Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Bison Birth

Cow and Calf bison, but not the ones described in this post.

I had a totally different post planned ….. but, the big BUT, my desktop is in the repair shop.  Not sure when I’ll get it back.  But I have all the ingredients for this post on our laptop.  Here is another peek of our time in Yellowstone National Park this spring.  

May 4, 2014 - YNP

The afternoon is windy and spitting rain.  At least it isn’t snow.  About 3:30 PM we are heading down the ’S Curves’ when I spot a bison cow with a large cantaloupe balloon of placenta.  A birth!  Dale swings the car around at the next turn-around and drops me off on the way back.  
Burrr!  The wind goes right through me, but it’s dues worth paying if I’m going to see a birth.  In the short time between the original sighting and my jumping out, the placenta has burst.  Water streams out plus a dribble of placenta.  
By the time Dale drives by me again I realize there is just enough shoulder for one car.  What luck!  We can safely get off the road and both watch from the car.  
There are four other cows with this one, all seemingly indifferent to what is going on.  ‘Our’ cow is thin.  Many of the bison are showing the stresses of a hard winter.  Their hips stick out; ribs show even under their winter coats.  
We wait and watch.  The cow is antsy, but quiet.  Before long we see the front leg hoofs of the little calf.  The tips of the hoofs are creamy white, followed by dark, dark feet …. but the little hoofs don’t seem to be making much progress.  The cow lays down for awhile, even stretches her head flat on the ground; then twists around as if to see what is going on.  Slow.  It seems too slow.  I recently read that a bison gives birth in about 20 minutes.  This bison hasn’t read the manual. 
Up.  Down.  Up.  Down.  At first just a nose and now the whole head and front legs are out.  but then nothing happens.  Time moves so slowly.  Is this going to be another failed birth?  Years ago we watched a birth for two and a half hours.  We finally left when we knew the calf was dead but not yet born.  Our only consolation was that we learned later that at least the cow survived. 
Finally we see the cow is making progress.  We’ve only been watching half an hour, but it seems far longer.  She is back to standing.  The calf’s head and legs start slowly slipping out.   It’s a fairly gentle drop since the placenta keeps the calf from dropping with a thud.  

The calf is totally limp.  My heart is in my throat.  Is he alive?  Did I see movement?

The cow is licking the calf — head first.  rough licks nudge the calf.  And then I see a little kick!  Yes.  He is moving.  
Over the next five minutes she licks and placenta off the little guy and eats it.  At first it looked as though the calf was packed in a plastic sack.  Now more and more dark hair shows and the calf starts moving more — a little lift of his head — another kick.  The cow keeps on licking and gradually the wet hair takes on the burnt orange cast typical of bison calves.  

He is trying to make those legs work, only they are made out of silly putty.  He gets his hind legs up, but the front ones are still bent.  Using his nose as a fifth leg doesn’t seem to help.  

He topples over, legs flailing.  It takes several tries before he has four tripod legs holding him up.  Not for long!  Down he goes again, but he is getting better at managing those long wobbly sticks.  
When the calf finally has a little control he knows enough to want to nurse, but where?  First he tries Mama’s neck, but that doesn’t work.  Then he gets between her hind legs and walks out behind.  That’s not working either.

Before the first nursing the cow lays down for a brief rest.  Her calf totters over and flops himself over her front legs.  So sweet!

The cow soon stands again.  Finally the little fella gets a drink.  All is well. 

The next morning I spot five cows with one calf on the same slope.  I feel sure it’s the calf we watched.


  1. Elva, this was a wonderful post. So neat that you got to see it and the baby and mama were all right. Those last two photos are just precious.

  2. Wow..great's all about being in the right place at the right time. Sweet pix. I hope they are getting fattened up now it's summer.

    1. oops! I just entered as a comment instead of a reply. What I was trying to say is that I learned today that Yellowstone has been getting plenty of summer rain ..... so the bison should be fattening up just fine.

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  4. Oh my gosh! This is better than watching "Nature" on TV! Amazing photography!

    - Tina

  5. Wonderful photo and story sequence! Can feel your anxious anticipation and urge to help when you know you can't! Agree with Tina that this is better the Walt Disney, too!

  6. What a great experience to see and be part of! And such a cute little guy…hard to believe they grow up to be such hairy brutes!

  7. Amazing photos! And a lovely story! I enjoyed watching your photo gallery much!