Rocky Mountain Bighorns battle in dance of procreation
Walking down a familiar wooded path, a large Rocky Mountain Bighorn ram, about 6-feet tall, suddenly blocked the trail. He stopped abruptly, staring piercingly into my eyes. I glanced away and slowly backed up. He didn’t move forward but stood his ground guarding the path, and I breathed a little easier. For this big fellow, though, the afternoon had just begun.
We earlier observed Bighorn rams coming down from the summer mountains, wandering in packs of four to six and of various ages. More ewes were seen as the separate female herd casually meandered into the valley’s open meadows and up craggy rock walls munching grass and bushes.
In contrast, the confrontational ram blocking the trail walked quite purposely. He began to move forward, then swirled around to face another unseen ram coming up the trail behind him. The two rams walked toward each other like Old West gunfighters, then slid close to each other in a dance-like, more martial-arts, twirl.
Separating again, they came back closer, lurched up on hind legs as if by cue, hooves kicking, and lunged, their big 50-pound horns cracking together, resounding across the valley.
They backed off slightly, paused, and stared at each other – probably waiting for the little birdies to fly away and the blinking stars to fade. They then walked past each other again like medieval knights readying for another jousting run.
Fall is the season to establish dominance in the ram social hierarchy in a grueling process to attract ewes and mate. Rocky Mountain Bighorns, heavier than Asian and desert bighorn species, weigh from 160 to 250 pounds – some hitting 300 pounds. Each band of rams establishes its dominance rankings by these head-butting battles. Higher-ranking rams do most of the breeding.
The bighorn battle we saw continued for four or five hours into the hot afternoon until, worn out, the rams stopped for a break then walked away together.
The battles are part of three primary breeding strategies. The most common and successful is what biologists call “tending.” A ram selects an estrous ewe and follows and protects her, but it takes a lot of strength and vigilance as other rams also may want to tend her.
Coursing is when a ram challenges another ram who is tending an ewe. However, It might be like a narcissistic player at a popular pub, as ewes don’t always respond well to coursers.
Some rams may try “blocking” ewes from other rams, like a jealous lover who won’t let his
girlfriend go to town. However, this preemptive initiative doesn’t always work over time.
The mating battles begin when rams are about 7 years old. Rams live nine to 14 years, ewes 10 to 14 years.
Colorado’s state animal isn’t easy to find, so stumbling upon one and enjoying ringside seats to a championship fight will always be a remembered thrill. Related to antelopes, bison, and buffalo, these stately bovines are magnificent creatures whose imperial power defines strength, agility, and perseverance.
These attributes and the symbolism of rams have mystical appeal, too, particularly in the sense of vigor, creativity, and atonement sacrifice.
Jews use ram horns as shofars – trumpets of announcement, warning, and calls to repentance. They sound the shofar to begin Rosh Hashana, a 10-day period of reviewing personal relationship to God and spiritual awakening at the beginning of a new year. The shofar is used in many other Jewish ceremonies and secular milestones, and increasingly is seen as part of Christian celebrations in deference to Old Testament and Jewish Talmud writings and prophecies.
Usually, sheep are seen as passive followers, but Bighorn sheep contradict this stereotypical metaphor. The images of rams and ram horns as kingdoms are depicted in Christian and Jewish eschatology, not to mention marketing for big Dodge trucks.
Being close to these wild beasts in battle is a captured cog in time revealing how far away we really are to true rhythms of life – even our cognitive grasp of reality in a digital age.
See Decoding the Shofar.
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