Zoo Investigates Flying Reindeer

If you see flying reindeer on Christmas Eve this year, don’t keep it to yourself.  The Oregon Zoo wants to know.

Zoo director Kim Smith has issued an appeal to sky watchers to share details of their observations — time of day, altitude, weather conditions and so forth — on the zoo’s online report site: www.oregonzoo.org/flyingreindeer.

“Our understanding of this phenomenon continues to improve as new data pours in each year, during the reindeer’s December 24 migration,” Smith said.

“If I’m correct, flying reindeer aren’t reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) that fly, but a subspecies (Rangifer tarandus santi) that have evolved to fly,” she said. “The only question is how.”

Zoo public-relations director Bill LaMarche tipped me off about the Smith’s interest in flying reindeer in an email earlier this week.

LaMarche told me that Smith has been studying birds for clues into how this reindeer subspecies manages to stay aloft. I inquired further.

“Earlier in my career, I served as curator of birds at the Milwaukee County Zoo,” Smith said. “Naturally, they sprang to mind when I began to consider flying reindeer.  In particular, I started thinking about California condors, which can weigh close to 30 pounds.”

California condor

To keep airborne, Smith said, these enormous birds rely on thermals: rising columns of air created when the sun warms the earth’s surface. 

The zoo director acknowledged that reindeer fly almost exclusively at night, when there are no thermals.  But she added: “Many of the documented sightings I’ve studied indicate some similar flight-friendly conditions may be helping this reindeer subspecies along.”

Smith cited a late-19th-century eyewitness account, A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement C. Moore, as “a fascinating field report.”

“His first inclination was to compare the reindeer with eagles, which of course are specially adapted for riding thermals,” she said.

Smith said she finds Moore’s description of the deer ascending to the roof to be revealing:

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,

When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;

So up to the house-top the coursers they flew.

“I’m a biologist, not an English professor,” Smith said. “But if I understand these lines correctly, Moore saw these reindeer riding upward on a current of air. It’s much the same at the end of his account, when the deer all fly away like the down of a thistle.”

Over the past decade, LaMarche told me, the Oregon Zoo has been a national leader in the study of flying reindeer. He added that former zoo director Tony Vecchio was one of several respected scientists, zoologists and Arctic explorers who consulted on the 1996 book Flight of the Reindeer by Robert Sullivan, an editor for Life magazine.

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