What are Bighorn Sheep?

Carol Kindle
Carol Kindle
Coyotes prey on bighorn sheep.
Coyotes prey on bighorn sheep.

The bighorn sheep (Ovis Canadensis) is a large mammal that has adapted to life in the mountainous terrain of western North America. Male bighorn sheep, also known as rams, have distinctive horns that emerge from the top of the head and curve back around to the lower jaw. These horns, which can weigh up to 30 pounds (13.6 kg), are used by the males to show dominance when among other males.

Cougars are one of the enemies of bighorn sheep.
Cougars are one of the enemies of bighorn sheep.

Female bighorn sheep, known as ewes, have horns that are thinner and shorter than the horns of the male. Both males and females are primarily brown in color with a characteristic patch of white fur on their rear ends. They also have white fur on their underbellies and around their noses. The male sheep are larger than the females and can weigh up to 300 pounds (136 kg).

Mountainous areas that are home to the bighorn sheep are mainly in North America and range from Canada to Colorado and south to Mexico. These sheep can also be found in desert regions of Texas. They have hooves that are very hard on the outside and allow them to easily climb up steep hillsides.

Often seen high on rocky cliffs, the bighorn sheep spend the summer months feeding at higher elevations. During the cold winter months, they migrate down to warmer elevations and feed in valleys at the base of the mountains. Bighorn sheep feed primarily on grasses, shrubs, or woody plants. Sheep living in desert regions feed on yucca plants or cacti.

Staying at higher elevations gives the sheep a full view of the terrain around them and allows them to carefully watch for predators. Their predators include wolves, coyotes, and cougars. Bears and bobcats can also be a threat to these sheep. When they sense that an enemy is getting close, the bighorn sheep will gather in a circle to protect themselves.

Bighorn sheep live together and travel in herds. Large groups of females live and roam with their young while smaller groups of adult males live separately from the females. During mating season in early winter, these adult males will fight and butt horns to establish dominance. The dominant male will then join a herd of females and begin mating.

After a six-month gestation period, one lamb is usually born to the female in early summer. The females are very protective of the lambs for the first week after which time the lambs begin walking. Lambs are usually weaned by six months of age and male lambs will join a herd of adult males after two or three years. Female lambs will remain with the female herd for life.

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    • Coyotes prey on bighorn sheep.
      By: Michael Ireland
      Coyotes prey on bighorn sheep.
    • Cougars are one of the enemies of bighorn sheep.
      By: SandmanX
      Cougars are one of the enemies of bighorn sheep.