Rocky Mountain bighorns are an easy animal to spot in most of the mountain national parks. The sheep occasionally roam the streets of Waterton, they frequent the highways and parkways, and loiter about many a parking lot. In other words, it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to run into them–spend enough time in the mountains and you’re sure to eventually see one. So since they’re so commonplace, let’s review some sheep basics so you don’t feel sheepish about your first encounter with them.
First and foremost, don’t confuse the Rocky Mountain bighorns with that other four-legged Rocky mountaineer — the mountain goats (Not that it will offend them, but you want to impress your kids, don’t you?).
The bighorn sheep are the ones with the tan-coloured coats; white rump patch; beardless chins; and larger, curling brown horns. The mountain goats have longer, white coats; a bearded chin; and short, dagger-like black horns. With the occasional exception in the form of the odd roadside mineral lick, the mountain goats are much rarer to see, preferring to hang out (literally) on the highest of peaks.
Now that you’ve correctly identified the animal in question as a sheep, you’ll want to further impress your family by pointing out that the ewes have the shorter, curved horns, while the rams are adorned with the much larger horns that eventually curl right around into a full circle as the animal matures. For bonus points, you can also determine the minimum age of a sheep by counting the large annual growth rings on the horns. Finally, to ensure your family buys you a free lunch, let them know that rams will sometimes engage in titanic battles during the fall mating season, wherein two evenly matched rams will butt heads (in rare instances for up to twenty hours) over the right to breed with the ewes.
Depending on the time of year, your family is bound to ask why the sheeps’ coats look so tattered and unkempt, as though they’re having a really bad hair day. This is where you’ll explain that the sheep really are healthy–they’re simply replacing their heavier winter coats for a lighter, more fashionable summer look.
Now, if you want to move up from simply getting a free lunch into the realm of free dinner territory, you’ll want to keep your family, not to mention your vehicle, safe at all times. So know that despite all appearances to the contrary, even the tamest looking sheep are still wild, and those horns really do make a powerful battering ram. So don’t get too close, don’t be overly nosy with the camera, and definitely don’t even think about feeding the sheep.
Or you really will end up feeling a little sheepish.
Michael Kerr is former park naturalist and the author of five books, including The Canadian Rockies Guide to Wildlife Watching, What’s So Funny About Alberta? and When Do You Let the Animals Out? A Field Guide to Rocky Mountain Humour. Surf him up atwww.mikekerr.com.
By Michael Kerr
(Photo: Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep in Jasper National Park, courtesy of Travel Alberta)