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Fauna Series No. 6








Life History





Fauna of the National Parks — No. 6
The Bighorn of Death Valley
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General Habits


As previously described under "Watering Behavior," the degree of wariness in bighorn varies with the individual. This is evident not only in its watering behavior but in its relationship with its entire environment.

By Age Class and Sex

Nothing seems to suggest a significant variation in wariness by age class or sex except for ewes with newborn lambs. Prior to lambing, the 10-year-old leader of the Furnace Creek band, known as Old Mama, had become so unafraid of us that on one occasion when I turned suddenly away from my camera I bumped into her where she browsed so close behind me. Yet when she returned with her lamb on February 2, we could not get within 200 yards of her. Pictures taken of the ewe and lamb during the first 2 weeks after birth showed that instinct always placed the lamb on the far side of the mother when observers were in the vicinity, but after 2 weeks the lamb began to be more independent and less fearful. However, Old Mama had not completely regained her placid self-confidence when she finally left the wash in the middle of April.


"Freezing" seldom has appeared to be a part of the defense mechanism of the bighorn in Death Valley. We have repeatedly approached young lambs where they were left by their mothers and they have never "played dead" the way young fawns are likely to do. Bighorn of all ages will often stand motionless for many minutes, even an hour or so, while observing their observers, but they will do the same thing when unaware of being observed. However, as further described under "Climbing Ability," I once had a ram freeze not more than 50 feet from me and remain absolutely motionless for 20 minutes until my eyes fell on his, when he stiffened, snorted, and dashed away.


Much has been said about the curiosity of the bighorn, but it is difficult to draw a line between a curiosity tinged with wariness and a suspicion tinged with anxiety. An effort to determine whether something is dangerous seems more an act of suspicion or caution than of simple curiosity. A ewe with a newborn lamb may make a great effort to keep an intruder in sight, not from curiosity but from apprehension, and yet if the observer is unaware of the lamb's presence he might be inclined to label the motivation of the ewe's action as curiosity.

On two occasions we tried to climb above the Badwater band to photograph them with the valley as a background. As we began to circle them the sheep watched us, first with apparent curiosity at this unusual behavior, and then as it became apparent to them that we were about to cut off their escape route to the mountains their curiosity gave way to a deeper interest. They watched with increasing fear as we slowly tried to work around them. When we would start to pass above them they would first huddle and watch as long as we stood still. But as soon as we started again they would break into a run, making a circle around us, and continue climbing until they were above us once more.

After his great fight with Broken Nose, Tabby repeatedly came out from his siesta to "blow" and stare at Buddy [Mrs. Welles]. "Blowing" is a sign of apprehension, not of curiosity.

On December 1, 1956, Tight Curl, a 9-year-old-ram, demonstrated another variation of the reaction loosely labeled curiosity. At 9:20 in the morning, Old Mama and a band of four were in the wash at Travertine Point. We followed them up on the mesa as they browsed, with no new observations until about 12 noon. They had been bedded while we lunched about 150 yards away. Two prospectors began descending Pyramid Peak from their claim about 1-1/2 miles away and 1,500 feet higher up. The ram began to be uneasy about them and stared at them for some time with growing anxiety. Then he began to make a sound we had never heard before. It was in no way like the "blowing," snort, or cough we have always associated with alarm and warning from bighorn. This sound, which he made every 2 or 3 minutes for half and hour, was more like a nasal growl.

His uneasiness had nothing to do with us, because during this time he never once looked at Buddy, who worked with her camera closer to him than ever before. His attention never left the distant figures, and he kept up his "growling" until suddenly, without ever looking at Buddy, he made a rapid retreat over the ridge to the north.

It would appear that curiosity in bighorn varies with the individual and is seldom the sole motivating factor in bighorn behavior. It is, therefore, difficult to discuss except in its relationship to anxiety, suspicion, and fear.

Occasionally the mixed motivations are resolved into an acute stage, and flight clarifies any doubt as to the cause of observed behavior.

Length of Retreat When Frightened

The length of retreat when frightened is unpredictable and varied, since the experience of the animals involved dictates the individual reaction to any given set of circumstances. And, of course, the degree of fright varies from the slight shock engendered in a lamb by a rolling stone to the devastating, sometimes mortal, shock so widely recognized as a problem in the capture, physical restraint, and transport of adults in transplanting projects.

Just what determines the bighorn evaluation of danger beyond its individual experience is not known. Instinct, of course, plays an undetermined role in it, but it seems unwise to conclude that the bighorn is instinctively afraid of anything, because present evidence points more toward conditioned behavior than toward inherited reaction.

How far an animal may run from the sound of the human voice, therefore, may depend on whether it is startled by an unrecognized sound or is frightened by an audible reminder of a remembered traumatic experience.

