, not power or guidance - and there's not a horn or antler in sight. Since this is a wholesome family column, we won't go into what "games" the other reindeer wouldn't let him play.
Donner? Another story altogether. Possibly a lost flightless cousin caribou (Rangifer tarandus arcticus), he or she was most likely the appetizer for pioneers snowbound in the High Sierras during the holiday season of 1846-47 near Truckee, Nevada. Must have been a wild winter celebration, as the "Donner Party" is still quite infamous.
Why, you ask, spring such a startling revelation on an unsuspecting public so soon after the holidays? To celebrate Montana electing its first woman Governor (Governess?).
Now the bull stories may no longer be spread around. Welcome to a more enlightened Third Millennium.