Bighorn sheep living in the Rocky Mountains weigh up to 280 pounds, but they can climb on ledges only two inches wide at altitudes above 10,000 feet. With amazing vision, they can spot predators a mile away in the thin air, and they can evade them by leaping across 20 foot gaps from one ledge to another.
The hooves of bighorns are hard on the outside and soft on the inside to help them grip the rocks.
You can track the seasons by observing how they move throughout their steep terrain. The sheep spend warm months on rocky slopes and cold months in the valleys.
The geometry of bighorn sheep is unique. When they go up cliffs, they move in a "Z" shape as they go diagonally to reduce the steepness of the climb.
Their other fascinating geometric fact is the shape of their horns, curling outwards in a loop like surreal earrings or a Princess Leia hairstyle gone wild.
The horns of males can be up to 36 inches in diameter when measuring from the outside edge. Females also have horns. They are 8 to 10 inches long with a small curve. The head and horns of a male can weigh up to 30 pounds. Both male and female bighorn sheep never lose their horns.
During breeding season, the horns become all-important. Males, who usually travel in small groups of other males, move in with herds of females. They then fight to establish dominance. They charge at each other from distances of up to 30 feet. The sound of the horns crashing can be heard up to a mile away.
This showy behavior contrasts with the subsequent quiet birth of the gentle lambs. Females pick remote, rocky, inaccessible and narrow ledges to serve as cribs for the first week of the lambs' lives. After only 4 days, the lambs begin to taste grasses, weeds, and shrubs.
Female lambs remain with their mothers for all of their lives. Females travel in small herds of 5 to 15, including mothers and other lambs. During the winter, the herds may increase to up to 100 sheep.
There are three main subspecies of bighorn sheep: desert bighorns, California/Sierra bighorns, and Rocky Mountain bighorns.
All three groups have to cope with a lack of water. The sheep can stay 20 miles away from water. They can drink as infrequently as once a week, and when they do find a good water source, they can drink 20% of their body weight at one time.
As a response to the sheep's need for water, concerned people have set up guzzlers in deserts near bighorn populations. Guzzlers are water troughs constructed to minimize evaporation and to maximize the capture of rain. When there is no rain, they send in trucks with water. This tactic has helped desert bighorn populations.
A traffic jam gave us the opportunity to see bighorn sheep up close. Along I-70 near Georgetown, CO, there are numerous places to spot bighorn sheep. However, it is obviously difficult to do so if traveling at the speed limit. When construction work was going on there last April, I was able to scan the rocks slowly, and soon I saw the majestic silhouette of a male bighorn sheep.
Another good place to try to spot them is from the Starbucks Coffee shop right off the I-70 interstate east of Georgetown, CO. There are signs posted in the outdoor seating area about how to look for the sheep.
Given the number of bighorn sheep and also mountain goats that I saw along I-70, I wonder if the construction of the highway actually enhanced the habitat? I would imagine that constructing the freeway required exposing the rocky cliff wall.
One thing that surprised me when viewing the sheep was that they spent so much time sitting down (you have to scan relatively low along the rocks). Later in my research, I found that the sheep spend time reclining and chewing their cud. So although you are looking for a large animal, aim your binoculars low. The silhouette is so outrageous when you do find one, that it is unmistakable.
To me, the bighorn sheep's ability to live and triumph in inaccessible, rocky places is a symbol of wildness. The Shoshone Indians highly prized the ability to track and hunt bighorn sheep. I am not in favor of recreational hunting, but this hunting was, of course, for sustenance. They created bows and spoons out of the horns.
Above I have posted a photograph of a possible bighorn sheep from a red-rock petroglyph site in Moab, UT. Apparently, there are many petroglyphs of the sheep in the basalt rock of the Coso Mountains of California, including even one of an unborn lamb within a pregnant mother sheep.
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