Treats for Santa’s Reindeer?

Treats for Santa’s Reindeer?

Treats for Santa’s Reindeer?

7 minute read –

What will you leave out for Santa on Christmas eve? Milk and cookies are a classic (in North America anyway, I was surprised to find that traditions vary dramatically around the world).

But more importantly. What do you plan to leave out for Santa’s reindeer?

We have a recommendation, and it’s not what you’d expect. You can skip to the bottom to find out, but you’ll miss several fascinating and well-reasoned tangents.

First things first – why would the Yukon Wildlife Preserve be qualified to make suggestions about the diet of Santa’s reindeer?

1. Caribou and Reindeer aren’t so different

What’s the difference between caribou and reindeer?

Reindeer can fly!

Jokes aside, caribou and reindeer are VERY similar. They are actually considered the same species, rangifer tarandus. Although there are more than a dozen sub-species and ecotypes. These sub-species or ecotypes are grouped (or separated) by differences in:

  • genetics
  • morphology (what they look like)
  • movement and life history (what they do), and
  • distribution (where they live)

We use “Caribou” to refer to North American sub-species/ecotypes. And we use “Reindeer” to refer to most of the sub-species/ecotypes found in the circumpolar regions between Greenland and Russia.

In Canada, COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) splits up Caribou into “designated units” for conservation purposes. The Yukon is home to three of those:

  • Barren Ground Caribou (includes the Porcupine caribou)
  • Northern Mountain population of Woodland Caribou (includes Southern Lakes Caribou, Chisana, Finlayson and other herds). 
  • Boreal population of Woodland Caribou (just 100-200 caribou found east of the Peel river on the Yukon/NWT border)

The Preserve’s caribou are part of the Northern Mountain Caribou population of Woodland Caribou. They originated from the Chisana and Finlayson herds.

In the future, rangifer tarandus might get split into a number of different species to better reflect differences, but I digress. 

And who’s to say Santa hasn’t been using Caribou all this time? After all, Canada’s most northern caribou subspecies, the Peary Caribou, are definitely in contention for the glamorous title of “northernmost subspecies of rangifer tarandus”.

Peary Caribou in the arctic.

Now that we have the whole caribou vs reindeer thing out of the way (for now), we need to learn more about what they eat.

2. What do Caribou Eat in Wild?

We all know caribou eat lichen. But as you now know, that’s not all they eat! In fact lichen alone probably wouldn’t be enough for a caribou to survive. 1Line 61-62,

Biologists have figured out two ways to learn more about what caribou eat:

  1. Watch what they put in their mouths;
  2. Examine, very carefully, what comes out the other end.

I know which job I’d prefer.

Actually, that second option is way cooler than you’d think. It turns out that as ruminants, caribou digest their food so well that looking at scat isn’t enough (even with a magnifying glass). You have to look really really closely. Researchers from Trent University used DNA metabarcoding. Basically, little bits of DNA from the food they eat end up in the scat! 

The researchers use some new technology to sequence thousands of bits of DNA and compare them against the DNA sequences of known plants. That allows scientists to see the proportions of different plants. By using captive caribou (from Riverview Park and Zoo in Peterborough – one of our CAZA colleagues) they know that not everything they eat ends up resulting in intact-enough DNA in the scat. But it certainly gives you a good idea of some of the important foods. In this case, these caribou on the north shore of Lake Superior ate a lot of Maple, dogwood and Yew. 2

Now back to the “watch what they put in their mouths”. Until relatively recently, this was pretty difficult. It’s tough to watch caribou (from a distance) and see which species they eat. But in the last decade biologists have started using caribou neck cameras!3 One of the most recent neck camera studies was done just last year on the Forty Mile Caribou Herd (which ranges between Yukon and Alaska).

Researchers collected more than 5000 video clips (amounting to 14 hours of video) and spent 370 hours figuring out what the caribou were eating.4

They sure do eat a lot of different stuff!

They also analyzed fecal samples. They were able to identify 12 species from fecal samples, but more than 60 species of plants using the video clips. They found that the Forty Mile caribou ate “shrubs in summer to accumulate fat, because of their relatively high digestibility…” They also ate leafy plants, grasses, mosses and mushrooms! But lichen was always the majority of what they ate.

Okay, so caribou have pretty complex diets. But what would make for a tasty treat? Luckily we have lots of first hand experience at the Preserve!

3. Not just any snack will do

Caribou are ruminants. That means they have multi-chambered stomachs like cows. They actually ferment foods in their rumen. This helps break down challenging food sources like leaves, grasses, lichens, and more. That fermentation means ruminants are very sensitive to sugary foods. With too much sugar, fermentation can go wild, creating a frothy, gassy mess. In extreme cases that can cause a condition called bloat, which can easily kill a ruminant.

