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Character of the Species

 Native American Nations | Extermination of the American Bison                    


The buffaloes rank amongst ruminants.-With the American people, and through them all others, familiarity with the buffalo has bred contempt. The incredible numbers in which the animals of this species formerly existed made their slaughter an easy matter, so much so that the hunters and frontiersmen who accomplished their destruction have handed down to us a contemptuous opinion of the size, character, and general presence of our bison. And how could it be otherwise than that a man who could find it in his heart to murder a majestic bull bison for a hide worth only a dollar should form a one-dollar estimate of the grandest ruminant that ever trod the earth? Men who butcher African elephants for the sake of their ivory also entertain a similar estimate of their victims.

With an acquaintance which includes fine living examples of all the larger ruminants of the world except the musk-ox and the European bison, I am sure that the American bison is the grandest of them all. His only rivals for the kingship are the Indian bison, or gaur (Bos gaurus), of Southern India, and the aurochs, or European bison, both of which really surpass him in height, if not in actual balk also. The aurochs is taller, and possesses a larger pelvis and heavier, stronger hindquarters, but his body is decidedly smaller in all its proportions, which gives him a lean and "leggy" look. The hair on the head, neck, and forequarters of the aurochs is not nearly so long or luxuriant as on the same parts of the American bison. This covering greatly magnifies the actual bulk of the latter animal. Clothe the aurochs with the wonderful pelage of our buffalo, give him the same enormous chest and body, and the result would be a magnificent bovine monster, who would indeed stand without a rival. But when first-class types of the two species are placed side by side it seems to me that Bison americanus will easily rank his European rival.

The gaur has no long hair upon any part of his body or head. What little hair he has is very short and thin, his hindquarters being almost naked. I have seen hundreds of these animals at short range, and have killed and skinned several very fine specimens, one of which stood 5 feet 10 inches in height at the shoulders. But, despite his larger bulk, his appearance is not nearly so striking and impressive as that of the male American bison. He seems like a huge ox running wild.

The magnificent dark brown frontlet and beard of the buffalo, the shaggy coat of hair upon the neck, hump, and shoulders, terminating at the knees in a thick mass of luxuriant black locks, to say nothing of the dense coat of finer fur on the body and hindquarters, give to our species not only an apparent height equal to that of the gaur, but a grandeur and nobility of presence which are beyond all comparison amongst ruminants.

The slightly larger bulk of the gaur is of little significance in a comparison of the two species; for if size alone is to turn the scale, we must admit that a 500-pound lioness, with no mane whatever, is a more majestic looking animal than a 450-pound lion, with a mane which has earned him his title of king of beasts.

Change of form in captivity. - By a combination of unfortunate circumstances, the American bison is destined to go down to posterity shorn of the honor which is his due, and appreciated at only half his worth. The hunters who slew him were from the very beginning so absorbed in the scramble for spoils that they had no time to measure or weigh him, nor even to notice the majesty of his personal appearance on his native heath.

In captivity he fails to develop as finely as in his wild state, and with the loss of his liberty he becomes a tame-looking animal. He gets fat and short-bodied, and the lack of vigorous and constant exercise prevents the development of bone and muscle which made the prairie animal what he was.

From observations made upon buffaloes that have been reared in captivity, I am firmly convinced that confinement and semi-domestication are destined to effect striking changes in the form of Bison americanus. While this is to be expected to a certain extent with most large species, the changes promise to be most conspicuous in the buffalo. The most striking change is in the body between the hips and the shoulders. As before remarked, it becomes astonishingly short and rotund, and through liberal feeding and total lack of exercise the muscles of the shoulders and hindquarters, especially the latter, are but feebly developed.

The most striking example of the change of form in the captive buffalo is the cow in the Central Park Menagerie, New York. Although this animal is fully adult, and has given birth to three fine calves, she is small, astonishingly short-bodied, and in comparison with the magnificently developed cows taken in 1886 by the writer in Montana, she seems almost like an animal of another species.

