CRAACK! When you’re in the Rocky Mountain West and it’s November or December and you hear that sound there is no need to hit the ground thinking you just heard some gunfire. It’s just a pair of male bighorn sheep having a head-to-head encounter during mating season to show which one is more dominant.
Unlike deer and elk which have antlers they can lock together to push each other around, bighorns have a large curled horns they use to ram into each other. And if you are out somewhere and hear it, don’t think you‘ll find them just around the corner. The sound of their head-banging can be heard up to a mile away.
What’s interesting about watching a pair of bighorns taking part in dominance display is how they interact with each other prior to and after they bang heads. While elk and deer will do everything in their power to keep their rivals away from the area, chasing them away as soon as they see them, bighorns will tolerate other males in the area and even among their herd. It’s not rare to see a couple of herds get together and spend a morning grazing the same meadow.
When two rams get together you never know when they might decide to go head-to-head. You can see the two standing next to each other nibbling on grasses for a period of time, paying no attention to each other, then all of a sudden they will rear up and run into each other. Then, just a couple of seconds later they will go back to standing peacefully next to each other grazing.
When a couple of groups get together and the dominant rams start butting heads, it’s fun to watch the youngest rams try to imitate the adults. Like their elder brethren, they will be standing next to each other grazing and then one will look at the other and the next sight of them is their banging heads. Unlike the older rams, who need to get some space between them to build up momentum before their head-butting, the young rams only need a couple of feet of space.
It is not uncommon for mating groups to band together. They band together now, and throughout the year, in order to give themselves added protection from predators. The only difference between the groupings during mating season and throughout the rest of the year is that there are mature rams present during mating season. Once the rut is over and the rams separate, several family groups will group together with as many as 15 to 20 ewes, immature rams and lambs traveling and foraging together. The young rams will leave to join bachelor groups when they reach the age of three.
When the summer season arrives, the bands are continually on the move, but usually on well-marked trails they have used year after year. Seasonally, you can determine where the sheep will be by altitude. During the winter (after the rut) you can find large groups in meadows and valleys. As winter turns to spring, the males will leave for higher ground with the females following shortly after. Their movements will follow a variety of phases determined by snow levels, lambing season and the need for mineral licks.
The groups of males are smaller than the bands the females and young form. Even when the rams gather, they will often break out into smaller groups based on a dominance hierarchy. However, this can cause problems. When a somewhat lesser ram wants to raise its status a little bit it will join a smaller group where it will have a greater opportunity for leadership. But, in doing so, it will feed less efficiently, as sheep in small groups spend more time scanning the area for predators instead of concentrating on feeding.
Diet – Bighorns are grazers and browsers eating primarily grasses and sedges. They will also browse a variety of plants and herbs. During the spring and summer you can find them at mineral licks and ponds rich in salt and other minerals.
Horns – A fully mature ram’s horn can weigh up to 30 pounds. While bighorns in the wild can reach the age of 15, a full-curl can be reached by eight years of age. They have a double cranium with an inch of spongy material between to cushion the shock of butting heads.
Courtship – Ewes take an active role in courtship. They will fend off the attempts of young males and seek out the large rams. Ewes will mate with several different rams during the rutting season, but will only be impregnated when they are in full estrus. Typically a ewe, even one in estrus, will try to avoid a male that is pursuing her. They engage in a somewhat lengthy “chase” before she relents and lets the ram breed her.
Predation – Their main predators include mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, bears and golden eagles. Their primary response is to flee to higher, rocky terrain, but larger rams may turn to fight lone coyotes. Lambing period poses the greatest threat to bighorns. Even when lambs are hidden on rocky ledges, golden eagles still take a large number of the young.
Spotting and Photo Tips – When you are in areas where bighorn sheep are present the best thing to do is scan the hillsides looking for their white rump patch. Their tawny color causes them to blend into their environment. During the rut, photo possibilities include lip curling by the rams as they sniff the air for signs of ewes being ready. Posturing between rams provide excellent behavior images. You can see one ram walking up to another and putting its head into the rib area of the other. If you’ve been working a group that has been eating and they decide to sit down and chew their cud, you can go for a drive or hike as they will do this for quite a while once they settle down.
Hot Spot – KooKooSint Sheep Viewing Area in the LoLo National Forest, Montana. Good up-close viewing of bighorns is available here as close to 100 of them gather here in the March-May and November-December time frames.
To reach the area go east along State Hwy. 200 about eight miles outside of Thompson Falls. Sheep can be found for several miles on either side of the viewing area. For additional information on the area you can contact the U.S. Forest Service at (406) 826-3821.
By Andy Long