Feb 17, 2011

Caribou and the Barren-Lands

by George Calef

One of those oversize, coffee-table books full of large, beautiful photographs that I picked up at a library sale once just because it seemed a shame to leave it there!

Caribou and the Barren-Lands is mostly about survival of these animals in Northern Canada and Alaska. How the deer manage to live in the harsh northern environment; the land covered with snow much of the year, six months of winter, nights on end with barely any light at all in the depths of it. At every season it seems they have something to struggle against- the cold and deep snow of winter, the maddening onslaught of insects in summer, the energy-sapping frenzy of the fall rut that coincides with hunting pressures by man. And yet they still roam the tundra in countless thousands. I found myself educated out of a few misconceptions, particularly at the end of the book when it discusses how caribou herds have been affected by man. One preconception I had was that caribou mostly eat lichens; that's not true. They eat a wide variety of plants, and could not survive on lichens alone. Another idea was that wolves only kill the sick and weak deer, keeping the herds healthy. Studies have shown that wolves are capable of and often kill healthy calves; there are also quite large herds that remain  healthy in areas where wolves have been exterminated. Yet another was that habitat encroachment in the form of roads, pipelines, etc. would adversely affect the caribou herds. More threatening to them (at least when this book was written) is overhunting made extremely easy by modern weapons and aircraft.

The book is organized in a manner I haven't seen before, each section (describing in order the migration, calving time, summer aggregations, the fall rut, and winter survival) begins with a narrative describing typical events. In the calving section it tells of a female caribou leaving the herd to give birth, and how she first cares for and bonds with her calf. In the autumn section it begins describing a hunt from the viewpoint of a native hunter, then moves into the behavior of a particular bull sparring with other bulls and seeking females. After each narrative are a few more pages delving into purely factual information, ecology, behavior patterns, etc. I rather liked this setup. I'm more used to non-fiction animal books either being just all facts, or narrative with the facts wedged in. This was a bit different, and refreshing.

I thought at first the caribou were rather dull creatures: they seem to walk around a lot, search for food, sleep and that's it. But the more I read about them the more I was intrigued by their survival skills; like why they choose certain areas to bear their calves and travel so far to get there, or why only pregnant females keep their antlers through the entire winter. They're a lot more interesting than you might think!

Rating: 3/5 ........ 176 pages, 1981

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