Earth Almanac

Beyond Donner and Blitzen; decking the woods; a partridge in tree?

1 |Beyond Donner and Blitzen

Only Santa’s reindeer are “tiny” and have “little” hooves. All the rest are large (occasionally reaching 600 pounds) with huge, paddle-shaped hooves useful for shoveling away deep snow to uncover lichens (a winter staple) and for swimming during migrations that are under way now and can cover 1,600 miles in a single year. No other land mammal moves this far. Migrating reindeer (also called caribou) indeed “prance,” especially when pursued by wolves, but not all migrations are triggered by falling and rising temperatures or shrinking and expanding daylight. When mosquitoes swarm over the tundra a reindeer can lose a pint of blood in 48 hours. To escape these and other biting insects herds will move to windy hilltops or snow and ice fields. Reindeer have a circumpolar, mostly Arctic and sub-Arctic range. But that range is shrinking. While they still abound in Alaska, they’ve been extirpated from New York, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. Today a remnant population persists in the Selkirk Mountains of Idaho and Washington. One major limiting factor for reindeer has been the white-tailed deer, which has pushed northward as forests are cut and climate warms. Whitetails host a brain worm that doesn’t incapacitate them but is usually fatal to reindeer.


2 |Deck the Woods

From coastal Massachusetts to Florida, and west to Missouri and Texas, winter woods are decked with American holly. In the North a big holly tree might stand 25 feet tall, but that height can double in the South. Berries, found only on the females, are mildly toxic to humans but relished by bluebirds, cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, catbirds, thrashers, goldfinches, mourning doves, wild turkeys, and bobwhite quail, all of which distribute the seeds. The wood, used for such items as tool handles, piano keys, and violin pegs, is hard, close-grained, and, even in the center, ivory white. Boughs of wild trees are occasionally sold commercially for Christmas decorations, but some states have proscribed the practice. Cultivars with names like Maryland Dwarf, Old Heavyberry, and Jersey Princess are readily available at nurseries. If you plant seedlings, be sure to include at least one male or you’ll be without berries.


3 |Partridge in an … Apple Tree

The ruffed grouse (a.k.a. “partridge”) is the continent’s most widely distributed upland game bird, occurring in 38 states and all 13 Canadian provinces and territories. At this season it is very possible to find one “in a pear tree,” though you’re more likely to find one or several in or under an apple tree, feasting on the longer-lasting fruit. In winter ruffed grouse grow “snowshoes”—toe protrusions that resemble hemlock needles. After a snowfall, look for their tracks in secret, forgotten places like overgrown orchards, aspen thickets, and old pastures rank with juniper and hawthorn. You’ll hear the thunder of their wings. And, if there’s at least eight inches of snow on the ground, be prepared for one to burst out of it inches from your face. The bird’s wariness makes it an especially challenging quarry for hunters, but this is learned behavior. Before the nation was heavily settled ruffed grouse were known as “fool hens.” In those days grouse dogs weren’t the light-treading, finely bred pointers of today. They were mongrels that treed the birds, then sat underneath barking until the hunter arrived. The prescribed method was to shoot the whole covey one by one, starting at the bottom so the survivors wouldn’t be spooked by the sight of a falling comrade. John James Audubon, who held grouse to be the best of all wild table fare, had only limited success with this method, never getting past three or four birds.


4 |Not Even a Mouse

The Allegheny woodrat, threatened or endangered in more states than any other American rodent, is holding its own in West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky but has been extirpated from Connecticut, New York, and large parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland. The name is unfortunate because this cousin of the white-footed mouse is distinctly unratlike, sharing no close blood ties with the reviled and alien Norway rat from which it is easily distinguished by its furred tail, large eyes and ears, long whiskers, white belly, and rabbit-soft fur. While we enjoy imported chestnuts, Allegheny woodrats are finding none because of a blight that has all but wiped out the American species, once an important part of their natural diet. And acorns, another important part, have been reduced by gypsy-moth defoliation, especially on the high, rocky ridges where woodrats abide and where oaks are naturally stressed. Finally, Allegheny woodrats, also called “pack rats,” collect objects such as bottle caps, bullet casings, coins, and animal droppings, which can be laden with parasite eggs. Raccoons, proliferating on human garbage, host a species of roundworm that they can deal with but that can be fatal to woodrats. For Allegheny woodrats every winter is brutal. But if you share habitat with them, you can help them through by collecting and distributing acorns, beechnuts, hickory nuts, and even some of your Christmas chestnuts.


5 |Bulbs and Tinsel

Evergreen decorations far outdate Christmas. To celebrate the solstice and renewal, the Romans, Druids, and Vikings decked their abodes with evergreen boughs. Germans started using whole trees in the 16th century, but the custom was late to arrive in the New World. Pilgrim governor William Bradford called it a “pagan mockery.” And as recently as 1851, Pastor Henry Schwan of Cleveland was excoriated and even threatened by his parishioners for decorating what is believed to be the first Christmas tree seen inside an American church. It is a sad irony that the Fraser fir, grown commercially across much of the eastern part of North America as one of our most popular Christmas trees, has a tiny native range. Not only is its natural habitat restricted to the cold, moist highlands of Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia, it is being devastated by an alien pest—the balsam woolly adelgid.