Both the live buffaloes in the National Museum collection of living animals are developing the same shortness of body and lack of muscle, and when they attain their full growth will but poorly resemble the splendid proportions of the wild specimens in the Museum mounted group, each of which has been mounted from a most careful and elaborate series of post-mortem measurements. It may fairly be considered, however, that the specimens taken by the Smithsonian expedition were in every way more perfect representatives of the species than have been usually taken in times past, for the simple reason that on account of the muscle they had developed in the numerous chases they had survived, and the total absence of the fat which once formed such a prominent feature of the animal, they were of finer form, more active habit, and keener intelligence than buffaloes possessed when they were so numerous. Out of the millions which once composed the great northern herd, those represented the survival of the fittest, and their existence at that time was chiefly due to the keenness of their senses and their splendid muscular powers in speed and endurance.

Under such conditions it is only natural that animals of the highest class should be developed. On the other hand, captivity reverses all these conditions, while yielding an equally abundant food supply.

In no feature is the change from natural conditions to captivity more easily noticeable than in the eye. In the wild buffalo the eye is always deeply set, well protected by the edge of the bony orbit, and perfect in form and expression. The lids are firmly drawn around the ball, the opening is so small that the white portion of the eyeball is entirely covered, and the whole form and appearance of the organ is as shapely and as pleasing in expression as the eye of a deer.

In the captive the various muscles which support and control the eyeball seem to relax and thicken, and the ball protrudes far beyond its normal plane, showing a circle of white all around the iris, and bulging out in a most unnatural way. I do not mean to assert that this is common in captive buffaloes generally, but I have observed it to be disagreeably conspicuous in many.

Another change which takes place in the form of the captive buffalo is an arching of the back in the middle, which has a tendency to make the hump look lower at the shoulders and visibly alters the outline of the back. This tendency to "hump up" the back is very noticeable in domestic cattle and horses during rainy weather. While a buffalo on his native heath would seldom assume such an attitude of dejection and misery, in captivity, especially if it be anything like close confinement, it is often to be observed, and I fear will eventually become a permanent habit. Indeed, I think it may be confidently predicted that the time will come when naturalists who have never seen a wild buffalo will compare the specimens composing the National Museum group with the living representatives to be seen in captivity and assert that the former are exaggerations in both form and size.

Mounted Specimens in Museums. - Of the "stuffed" specimens to be found in museums, all that I have ever seen outside of the National Museum and even those within that institution up to 1886, were "stuffed" in reality as well as in name. The skins that have been rammed full of straw or excelsior have lost from 8 to 12 inches in height at the shoulders, and the high and sharp hump of the male has become a huge, thick, rounded mass like the hump of a dromedary, and totally unlike the hump of a bison. It is impossible for any taxidermist to stuff a buffalo-skin with loose materials and produce a specimen which fitly represents the species. The proper height and form of the animal can be secured and retained only by the construction of a manikin, or statue, to carry the skin. In view of this fact, which surely must be apparent to even the most casual observer, it is to be earnestly hoped that here no one in authority will ever consent to mount or have mounted a valuable skin of a bison in any other way than over a properly constructed manikin.

From photograph of group in National Museum.
Engraved by R. H. Carson.
Buffalo Cow, Calf (Four Months Old), and Yearling

The Calf. - The breeding season of the buffalo is from the 1st of July to the 1st of October. The young cow does not breed until she is three years old, and although two calves are sometimes produced at a birth, one is the usual number. The calves are born in April, May, and June, and sometimes, though rarely, as late as the middle of August. The calf follows its mother until it is a year old, or even older. In May, 1886, the Smithsonian expedition captured a calf alive, which had been abandoned by its mother because it could not keep up with her. The little creature was apparently between two and three weeks old, and was therefore born about May 1. Unlike the young of nearly all other Bovidć, the buffalo calf during the first months of its existence is clad with hair of a totally different color from that which covers him during the remainder of his life. His pelage is a luxuriant growth of rather long, wavy hair, of a uniform brownish-yellow or "sandy" color (cinnamon, or yellow ocher, with a shade of Indian yellow) all over the head, body, and tail, in striking contrast with the darker colors of the older animals. On the lower half of the leg it is lighter, shorter, and straight. On the shoulders and hump the hair is longer than on the other portions, being 1˝ inches in length, more wavy, and already arranges itself in the tufts, or small bunches, so characteristic in the adult animal.

