Vail Daily column: In the name of love
January 19, 2013
To impress the ladies, everyone has their own approach. Some do it with their intellectual prowess, while others rely on their witty humor. Some show off their sweet skills on skis and mountain bikes to gain attention, while others dress in fine clothing to turn heads or apply cologne to stimulate a lady’s olfactory senses. While humans do a variety of things to gain the attention of a potential mate, the natural world is no different. Some animals have beautifully colored feathers to turn a lady’s head, while others develop intricate dances to impress. Other species of birds build elaborate nests and show off their home-building skills. And finally, some animals, such as elk in the rut, go the cologne route, except their cologne happens to be urine. Apparently, this also attracts the ladies helping a bull elk grow his harem.
As in the human world, some animals have a more violent approach. Perhaps you have witnessed an altercation between two men, who may or may not have had too many adult libations, break out over a lady. Imagine two people running full throttle at one another only to tuck their chins down and ram into each other’s heads to win the hand of a lady. Luckily, this is something we do not see often among humans (hopefully); however, it is very prevalent in the animal kingdom. In fact, Colorado’s state mammal is the primary culprit. That is right, bighorn sheep are known for their rather violent ways in the name of love. Well, I suppose in the name of furthering the gene pool is slightly more accurate.
Bighorn sheep are named for the large curved horns of rams that are used for both dominance and mating rites. Rams’ horns grow their entire lives and can weigh up to 30 pounds. This weight is more than all of the other bones in their bodies combined. The horns are made of keratin (what our fingernails are made of) that is deposited each year around a boney core. You can roughly determine a ram’s age by counting the number of rings on the horn. Females, or ewes, also have horns; however, theirs are much shorter and tend not to be as curved.
Bighorn sheep live in segregated social groups. Rams and ewes only meet to mate, so ewes tend to live in herds with other females and their young. Rams live in bachelor groups in a relatively peaceful manner, until the fall mating season when they become more aggressive to earn the right to mate. Typically, only older and stronger rams with the largest horns are afforded this right. When challenging another ram, the opponents establish a standoff space as the two square up. They charge toward one another at speeds up to 20 mph and rear up on their hind legs. They then drop their front legs down hurling their horns into each other. The clash of the horns can be heard up to a mile away. Bouts between opponents can last several hours until one ram falls or submits and walks away. Although the rams have a very thick and bony skull to prevent injury, it is not fool proof. These bouts can be bloody and sometimes result in broken horns or concussions.
Winning a bout is not even a sure thing. Ewes can be very selective in choosing a mate and may employ evasive maneuvers if the courting ram is not suitable to her tastes – even if he did just win the battle. If the reigning male is suitable to the ewe, lambs are born in the spring on high, secluded ledges protected from most predators such as coyotes and mountain lions. Golden eagles are the most concerning predator to the lamb, as the secluded ledge does not protect against this soaring bird of prey. Young sheep walk soon after birth and join the herd after one week.
Bighorn sheep can be spotted on rocky and steep high mountain terrain filled with grasses and low shrubs, especially near Georgetown. You may see them resting on inaccessible cliffs, although their expert camouflage makes them hard to spot. In the fall, keep your eyes peeled for rams battling each other for the affection of the ewes. While this is usually a successful method for sheep, I am not sure how effective it is amongst humans, so I recommend sticking to the wining, dining and wit!
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Beth Garrison is the youth programs director at Walking Mountains Science Center. When she is not out researching bouting rams, you can find her playing in the snow on skis.