All that to say, “treats” like apples or other sweet fruits are risky. Keep those sweet treats for Santa and focus on a healthy snack for his caribou. But not just any healthy snack. If only it were that easy! 

4. Caribou are picky eaters

We’ve had caribou at the Preserve for more than 30 years. Let us tell you: caribou are picky eaters.

For example, the caribou actually pick through the hay-alfalfa blend we feed them and pick out the higher protein alfalfa and leave the hay behind.

But alfalfa isn’t enough by itself. We also need other reliable, healthy food sources for our caribou.

Rebecca spotting deer, in layered clothing to blend into the vegetation - Cora Romanow

Caribou at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve. Photo by Jake Paleczny.

In the early 2000’s Our Veterinarian Dr. Maria Hallock worked with an animal nutritionist to design the perfect caribou pellet. The problem is that most commercially available feed pellets are designed to quickly fatten up farm animals. We needed a healthier option – a source of food that would give caribou all the nutrients they need, but would also be healthy.

By lab testing lichen, Dr. Maria and the nutritionist found that lichen is mostly water and non-starcheous carbohydrates. Potatoes, corn, beets, broccoli, and apples have lots of carbohydrates. But the carbohydrates in beets, broccoli and apples don’t have as much starch as potatoes and corn. Sugar just isn’t as easily accessible in non-starcheous carbohydrates. 

They created 9 different pellet formulas for testing. Some versions were a bit too tasty, others were very expensive to make. The version they wanted to go with relied on beet pulp as a key ingredient. But the caribou wouldn’t eat it! By tweaking the blend  between alfalfa and beet pulp, they were able to find a cost effective, healthy pellet (with the right balance of protein, fibre, minerals and amino acids) that the caribou would actually eat.

But believe it or not, alfalfa AND the super-duper-special pellets aren’t quite enough top notch health. As a result Dr. Maria also supplements the alfalfa and pellets with:

  • Fruit and vegetable pulp (Thank you Booster Juice at the CGC!) but only the apple, beet and carrot pulp – they won’t touch anything else!
  • Truckloads of leafy willow and aspen branches delivered daily by our staff all summer long.
  • And mushrooms (and sometimes lichen) collected by our Nature Camp kids, supporters and staff.

“They LOVE mushrooms” says Dr. Maria. “They don’t get lichen very often, but when we’ve had camp kids collect some for them, they don’t even hesitate, they go for it right away. Even the ones that haven’t tried lichen before!”

Caribou eating mushrooms at YWP

Okay, so I may have digressed a bit. Let’s recap. 

  1. Stay away from the sugary treats 
  2. Caribou like their non-starcheous carbohydrates
  3. Caribou really like mushrooms

5. The Perfect Snack for Santa’s Caribou

We’ve explored caribou and reindeer taxonomy, we’ve looked at the research and consulted with Dr. Maria. So where does that leave us? 

If you’re going to leave a treat for Santa’s reindeer this Christmas, we recommend: mushrooms, alfalfa sprouts, carrots, or beets (although they may not eat all the beets). 

Merry Christmas!

Jake Paleczny

Jake Paleczny

Executive Director

Jake Paleczny is passionate about interpretation and education. He gained his interpretative expertise from a decade of work in Ontario’s provincial parks in addition to a Masters in Museum Studies from the University of Toronto. His interests also extend into the artistic realm, with a Bachelor of Music from the University of Western Ontario and extensive experience in galleries and museums.


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Bou, the caribou who flew

Bou, the caribou who flew

Bou, the caribou who flew

5 min read / poem

Bou, the caribou who flew

The caribou is just the same
As reindeer, just another name

Why 2 names, I hear you cry?
Well, only reindeer can fly

Santa bestowed a magic gift
That gave reindeer enchanted lift

Bou, the caribou would roam
Across the snow around her home

Keen to learn & keen to know
Miles across the land she’d go

She watched the trees, she watched the sky
Watched as other animals passed by

One night as she was on her way
She came upon a giant sleigh

A man in red traversed the ground
A herd of reindeer stood around

What was wrong? mused Bou, then saw
A set of antlers on the floor!

“Oh what to do, oh my, oh my!
Without your antlers, you cannot fly!”

The man in red seemed most upset
Bou swallowed hard & up she crept

“Excuse me” said a nervous Bou
“Is there something I can do?”

“Without his horns, he cannot fly”
The man replied with heavy sigh

“The magic antlers aid his flight.
How can we solve this awful plight?

With so many gifts still on the sleigh
What will disappointed children say?”

Then, on spotting Bou’s antlers, said
“Why you can help us out instead!”

