'>
Home > Columns > Bighorn Sheep
NatureSmart Column

Bighorn Sheep

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

January 4, 2017

It was a picture perfect winter day. The sky had a thin veil of clouds that would occasionally spit out large fluffy snowflakes drifting straight down to the ground as if in slow motion. At other times the sun would peak out. The temperature was well below zero and the best part was, there was no wind --calm and quite. 

I had been searching up and down this narrow mountain valley in western Wyoming for several days for Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis). Suddenly I heard a crack that sounded like a gunshot come from the steep rock cliffs above me. A sharp and clear crack which echoed off the valley walls several times before the valley fell silent again. I knew it must be Bighorn sheep. Exactly what I had come to these mountains to see.

Weeks if not months after the elk, moose and deer rut, the Bighorn Sheep have their rut starting in early December.  I have come to the mountains of western Wyoming to capture the grandeur and beauty of these wild sheep as the males battle it out to determine which male (ram) will mate with the females (ewes).

Bighorn sheep are animals of the high mountains and steep canyons. However some have argued that this is only a result imposed by hunting pressures. Historically they ranged from the high mountains into the foothills and well out into the eastern plains.

Sometimes called Mountain Sheep the adult males have large , heavily ridged horns. Yes, technically they are horns and shouldn't be confused with antlers. These horns are permanent and stay on the ram throughout its life. Each horn sweeps backwards and curls forward. The horns on the ram can be useful in determining the age of the male. There is a well defined rib marking for each year of growth. It takes about 7 or 8 years for the horns to curl completely around into what is called a "full curl" ram. These are usually the main breeders.

Often the tips of the horns are torn or broken in a condition called brooming.  I have often wondered how the tips of the horns break since they seem so well protected by the rest of the horn. But while spending a week watching and filming I witnessed many times the rams hooking horns and pushing and pull and putting all their body weight into a heavy-weight shoving match. Many times the two rams, with their horns locked, would run at full speed for short distances dragging one another around before unhooking. No doubt this is when the tips of their horns get damaged.

Over many days I watched small herds of 20 or more ewes and lambs accompanied by one dominant ram. But now and then a small band of large rams would descend out of the mountains seeking the fertile ewes. This is when the challenges and the legendary head butting would take place. The battle of the Bighorns.

One day I came across four large rams. The resident male was trying to defend his females but was being constantly challenged by the other males. One by one the visiting males would approach the dominant male and push up against him. Then, using their front leg, the challenger would kick the belly or many times the groin of the resident ram. This was a clear sign of a challenge to fight. Often times the resident ram would ignore the challenger. After a half a dozen kicks and the challenge accepted the two would slowly back away from each other. Their eyes would bulge as they looked at each other and also cock their heads to the side.

Suddenly the two rams would rear up on their hind legs and charge each other, lowering their heads just before impact.  It all happens in the blink of an eye. The results was always a loud cracking sound as their heads collided together and was so loud it often startled me. Even with my professional camera that captures 14 images per second, I was only able to capture a few frames of action. Over the week, I witnessed only 6 times the rams banging their heads together. Of those times I was able to capture four of the high impact events. What an amazing week with a incredibility cool creature. Until next time...

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist who travels the U.S. to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com

Photo by Stan Tekiela

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

Recent Columns
Most Recent  |  

Pumpkins

It's funny how we hang on to traditions-- especially ancient traditions. Take Halloween for example. Started nearly 3,500 years ago by the Celtic people near Britain, it was a special day set aside to mark the end of the harvest and acknowledge the beginning of the long dark and cold...

Argiope Spider

During the lazy days of summer, nothing in nature seems to be moving or doing much of anything. However, autumn feels like everything in nature is on the move or rushing to preparing for winter. Many of our regular backyard birds have already migrated. Hummingbirds are well on their way to the...

Indian Pipe

There is nothing better than spending a late summer morning walking the woods in search of whatever interesting you can find. Lately I've been out wondering the thick cool forests looking for some mushrooms. I've been successful at find the mushrooms that I am seeking but I also find other...

Mushrooms

Late summer and early fall is the best time for mushrooms. For the past couple of weeks I've been out and about searching high and low for all sorts of mushrooms. I find peace in the simple act of walking in the woods without a specific purpose and being happy with whatever I find.

About...

View all of the titles in the
NatureSmart Bookstore

Check out Stan's latest photos at
NatureSmart Wildlife Images

Wildlife Photography Tours
» More Info

Stan can be heard all across the Midwest.
»More Info