A Buffalo Herd In The Early Fall, Ernest Thompson Seton

(This is an excerpt from Life-Histories of Northern Animals by Ernest Thompson Seton. Published in 1910, Seton chronicled the lives of 60 species in a massive two-volume work including ecological and behavioral information and innovations such as range maps. Given the limitations of the blog format, I am presenting only a small part of what he wrote about each animal. I have applied very light editing in a few instances.)

Bison bison (Linnæus). French Canadian: le Bison. Cree & Ojib: Mush-kwe-tay ’-pe – ee-kee (prairie horned-beast). Chipewyan: Ed-jer ‘- ay. Yankton Sioux: Tah- tank-ka Coh-wa ’-pee . Ogallala Sioux: Tah-tank’-kah (bull ), Ptay (cow).

(Pg. 258) In 1882, when first I went to live in Western Manitoba, the prairie everywhere was dotted with old Buffalo skulls. Many had horns on them, but none had hair. Their condition and local tradition agree in fixing 1860 to 1865 as the epoch when the last Buffalo were killed on the Big Plain.

In the long slough east of Carberry I have found many Buffalo bones; and on August 13, 1899, I found a complete Buffalo skeleton there. No doubt, all the large bogs through out Manitoba contain skeletons of Buffalo that have been mired and engulfed.

Follow The Herd

(Pg. 274) Let us follow one of the herds moving northward to its summer home from the sheltered bottom-lands along the Missouri, in Central Dakota, where it had wintered.

Before there is yet any visible spring in the land the spirit of unrest comes on the animals. It may be that the final touch is given by a warm, sunny day. Some old cow, with a bunch of from 50 to 100 followers, turns her nose northward. Their grunting spreads an epidemic of unrest, and from every valley a long, black string pours forth. As they top the uplands, others and yet others come to view. The general move is northward, but their disposition is to condense into one herd. As night comes down, black and chill, they leave the exposed ridges and shelter in the hollows. Cold weather and more snow may follow, but the impulse to travel possesses them now. Once it is given command, it changes not in force or direction till the re membered pastures are reached. Rivers may cross their path. These, if frozen, are unnoticed; if open, they are swum; if covered with rotten ice, the ice is broken eventually by the weight of the herd, and many are drowned, but the rest swim through and continue their march. An onset of hunters may swerve them for a time, but it does not change their main trend.

For three or four weeks this continues, and the blackening horde comes swarming down the long level prairies of the Red River Valley. Now they are nearing their familiar summer haunts, and the bands which united originally to form the herd, begin to quit that main body. Again some old leader cow sets the example; and, stringing after her, come many cows and yearlings, mostly relatives by blood. Finally come a dozen bulls, mostly relatives by marriage.

The Herd Is A Family

In a broad sense, it will be seen that this small local herd is a family, or rather, a clan. Their leader is always an old cow—there is abundance of evidence for this—doubtless she is the grandmother of many of them. The males remain with the females and take an active interest in the young. Animals know and stay with their personal acquaintances; they resent the approach of strangers; migrants work back to their birthplace; whenever a local band of Buffalo was wiped out, their pasturage remained vacant for years, so it is unlikely that this group is finally scattered during the annual herding. The evidence derived from common range cattle sustains this idea; for, in spite of the annual round-ups which correspond to the annual herding of the Buffalo, we usually find the same little bunch of cattle (easily distinguishable by their marks) on the same feeding-ground season after season. Finally, the Bison is polygamous, or probably promiscuous, so that those living together are sure to be much interrelated, that is, they form a clan.

The Pleasant Days Of Spring

(Pg. 281) In the early spring the life of the herds is pleasant. Weather is bright and warm; insect pests are unknown. Before the snow is quite gone, the crocus or sandflower is greening the plains again, and in a week changing their colour with its teeming bloom; a hundred others follow in quick succession with their rich and succulent growth. The Buffalo grow fatter every day. All the early morning they graze. Toward ten o’clock they lie down and chew their cud; about noon the old cow will arise and march toward the water with the band behind her. She does not go far among the many deep-worn Buffalo trails before finding one which is headed her way. She follows it; the others come stringing along single file behind her. The only exception to the single rank is made by the young calves, which run and frisk along be side their mothers.

It may be miles to the watering place, but the herd marches steadily and with purpose. After all have drunk their fill, they may lie down again in the neighbour hood, or maybe they will wander back to some prairie swell, on whose northern side the sun is a little less warm or the western breeze a little stronger, and there they scatter and lie down for a two hours’ rest, till the herd is reminded of its own growing hunger per haps by some young “spike horn” rising to resume the quest for food. Or, maybe, the final ounce of push that moves the landslide is sup plied even by some little calf, who, desiring drink, uses vigorous means to make his mother take the posture needful to serve him.

Meal Time

I remember once watching a young calf that besought his mother for food by pushing her neck as she lay. She brushed him away with a swing of her head. He tried farther back where, indeed, he could smell the refreshment that he needed; but it was effectively barricaded from him. Again he rubbed and leaned against his mother’s neck in mute appeal; again she mutely said, “Don’t bother me,” and flung him afar with a swing of her massive woolly jowl.

Then did that small calf rise to the emergency in a way that filled me with glee; for, standing just beyond the sweep of mother’s impatient horns, he backed and charged again and again, butting and pounding, with his tiny budding “nubbins” of horns, against her flank—her only tender spot—until she could stand it no longer and leaped to her feet. Now, of object he had in view was easily within his reach; and springing into place, but well forward out of reach of her first impatient but half-hearted kick, he tugged away. The mother’s love was stirred in response, and her forgiveness of him was complete—it arrived, indeed , before his punishment, so that it came not at all.

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