Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
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  • 11 Faces The Wind

    A foggy start to a bison's day at Midewin.

    One of the first Europeans to study bison was Father Louis Hennepin. In December of 1679 on the Illinois River near Peoria he first saw bison grazing on the prairie. Fr. Hennepin’s description: "Instead of hair, buffalo have very fine wool. Their horns are almost entirely black. They have an enormous head and an extremely short but very thick neck, sometimes six hands (24 inches) wide. They have a hump or small protuberance between their shoulders. Their legs are extremely thick and short and are covered with very long wool. From their heads between their horns, long black hair falls over their eyes, giving them a frightful appearance.”

    Bison are the largest native land animal in North America today. A mature bull is six feet tall at the shoulder and weighs on average 2000 lbs. Today you can compare this one ton animal’s weight to that of ten refrigerators or two telephone poles. Cows are more diminutive in stature, only five foot at the shoulder. The average mature cow can weigh in at, as much as 1000 lbs. This is the modern day equivalent of one grand piano or one snowmobile. 

    If you can’t measure their height or weight, how can you tell a bull from a cow? You can start with their faces. A bull has a triangular or V-shaped face with a very broad forehead. The cow’s face is oval and her forehead much narrower. The male has much thicker fur on his forehead, beard, and “pantaloons” on the front legs than the female. Many bulls' horns point straight up while the horns of a mature cows will more often point inward and backward creating a C-shape and are more slender. Calve's and yearling's horns point straight out to the side in a devilish look. Additionally, cows have narrower shoulders than hips while bulls have broader shoulders than hips. 

    Their 22-26 inch horns are made of bone. The covering over the bony horn is called a horn cap and is a modified hair protein or keratin. It is much thicker but similar to human fingernails. This cap starts out as black and greys as the animal ages. From tip to tip, horns are approximately 2.5 feet apart. Bison horns are not shed like animals who possess antlers. While digging in mud or tussling with other bison a horn cap may be accidentally broken off. A horn cap will not grow back and the boney core within hardens and remains. After the age of four, the horn cap will grow one layer per year. The age of a bison can be determined from a horn cap. Bison rub and dig with their horns keeping the tip polished and sharp. Horns are a primary means of protection for bison. Horns have been used to gore many a hunter and horse as well as pick up a wolf and toss it in the air.  

    Color of a bison’s fur ranges from tan to brown to black. This coloring varies with the season, being darker in the early winter months and bleaching to a tan color as the winter coat ages. Winter coats measure up to sixteen inches on the forehead, ten inches on the forelegs, and only eight inches on the hind quarters. 

    Bison have ten times more hair per square inch than many cattle breeds. Coarse guard hairs cover the woolly under fur of a bison’s winter coat. This helps them survive sub-zero temperatures. Snow piled on top of them and not melting is a sure sign that bison are toasty under all their fur. Even the eyelashes of bison differ from cattle. The short eyelashes keep the eyelids of bison from accumulating ice while cattle have much longer eyelashes that can freeze together.

    During a storm, bison don’t look for shelter, nor do they turn tail and walk away from a storm as European domestic cattle do. The behavior of bison has also been related through American Indian accounts. They tell of bison forming a “V” shape with bulls on the outside and cows with calves on the inside and walking into a raging blizzard. Perhaps, this is why native people call bison Faces the Wind.

    The thick fur is an asset through the coldest months. Come spring it is time for bison to shed their itchy winter wardrobe. Getting this lighter coat requires scratching, rubbing, and wallowing.  You name it, and bison will find a way to use it to scratch. They use tree trunks, boulders, road signs, posts, logs, utility posts, cabins, and barbed wire fences as some some of their scratching favorites.  In the past, bison have knocked down cabins and telegraph poles while getting a good scratch. Bison also get down on the ground to roll around or “wallow” that old hair off. They cannot roll all the way over because of their hump.  They get up and repeat on the other side. They can dig quite a pit in the ground by wallowing. There are other benefits from wallowing. As temperatures soar in the summer, the mud and dirt help bison stay cool. The mud that clings and dries on the bison creates a sunburn and insect-proof protective shell. 

    These wallows can get quite large from repeated use. They wear down and form a giant bowl. Wallows have been known to reach a diameter of 15 feet or more across and one or more feet deep. The hair and oil from the bison’s coat settles to the bottom of the wallow forming a water proof layer. These wallows will catch and hold rainwater. They became a perfect place for American Indians, settlers, and animals including bison to quench their thirst until the baking rays of summer sun dried them up.

    Bison drink 10 to 12 gallons of water a day, more in the summer. Although, they may only visit the water one time in a day. During winter months they use their snout or hooves to break through ice to get to water. If necessary they can eat snow.

    It was thought that the hump on a bison is a storage area for fat. The hump is really composed of large vertebrae and large muscle. This allows bison to support their massive head, which weighs from 50 to 75 lbs. The hump helps them survive the winter. Bison swing their head back and forth through the snow in a plowing action to reach the grasses that lay beneath the hard packed snow. The hump acts as a counterweight helping to balance the weight of their massive heads. Without the hump, using the head would be more taxing on the animal and use more energy that bison dearly need in the cold of winter.

    Bison have adapted to uniquely fit their environment, from the baking heat of summer to the harsh cold of winter. In 1679, Father Hennepin was intrigued by these woolly creatures so much so he studied them and extensively wrote about them. Bison haven’t lost their appeal to man. Today bison still capture the attention of avid onlookers who return again and again just for a glimpse of the bison.

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