When Spaniards traveled to Texas and Oklahoma in the 16th century, they were amazed at the enormous herds of what they called “crooked-backed oxen.”
Those large animals soon became known as buffalo, because of their resemblance to those Old World beasts. But the so-called “American buffalo” is a totally different animal, the bison.
Two hundred years ago, huge herds covered many square miles of land. They ranged over about a third of the continent, from the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest to the Alleghenies, and from Northern Canada to Mexico.
Bison almost became extinct due to hunting in the 19th century but were saved by a conservation effort initiated by the Bronx Zoo. The North American population is now estimated at 80,000, almost all of them in various parks and preserves.
The bison is North America’s largest animal. It can vary in size from 7- 12 feet in length. Females generally weigh about 1,200 pounds and males weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Although it’s shorter than the moose, it’s generally heavier. The cows are much smaller than the bull. They rarely weigh more than 900 pounds.
Much of the bison’s weight is concentrated in the head and shoulders, including its large hump. From the forequarters, the animal tapers back to much smaller hips and hindquarters.
Buffalo or bison? Many people call this animal a buffalo, but scientists prefer “bison.” True buffalos are found in Asia and Africa (water buffalo in Asia, Cape buffalo in Africa). Unlike the buffalo, the bison has a long beard and a tufted tail. Its long, woolly coat is shaggy and dark brown during the winter, but it falls off in patches during the spring and is replaced by a lighter brown, less shaggy fur.
Food and Diet
The North American bison graze on grasslands, which breaks up soil, improves its water-holding capacity, and enriches the soil with manure. They generally do their grazing at cooler times of the day, in the morning and evening.
They also eat some other small plants and the twigs of willow trees and shrubs. During the winter, they “eat” snow to get their daily supply of water.
Like many large mammals, bison are very fond of salt. Frontiersman talked about herds of 100,000 or more bison that created wide, deep trails to salt licks in Kentucky and Southern Ohio.
Bison are social animals that live in herds. A herd can be a single family unit, but when bison roamed free on the continent, smaller herds often merged into enormous herds, containing hundreds of thousands of animals, during migration.
Mating takes place in August or September. After a gestation period ranging from 270 to 285 days, a single calf is born in May or June. A cow leaves the herd to have the calf and returns after three or four days, when her calf can stand on its own.
A young bison develops its characteristic hump at about two months of age, continues nursing until it’s about a year old, and becomes mature at three years.
Bison usually live 25-35 years.
The Buttonwood Park Zoo’s bison roam in the Plains area.