Nature Connection #19 – Baby Buffalo! i.e. Bison Calving

The natural world is full of cycles. The cycle of the seasons, the cycle of the moon, the cycle of the Earth traveling in its orbit around the sun. And then there is the cycle of birth and new life. For many species in the wild, that natural cycle includes mating in the late summer, and birthing in mid-Spring. We are now in the time of birthing. If you live in or near a rural community, you may have noticed new calves, new lambs, new colts. And one of the most amazing things to see this time of year is a new bison (commonly called buffalo) calf.

The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is the premiere location in this part of the country to see the new spring crop of bison. The preserve, located north of Pawhuska in Osage County, offers miles of roads to drive through. Chances are that you will see herds of bison traveling with their young as they search for the best new grass to graze on.

By way of explanation, bison is the proper scientific name for buffalo. The only ‘real’ buffalo is the water buffalo from Asia. Our American bison are an entirely different species. The use of the name ‘buffalo’ in North America is believed to have come from the word used by the French to describe this animal, beouf (pronouced buff).

It is estimated by scientists that prior to 1830 as many as 30 to 70 million buffalo roamed freely over North America, migrating annually to find the best grasses. They could be found grazing from central Canada to Texas, and from the Rockies to the Appalachian Mountains. This animal provided not only food, but materials used to make all sorts of things for members of the Native American tribes.

Due to excessive hunting by ‘new’ Americans in the 1800s, the numbers of bison plummeted to only about 1,000 animals by 1900. Thanks to efforts by early conservationists who saw the importance of the largest grazing animal found naturally in North America, these remaining animals were placed in preserves and zoos. Today, thanks to active breeding programs, there are many huge ranches where bison are raised. Annual auctions take place, and bison meat – a leaner alternative to beef – is sold in many grocery stores and restaurants.

The following passages, taken from “A New Generation of Bison” in A Journey for All Seasons, published by The Nature Conservancy in 2000, provides a great description of the spring miracle of bison births.

“The calves begin to appear in mid-April each year. They arrive slowly at first, their gawky legs and ruddy coats standing out against the dark, solid masses of their mothers. Each day, the preserve staff spots a few more and by the end of May, most of the herd’s…cows have calved.

“A bison calf is quite precocious, able to keep up with its mother less than an hour after birth. In the first few moments of life, however, the fifty- to seventy-five-pound calf lies helpless on the prairie as its mother hovers nearby, licking the newborn clean and encouraging it to stand with gentle nudges. Rising up for the first time on shaky legs, the calf takes its first, wobbly steps as it searches for its mother’s teat. The young bison will gather strength quickly, and within a few hours he and his mother will rejoin the herd.

“Though the bulls prefer to travel alone, the cows and their young travel together in congenial herds for most of the year. The bulls can grow to two thousand pounds and stand six and a half feet tall at the shoulder; the cows grow to one thousand pounds. Bison can eat as much as fifty pounds of forage (mostly grasses) a day each, and they depend wholly on the prairie grasslands for food.”

Speaking from my own personal experience, there is no thrill like seeing your first little “red” bison calf in the spring. Frollicking among the herd of bison, the young ones play like any young thing, chasing each other, butting their mothers, leaping into the air just because they can.

Take a minute this spring to connect with a young bison at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. Just remember to stay in your car at all times. Bison mothers can be very protective of their young!

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