“But I can’t fly” young Bou retorted
“My magic will soon get that sorted”

Said the man to startled Bou
“I’m Santa Claus, how do you do”

Pulling a bag from his cloak of red
He sprinkled dust over Bou’s head

Her antlers tingled, then Bou found
Her body lifting from the ground.

“Good las “ said Santa. “We need to go.
Gifts to deliver, don’t you know”

Bou joined the reindeer & looking round
Watched the sleigh lift off the ground

“The antler-less reindeer must remain here
He will rejoin us, when new ones appear”

So off into the night, excited Bou flew
Delivering gifts with his reindeer crew

The children were happy, none of them knew
That Bou was the first caribou who flew

• • •

Photo of moose in water.

The Story Behind the Poem

“My husband & I visited the Preserve in Fall 2021 & the lovely gentleman who drove the tour bus was explaining about how caribou & reindeer are the same thing. Then, as we had children in the group, he suggested the the difference between reindeer & caribou was the ability of reindeer to fly ☺️ He then told us about Bou, the rescued caribou, who was flown in adding, “so I guess she was a caribou who flew!”

This comment made me laugh & inspired me to compose a Christmas rhyme, based on “Bou, the Caribou who flew”

Poem and message by Diane Gregory.

• • •

Photo of staff giving moose oxygen.

The Story of Bou – the magical caribou

Bou the Caribou was flown to the Preserve as a tiny calf from the Chisana Herd in 2005. During this time, there was efforts protecting this herd from dramatic population decline from unprecedented calf predation. The efforts to improve calf survival was tested through maternal penning. When Bou was born her mother did not produce milk and Bou was at risk of death. Bou was brought to the Preserve’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre via helicopter – a special flight for this very special caribou!

On December 25th, 2021 Bou passed away. She was absolutely a magical creature and the timing of her passing only reiterated this. We are touched by this incredible poem shared with us by Diane.

• • •

Randy & Dr. Maria Hallock with Bou the Caribou from the Chisana herd. 2005
Lindsay Caskenette

Lindsay Caskenette

Manager of Visitor Services

Lindsay joined the Wildlife Preserve team March 2014. Originally from Ontario, she came to the Yukon in search of new adventures and new career challenges. Lindsay holds a degree in Environmental Studies with honours from Wilfrid Laurier University and brings with her a strong passion to share what nature, animals and the environment can teach us.


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Yukon Wildlife Preserve
Box 20191
Whitehorse, Yukon
Y1A 7A2

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Face to Face With the Wild: Kids

Face to Face With the Wild: Kids

Face to Face With the Wild: Kids

5 minute read 

Yukon Kids

It’s a warm and sunny Wednesday in July. After driving past Jesse the moose, some handsome sheep, and innumerable little squirrels I step off the bus with 22 eager campers following. We’re just about to head out for a little walk. But then… I catch one little camper frolicking around in her bare feet.

“Jasmine! Where are your shoes?”

“Shoes?! I don’t need those: I’m a Yukon kid!”

Campers sometimes teach the instructors at YWP school programs.

Sometimes it’s the campers who teach us educators about their favorite plants and animals.

Hidden Kids

On a normal trip to the Preserve it’s easy to get lost in our own experiences. After all, how can you not? When you see golden sunshine through the grass; when you and the little muskox lock eyes; or when one of our guides tells a chilling story. These experiences are what we come for, but we aren’t the only visitors here.

The Yukon Wildlife Preserve sees over one thousand students and campers come through our doors every year. Winter and spring school programs, Swan Haven programs, March Break Nature camp, and summer nature camps are all in our calendar. The Wildlife Preserve has its own department dedicated to bringing enriching and educational experiences to Yukon youth. As an outdoor educator this what first brought me to the Preserve, and it’s also one of the things that I think makes the Preserve a very special place.

Unfortunately, the public doesn’t often get to hear about all of the incredible experiences we offer students and children. If you, like me, are a little too old to attend these wonderful programs I’m here to tell you that you’re also in luck! I’ve done all the running around – the booger wiping, rule giving, question answering, and “yes, you can go pee”ing – so you don’t have to. Join me as I take a walk down Memory Lane, looking back at this last year with our Education team. But be prepared to take chances, make mistakes, get messy. So let’s tie up our shoes and get Face to Face with: The Wild Kids of the Yukon.

Kids holding up moose antlers outside in the snow.

A happy student trying on their new favorite hat.

Time to Plan

Though our ears are still ringing from a summer full of campers, it’s a very different story in our office this time of year. Our Manager of Education and Programming sits quietly and plans for the year to come.

‘Have we sent all the thank-you cards?’

‘How many more plastic animals do we need to buy?’

‘Where do I even buy a plastic muskox?’

We ruminate at length on these pressing topics. After all, one missing muskox now may break the heart of a muskox-loving little boy eight months later. And so, slowly, we debrief the past year and plan into the next.