On the extremity of the muzzle, including the chin, the hair is very short, straight, and as light in color as the lower portions of the leg. Starting on the top of the nose, an inch behind the nostrils, and forming a division between the light yellowish muzzle and the more reddish hair on the remainder of the head, there is an irregular band of dark, straight hair, which extends down past the corner of the mouth to a point just back of the chin, where it unites. From the chin backward the dark band increases in breadth and intensity, and continues back half way to the angle of the jaw. At that point begins a sort of under mane of wavy, dark-brown hair, nearly 3 inches long, and extends back along the median line of the throat to a point between the fore legs, where it abruptly terminates. From the back of the head another streak of dark hair extends backward along the top of the neck, over the hump, and down to the lumbar region, where it fades out entirely. These two dark bands are in sharp contrast to the light sandy hair adjoining.

The tail is densely haired. The tuft on the end is quite luxuriant, and shows a center of darker hair. The hair on the inside of the ear is dark, but that on the outside is sandy.

The naked portion of the nose is light Vandyke-brown, with a pinkish tinge, and the edge of the eyelid the same. The iris is dark brown. The horn at three months is about 1 inch in length, and is a mere little black stub. In the male, the hump is clearly defined, but by no means so high in proportion as in the adult animal. The hump of the calf from which this description is drawn is of about the same relative angle and height as that of an adult cow buffalo. The specimen itself is well represented in the accompanying plate.

The measurements of this specimen in the flesh were as follows:

Bison Americanus. (Male; four months old.)
(No. 15503, National Museum collection.)

  Feet Inches
Height at shoulders 2 8
Length, head and body to insertion of tail 3 10˝
Depth of chest   1 4
Depth of flank    10
Girth behind fore leg  3 ˝
From base of horns around end of nose  1
Length of tail vertebrae   7

The calves begin to shed their coat of red hair about the beginning of August. The first signs of the change, however, appear about a month earlier than that, in the darkening of the mane under the throat, and also on the top of the neck.26

By the 1st of August the red hair on the body begins to fall off in small patches, and the growth of fine, new, dark hair seems to actually crowd off the old. As is the case with the adult animals, the shortest hair is the first to be shed, but the change of coat takes place in about half the time that it occupies in the older animals.

By the 1st of October the transformation is complete, and not even a patch of the old red hair remains upon the new suit of brown. This is far from being the case with the old bulls and cows, for even up to the last week in October we found them with an occasional patch of the old hair still clinging to the new, on the back or shoulders.

Like most young animals, the calf of the buffalo is very easily tamed, especially if taken when only a few weeks old. The one captured in Montana by the writer, resisted at first as stoutly as it was able, by butting with its head, but after we had tied its legs together and carried it to camp, across a horse, it made up its mind to yield gracefully to the inevitable, and from that moment became perfectly docile. It very soon learned to drink milk in the most satisfactory manner, and adapted itself to its new surroundings quite as readily as any domestic calf would have done. Its only cry was a low-pitched, pig-like grunt through the nose, which was uttered only when hungry or thirsty.

I have been told by old frontiersmen and buffalo-hunters that it used to be a common practice for a hunter who had captured a young calf to make it follow him by placing one of his fingers in its mouth, and allowing the calf to suck at it for a moment. Often a calf has been induced in this way to follow a horseman for miles, and eventually to join his camp outfit. It is said that the same result has been accomplished with calves by breathing a few times into their nostrils. In this connection Mr. Catlin's observations on the habits of buffalo calves are most interesting.

"In pursuing a large herd of buffaloes at the season when their calves are but a few weeks old, I have often been exceedingly amused with the curious maneuvers of these shy little things. Amidst the thundering confusion of a throng of several hundreds or several thousands of these animals, there will be many of the calves that lose sight of their dams; and being left behind by the throng, and the swift-passing hunters, they endeavor to secrete themselves, when they are exceedingly put to it on a level prairie, where naught can be seen but the short grass of 6 or 8 inches in height, save an occasional bunch of wild sage a few inches higher, to which the poor affrighted things will run, and dropping on their knees, will push their noses under it and into the grass, where they will stand for hours, with their eyes shut, imagining themselves securely hid, whilst they are standing up quite straight upon their hind feet, and can easily be seen at several miles distance. It is a familiar amusement with us, accustomed to these scenes, to retreat back over the ground where we have just escorted the herd, and approach these little trembling things, which stubbornly maintain their positions, with their noses pushed under the grass and their eyes strained upon us, us we dismount from our horses and are passing around them. From this fixed position they are sure not to move until hands are laid upon them, and then for the shins of a novice we can extend our sympathy; or if he can preserve the skin on his bones from the furious buttings of its head, we know how to congratulate him on his signal success and good luck.

