Watching a bighorn dance down a nearly vertical wall can take your breath away. Drop to an invisible knob of rock, hold there for a split second, turn slightly and drop to another nearly invisible ledge, turn again on one hoof and find yet another place for hoof and balance to work with and against gravity. With hooves built for walking or running on rock, hard bony outer ridge protecting an inner softer pad , grips, wedges and holds the dancer going up or down. Bighorns, like cats, can turn in midair to land on their feet.
The best time to watch bighorns moving through their landscape is late fall, early winter. This is when ewes and lambs of the year along with 2 and 3-year-old rams gather on traditional breeding areas, a small part of the wintering grounds. The bigger rams arrive soon after. These mature rams have spent the summer together on high terrain, grazing on rich meadow grasses and testing one another in dominance displays. A big full curl ram may not have to do much to reinforce his position as dominant, dropping and turning his head to show off his massive horns may be all it takes to keep younger, smaller rams from taking him on. Through horn displays, a foreleg kick or butting heads, rams position themselves for the ongoing battles that will win mating rights during the rut. A more gentle side to all of this is when a young, small ram will initiate a contact display. He will approach the dominate ram and gently bump horns or rub the face or muzzle. It is thought that a contact display tells the dominate ram that the younger defers to his dominance.
The wind is cold, coming down canyon, ice has formed on the slow edges of the river. Water murmurs and glitters across gravel flats and crashes off boulders that have fallen from the gorge walls. The light is hard and bright from the sun low above the granite wall. A scrub jay calls from the brush behind me in the colder shadows. Across the river the bighorns are browsing across a sunny, grassy slope.
Two rams seem very interested in a ewe that must be coming into estrus. Ewes are not interested in rams in general and when being pursued by a ram will make him work for the right to breed with her. So a dominant ram not only must chase a ewe up and down the craggy terrain but battle one or more other rams that are equally interested in the ewe. Hard work on a cloudy frigid day. With coats of hair (not wool) that insulate against mountain cold all that running on a warm fall day takes a toll on the rams.
A larger ram may have the upper hand in head to head confrontation with a lesser but determined challenger, but younger, faster, more agile may win the ewe. Even so, dominant rams sire about sixty percent of lambs. The prevailing ram will first separate a ewe that is coming into estrus and in a maneuver called tending, will closely guard the ewe so no other ram can get close to her.
Smaller rams that confront a larger dominant ram will use the landscape to try to even the playing field. A big ram may weigh around 250 pounds or more and a full curl set of horns could weigh 20 pounds. A smaller ram will try to use elevation to give more momentum to his attack and rather than go head to head may try knocking the bigger ram off his feet by slamming into his hindquarters. Occasionally this works well enough to give the lesser ram enough time to breed the ewe.
The horns and thickened skull along with the massive neck muscles of bighorn rams protects them from the shock of impact. That jolt can be as much as a ton of force and usually stuns the combatants for a few seconds after impact. Two evenly matched rams may battle for many hours to win the right to breed the majority of ewes. I have observed 3 large 3/4 curl or better rams contest for over 8 hours. By the end I could detect no clear winner.
Rarely do rams die from these battles but injuries can happen. Noses are broken, an eye can be lost to an errant horn and horns can be shattered. The impact that breaks a horn can be fatal if the brain case is broken as well.
A small band of sheep graze through dry straw-colored grass below reddish cliffs banded with brown. High clouds cool the earlier sunny weather. Two small half curl rams seem to be dominating a larger 3/4 curl ram, a closer look proves that it is true, the larger ram has but one horn and is unable to defend himself. Hard to know how long ago this ram sustained such an impact that one horn is broken into a stump. Nor how he survived something that would kill most sheep. Kind of sad to see a big vigorous ram in his prime being chase off by smaller rams that would not even challenge him under normal circumstances.
Bighorn sheep during the rut are more approachable than much of the charismatic wildlife photographers pursue, that only means that they are less prone to run from a careful approach that keeps you below them. Even so, long glass is needed, we use a 200-400 zoom or a 500mmF4 and add a teleconverter if needed. Late fall weather can be fickle, sunny warm days can morph into snow and wind with temps near zero making photography difficult, make that miserable, but the quarry is worth getting through the challenges. Some days sitting by the fire may be a viable choice.
Bighorns are scattered throughout the mountain west, the subspecies known as the desert bighorn is found in lower, drier areas of the southwest. Incredible vistas, really fresh air and the crashing of bighorns sorting out the winners and losers of this never-ending pageant make this a must-do experience. Come, spend the time, learn the rhythms, no matter the images captured, this is an adventure that can test but also enthrall.