Cool Kids

​February comes creeping up and at this point we (Education and Programming) are a very tiny snowball at the top of a very large hill. Our winter programs are the little kick that gets us going. A modest start to a full year of programming. This time of year, our programs focus on winter ecology and cold weather adaptations.

With a sizeable (750-acre) classroom, we bring students along our trails in order to teach through hands-on experience and keen observation. So, let’s throw on our jackets with the grade sevens and head out for our famous February caribou program!

Students have a positive close encounter with one of our bull caribou.

Campers getting a special experience with one of our caribou bulls.

March Break

​Slowly, March comes crawling along. By this time, we’re feeling ready for the busy spring and summer seasons. We have our programs all neat and tidy, but the Preserve has turned a somber shade of winter. We’re all aching for something: A little sunlight, some warm weather, a hot cup of cocoa… or, some more students! Last year’s March Break Nature Camp hosted 10 campers, a real VIP experience.

Though we do plan and structure the days, it’s the campers who really have the final say in the day’s events. We want our campers fully engaged, so we try our best to tailor the camp to their interests. If that means spending some extra time with the caribou then we throw on an extra layer, step into the enclosure, and get a closer look at our campers’ favorite ungulates.

Kids doing outdoor experiential programming in the outdoors in Yukon.

Educator Erin Cartan taking her campers to the Gunnar Nilsson & Mickey Lammers Research Forest.

We Talk Swan

As the snow starts to melt and the sun starts to burgeon it’s a HONK, of all things, that prompts our first drive out to Swan Haven. Working with the YG Department of Environment we move our operations to Marsh Lake and start talking Swans with grade two, three, and five classes at the beginning of April.

After our education team gets a Swan Masterclass from bird biologists Jukka Jantunen and Margaret Campbell, we welcome hundreds of students to share the joy of birding with some of our favorite feathered friends. Together we tell the story of Yukon swans, look through scopes to observe their behaviours, play dress-up, and make our own mock-migration. We do all this in hopes of fostering respect and appreciation for all Yukon wildlife.

Swan Costume for Swan Haven Programming

Manager of Education and Programming, Madison Rushton, trying out our new and improved swan suit.

The Ball Gets Rolling

Though the snow on our peaks is slowly melting by early May, the snowball we call ‘Education and Programming’ is growing both in size and speed. It’s now time for our Spring Programs! Life is waking up and starting to buzz here on the Preserve. Together with the students we try to find each and every little buzz, bumble, and sign of life. Our Yukon-famous benthic macroinvertebrate studies (a.k.a. lookin’ for bugs in the pond), large scale Predator vs. Prey game, and animal charades are crowd pleasers amongst the little ones. Lots of fun and games for these students, and they haven’t the slightest clue they’re actually learning.

Once that’s all over, snow is the last thing on anyone’s mind. But, our ‘Education and Programming’ snowball is reaching its crescendo with the YWP Summer Nature Camps! It’s all hands on-deck at this point; three wildlife educators, nine weeks of camp, and nearly two hundred campers. The whirlwind that ensues is filled with a tremendous amount of fun. Fishing, barbecues, forts, flower picking, popsicles, dress-up, story time, nap-time, camp-time, and eventually, home-time are all to be expected.

At last, our ears ringing from nearly seven months of outdoor education and nature programming, we pat each other on the back and have our own well-deserved nap-time. But don’t forget, once we’re ready to open our eyes and stretch our arms, we get to do it all over again!

Students dip-netting for all the bugs and critters they can find.

Students dip-netting for all the bugs and critters they can find.


Though working with children can be exhausting it’s also extraordinarily rewarding. Moments of growth in our students fuel us educators with energy and inspiration. And the best part? We’re learning just as much from them as they do from us.

While teaching at the Preserve I often think back to my own outdoor education experiences as a child. Downtown Toronto certainly offered less opportunities than the pristine boreal, but the richness of those experiences was all the same.

Now that I think about it, I remember one particular experience at the Toronto Island Nature School. We were playing a game of Predator vs. Prey and I felt like the luckiest boy. I had the opportunity to play my favorite animal; the wolf. I ran under a bush, prepared myself, and waited eagerly for the game to start. TWEEEET went the whistle and THUMP THUMP went my feet.

“Seth! Where are your shoes?”

“Shoes?! I don’t need shoes, I’m a wolf!”

Seth Brown

Seth Brown

Visitor Services Coordinator

Passionate about the environment, art, and education, Seth has been working as an environmental educator since 2017. Off the preserve, you can find him playing in the mountains; on skis in the winter and with a paddle in the summer. Having moved to the Yukon and joined the preserve in April 2022, he’s excited to learn and explore!


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