"In these desperate struggles for a moment, the little thing is conquered, and makes no further resistance. And I have often, in concurrence with a known custom of the country, held my hands over the eyes of the calf and breathed a few strong breaths into its nostrils, after which I have, with my hunting companions, rode several miles into our encampment with the little prisoner busily following the heels of my horse the whole way, as closely and as affectionately as its instinct would attach it to the company of its dam.

"This is one of the most extraordinary things that I have met with in the habits of this wild country, and although I had often heard of it, and felt unable exactly to believe it, I am now willing to bear testimony to the fact from the numerous instances which I have witnessed since I came into the country. During the time that I resided at this post [mouth of the Tetón River] in the spring of the year, on my way up the river, I assisted (in numerous hunts of the buffalo with the fur company's men) in bringing in, in the above manner, several of these little prisoners, which sometimes followed for 5 or 6 miles close to our horse's heels, and even into the fur company's fort, and into the stable where our horses were led. In this way, before I left the headwaters of the Missouri, I think we had collected about a dozen, which Mr. Laidlaw was successfully raising with the aid of a good milch cow."27

It must be remembered, however, that such cases as the above were exceptional, even with the very young calves, which alone exhibited the trait described. Such instances occurred only when buffaloes existed in such countless numbers that man's presence and influence had not affected the character of the animal in the least. No such instances of innocent stupidity will ever be displayed again, even by the youngest calf. The war of extermination, and the struggle for life and security have instilled into the calf, even from its birth, a mortal fear of both men and horses, and the instinct to fly for life. The calf captured by our party was not able to run, but in the most absurd manner it butted our horses as soon as they came near enough, and when Private Moran attempted to lay hold of the little fellow it turned upon him, struck him in the stomach with its head, and sent him sprawling into the sage-brush. If it had only possessed the strength, it would have led us a lively chase.

During 1886 four other buffalo calves were either killed or caught by the cowboys on the Missouri-Yellowstone divide, in the Dry Creek region. All of them ran the moment they discovered their enemies. Two were shot and killed. One was caught by a cowboy named Horace Brodhurst, ear marked, and turned loose. The fifth one was caught in September on the Porcupine Creek round-up. He was then about five months old, and being abundantly able to travel he showed a clean pair of heels. It took three fresh horses, one after another, to catch him, and his final capture was due to exhaustion, and not to the speed of any of his pursuers. The distance covered by the chase, from the point where his first pursuer started to where the third one finally lassoed him, was considered to be at least 15 miles. But the capture came to naught, for on the following day the calf died from overexertion and want of milk.

Colonel Dodge states that the very young calves of a herd have to depend upon the old bulls for protection, and seldom in vain. The mothers abandon their offspring on slight provocation, and even none at all sometimes, if we may judge from the condition of the little waif that fell into our hands. Had its mother remained with it, or even in its neighborhood, we should at least have seen her, but she was nowhere within a radius of 5 miles at the time her calf was discovered. Nor did she return to look for it, as two of us proved by spending the night in the sage-brush at the very spot where the calf was taken. Colonel Dodge declares that "the cow seems to possess scarcely a trace of maternal instinct, and, when frightened, will abandon and run away from her calf without the slightest hesitation. When the calves are young they are always kept in the center of each small herd, while the bulls dispose themselves on the outside."28

Apparently the maternal instinct of the cow buffalo was easily mastered by fear. That it was often manifested, however, is proven by the following from Audubon and Bachman:29

"Buffalo calves are drowned from being unable to ascend the steep banks of the rivers across which they have just swam, as the cows cannot help them, although they stand near the bank, and will not leave them to their fate unless something alarms them.

"On one occasion Mr. Kipp, of the American Fur Company, caught eleven calves, their dams all the time standing near the top of the bank. Frequently, however, the cows leave the young to their fate, when most of them perish. In connection with this part of the subject, we may add that we were informed, when on the Upper Missouri River, that when the banks of that river were practicable for cows, and their calves could not follow them, they went down again, after having gained the top, and would remain by them until forced away by the cravings of hunger. When thus forced by the necessity of saving themselves to quit their young, they seldom, if ever, return to them. When a large herd of these wild animals are crossing a river, the calves or yearlings manage to get on the backs of the cows, and are thus conveyed safely over."

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Source: The Extermination of the American Bison, 1886-’87, By William T. Hornaday, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1889

Extermination of the American Bison


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