Enquirer Herald

Brad Harvey: Reindeer reality, one last trip through the air

Brad Harvey
Brad Harvey

When I first wrote this particular column almost a decade ago, I had no idea that it would take on a life of its own. Since then, I have received more emails and comments about it than anything else.

It has been the piece that has always received the most requests for being reprinted. I’ve tried to only do that as often as it made sense.

This being our final Christmas season in print and just one week away from the final issue of the Enquirer-Herald, it only seemed right that I would send it out to you one last time.

I remember when I was a child and all of the confusion that came regarding those deer pulling Santa’s sleigh. Back then I didn’t know the difference between those and the ones that hunters were always after and a little bit of worry would always creep into my mind when the hunting season started in early fall.

After all, when deer hunters take to the woods, we know that Christmas is soon to follow.

It’s my hope that, by explaining everything you need to know about reindeer and how they’re nothing like our native whitetails, this might put a child’s mind at ease so he or she won’t have to worry about someone trying to hang Rudolph on their wall.

Reindeer, also known as caribou, inhabit the frozen arctic tundra, including Alaska. They can’t be found around here except for a brief period during the darkness of one special night each year. Even then they have a chaperone tagging along in his sleigh.

For this reason, it’s quite obvious that Donner and Blitzen don’t have much to worry about in our neck of the woods, and this is even truer since night hunting is illegal in South Carolina.

Generally, reindeer live in herds that may include as few as 20 or as many as several hundred thousand, primarily surviving on mosses, lichens and grasses.

During the harsh winters, reindeer have been known to dig deep holes in the snow just so they may reach something edible.

Considering just how tough their winters are in that barren landscape, it’s amazing that these nomadic animals reach as much as 600 pounds (twice the size of the largest whitetails) and can live as long as 15 years.

Though there are a handful of subspecies of reindeer, this week we’re most interested in a small group within the family that’s known in scientific circles as Rangifer Tarandus Aeronauticus.

Those fancy scientific words just mean flying reindeer to you and me.

This particular member of the group can only be found in one special place on the entire planet. Of course, I’m referring to the North Pole.

Looking exactly like their cousins found in those other regions way up north, one can only be determined to be a flying reindeer by actually seeing it take flight.

Few people have had the opportunity to see it, much less study them, and this left me with a ton of questions regarding just how these magnificent creatures are able to get off the ground.

In hopes of finding out just what makes flying possible for these amazing animals, I called famed scholar Dr. Ima Narillyshur of the North Pole Center for Aeronautical Reindeer Studies.

She is the only person on the planet who has successfully researched the topic. I was surprised to find out that we now know exactly how all of this works.

“It’s really quite simple,” she told me. “These particular reindeer survive on a diet that’s a little different than other reindeer. This diet consists mainly of the rare North Pole snowberry, a distant cousin of the more common white waxberry.

“This particular snowberry glows in bright colors much like those found in Christmas lights. In fact, we now believe that this is how the tradition of multi-colored Christmas lights began,” she said.

She went on to explain that, once eaten, the North Pole snowberry creates a natural gas within the stomach of the reindeer. This gas has properties similar to that of helium, which is lighter than air. Thus, the reindeer are able to float much like giant balloons.

Now, that part made perfect sense to me, but it only explained how they get off of the ground. It didn’t make it clear how they are able to control their flight.

“It’s somewhat like swimming,” she said. “Using their large, oversized hooves, these deer are able to literally push the air, just as you and I do with water when we’re in a swimming pool. This motion creates the forward thrust needed for them to move forward while airborne.”

“Steering left or right and moving up or down is determined by the angle of the deer’s large antlers. It works in the same way that a pilot steers an airplane. By changing the angle of the antlers in relation to the air passing over them, the air current is disrupted to either provide lift or downforce,” she said.

I found my conversation with Dr. Narillyshur to be both exciting and helpful.

Her explanation of the flight process made perfect sense and finally puts to rest some of the more unlikely explanations that I’ve heard throughout my life such as magic pixie dust and other unrealistic contributors that we all know only exist in fairy tales.

She also mentioned that her research is trying to determine if there is an even stronger relationship between the glowing snowberries and the Christmas lights that are seen on homes around the world.

“We believe that these lights may contribute to Santa’s ability to both control the reindeer and make so many visits in just one night per year,” said Ima.

“Could it be that the reindeer think the lights on the houses are North Pole snowberries?” I asked.

“That’s the direction that our research has us leaning, now. We could save a lot of time and energy in learning the truth if Mr. Claus would just answer the door,” she said.

There you have it. As you can see, Santa’s reindeer are quite different than the whitetail deer that roam our woods.

So there’s no need to worry about any harm coming to Santa’s herd while those who love to hunt are out enjoying these couple of weeks of deer season.

Here’s wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.

I’ll see you here next week on Christmas Eve for one last visit.

Brad Harvey is a freelance outdoors writer in Clover. Visit his website at www.bradharveyoutdoors.com or follow on Twitter @BHarveyOutdoors.