Skip to main content
Listen To Article

The good people of our village Rotary put up a Christmas light display every year and I selflessly volunteer my services in policing their deer iconography.  

I blame Pious Petunia for pointing out that our holiday deer iconography is somewhat confused. It’s important to get this right.

As we all know, Christmas is first among all holidays because of the central role that deer (reindeer) play in the Christmas story (sleigh-pulling etc.).  Appropriately then, this giant plywood reindeer has claimed pride of prominence at Rotary’s holiday display, and I’ve complained for years to my patient (ha!) family that the good people of Rotary put the antlers on backwards! Carol wrote them a letter once (to placate me) and for several years they had the antlers on correctly – but for several years now they’ve removed the antlers altogether! 

There are 47 species of deer world-wide but only the white-tailed deer and its spin-offs (mule deer, black-tailed deer) have antlers where the main beam twists and projects forward over the skull. All other deer have antlers whose main beams sweep backward from the skull. Reindeer are domesticated caribou – hence backward-sweeping main antler beams.

Even the Grinch knew enough to tie the fake antlers on his dog (Max) with main beams projecting backwards. You’d think that our village would have the good sense to entrust its Christmas-deer iconography to someone with at least the deer knowledge of a cartoon whatever-the-Grinch-is! I mean red-nose and all it’s obviously a reindeer (Rudolf!).

If they should read this, my consulting fee is modest.

This year, there are no antlers at all and the red nose is missing. So what’s the iconography? Is it a female reindeer? If so, the Rotary is still wrong because female reindeer HAVE ANTLERS. They’re the only deer that do. Is it a family scene? Doubtful. There are seven small deer at her feet and the scale is wrong. No deer has seven offspring, the record for the over-achieving white-tailed deer is five (ask me how I know).

Moreover, the phenology doesn’t make sense. Young deer would not be this small heading into winter. Moreover again, the antlers on the smaller deer are the back-swept *Cervus* variety, not *Odocoileus*, and certainly not *Rangifer* (and no fawns of any species have branched antlers).

Looks to me the seven smaller deer are venerating the large white Venus-figure female as, maybe, an idol in some pagan deer fertility bacchanal (buckanal?). 

I’ve always had my suspicions about those Rotary folks.

Perhaps I am too harsh. Evidently, a mental disease causes people to project the characteristics of the white-tailed deer onto other deer species as evidenced by the patriotic moose statue in St. Ignace with the antlers on backwards (one would think that Yoopers would know better).

Over on Main Street, a white-tailed deer stand-in for a reindeer is delightful Wisconsin kitsch, but for the love of tinsel, how does a cheesehead get the antlers on backward? These are, after all, the very deer you see regularly in your headlights. Act like you’ve been here before. 

And I am reminded of the wildlife-caution sign I saw in a remote part of southwestern China (the big muppet looking thing on the upper left corner of the sign is a Takin).  Note the white-tailed deer profile in the yellow caution sign. I understand that but for opposable thumbs and the invention of bratwurst that white-tailed deer would be the most important animals in the history of life on earth, but you could drive several lifetimes in Eurasia and the probability of hitting anything with that antler configuration is approximately zero – to several decimals! 

However, as comedian Charlie Berens says, “Watch out for deer” is Midwestern for “I love you.” So maybe the sign has a more universal meaning.

Being the top scientist that I am, I will selflessly give this antler-confusion malady a name: ***Odocoileus Antler Transference Dysmorphia syndrome***.  And it’s time to raise awareness. I’ll be contacting the publishers for an entry in the Psychologists’ Desk Reference but until then you may all simply cite “T. Van Deelen, personal communication.” if you need to refer to it formally.

I am setting up a pay-pal account to begin fighting the tragedy of OATD syndrome. Please give generously.

And watch out for deer.

Phenology: the timings of cyclical or seasonal biological events, such as migrations, egg laying, flowering, and hibernation.
Odocoileus: genus of the white-tailed deer, mule deer and spin-offs.
Cervus: genus of elk/red deer (same thing), sika deer and other old-world varieties.
Rangifer: genus of caribou and reindeer
Takin: also called cattle chamois or gnu goat, is a large species of ungulate of the subfamily Caprinae found in the eastern Himalayas.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    Love it, a perfectly deer way to begin my day since I am forbidden to eat anything for about 8 more hours and I need productive ways to divert my attention away from hunger.

  • Laura de Jong says:

    This is so excellent. Many thanks.

  • Thanks Tim – this was a fun read! Forwarding to my son (botanist in the forest service) and daughter (PhD candidate at OSU in environmental history).

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Is it just me, or does the Rotary de-antlered reindeer look more like a greyhound? Or perhaps they are (finally) honoring Max, for his noble role in the Grinch redemption story?

  • Karen Ophoff says:

    …Laughing all the way! 😂😂

  • Don Tamminga says:

    Fun read. Reminds me of Paul Harvey years ago who told the story of an elderly gal in upper Michigan who asked that the deer crossing sign in her front yard be moved because so many deer where getting hit and ending up in her yard. “Good Day” T

  • Jack Ridl says:

    In college I had but one creative writing course. On the first day, the professor said, “Here is my grading system: C if you make me think, B if you make feel/care, A if you make laugh.”

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    HOW DO YOU KNOW? We all want to hear the story of the quintuplets!
    And now can we make up a term for actors who fake string-playing badly in TV/movies? Thank you.

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      Peer review! Check out this seminal bit of sciencing: Van Deelen, T. R., P. Kaiser, M.A. Watt, and S. R. Craven. 2007. Quintuplet fetuses from a white-tailed deer in Wisconsin. American Midland Naturalist 157: 398-400.

      Want a reprint?

  • Leanne Van Dyk says:

    Oh my. Laugh out loud delightful – I’m with Jack Ridl- straight A!!

  • Gloria McCanna says:

    What a great read to end the day. Thank you. 😃

  • Kandice says:

    Your so funny Karen!

Leave a Reply