Response to Humans and Equipment

This can be particularly apparent in bighorn reaction to humans, human behavior, and manmade equipment. As a matter of fact, bighorn appear to have no more of a fixed pattern of reaction toward humans than humans have toward bighorn. In both instances the reactions vary, according to the experience one has had with the other, from complete indifference to overwhelming concern, and it is necessary for the observer to understand that the bighorn's attitude and reaction toward him is a conditioned response to his own (and other human) behavior toward the bighorn.

It must be remembered, too, that emotions are contagious among bighorn just as they are among humans, and 1 frightened bighorn may engender fear in a band of 10. Yet the quickly regained confidence of a leader among them may immediately overcome this fear simply by her not participating in their reaction to it. If a band is temporarily without a leader, however, this fear may result in a panic and headlong flight to an environment of relative safety.

Since the relationship between people and bighorn involves the third primary factor in bighorn survival in Death Valley, and realistic measures for their protection, it seems pertinent at this point to discuss the bighorn-human relationship in further detail:

Because few people ever see a bighorn, the species has acquired a legendary reputation of unapproachable wildness which has no foundation in fact. In order to clarify the picture somewhat, this report will trace the development of bighorn reaction to humans as observed by us from the point of view of the multiuse designation of the area as (1) a national monument, (2) a resort and recreation area, (3) a mining district, and (4) a wildlife sanctuary.

The first bighorn we found in Death Valley, in March 1952, lived up to the popular concept of bighorn behavior. When first observed, this animal was 200 yards ahead of us, running across the wash and up the mountain to a distance of a quarter of a mile before pausing amid completely camouflaging surroundings. After watching us anxiously for a few minutes, it continued its rapid ascent of the mountain until an hour later it stood, a black dot against the sky, on the farthest promontory of the range, where it watched us until our jeep disappeared at a turn in the canyon over a mile away.

Later the same year during the peak of the lambing season in the relatively dense population of the Nevada Desert Game Range, we found the popular concept of wildness breaking down. We were advised that it was a poor time to be photographing bighorn there because during the lambing season the ewes were very "spooky" and difficult to approach. The first four or five bands we found demonstrated the soundness of the advice. The ewes with lambs were extremely wary and unapproachable. However, we soon discovered that if we remained in full view of the sheep and did not try to stalk them, we had much greater success in achieving proximity.

Within a very few days after we stopped trying to conceal ourselves from them, they began to stop running from us. After 10 days among them, we were able to photograph a "babysitting" (one mother remaining with all the lambs while the other mothers leave to forage or drink) from a distance of 100 yards. The same evening at sundown we climbed along, keeping a distance of no more than 50 yards, with a band of 11 ewes and yearlings as they went up for the night. They scarcely glanced in our direction as they bedded down within 100 feet of where we stood.

Our one contact with rams of the area was traditional. We surprised nine of them in siesta on the edge of the piñon habitat. They leaped to their feet and into a huddle for one quick look at us, then fled at full speed without stopping until they disappeared into a canyon half a mile away. Such precipitous flight naturally precludes continued contact and the possible lessening of alarm through further modifying experience.

We were astonished one day at lunch by an old ewe, with two yearlings in tow, who approached to within 100 yards of us, bleating eagerly as she came as though she thought we were other sheep. She seemed to realize her mistake rather suddenly, stopping short, staring at us for a moment; then, with a snort, she bounded away, the yearlings following with much less evidence of alarm. We have, of course, found this type of approach to humans by bighorn to be a quite common experience among fieldworkers in bighorn areas. This singular reaction is not limited to an age class or sex but has been observed repeatedly in lambs, ewes, and rams, with motivation undetermined in all cases.

The two observations we have of lambs approaching us were both made during a period when the lambs were lost from their mothers, and so it would seem safe to assume that this circumstance contributed to the reaction. One of these instances occurred at 8:30 a.m. on September 7, 1957, as I was checking the Seeps at Nevares Springs. I heard a cough up the mountain and soon I saw a lamb, coughing badly as though it had asthma. It was watching me, and soon its coughing stopped and it began a lively run down toward me, bleating. I stood still, wishing I were somewhere else so I wouldn't keep it from water. It came down to within 100 yards of me, looking at me all the time and bleating eagerly every few steps. I realized then that this lamb was not just preceding its mother down the mountain; it didn't know where its mother was! It "spooked" when it got close enough to see I wasn't a sheep (or so it seemed) and went bounding back up the mountain.

On the morning of September 9 at dawn, I searched the spring area thoroughly through binoculars, decided that nothing was coming in, and went down to check for any sign made in the night after we had swept the ground free of previous sign. I had examined Raven and Long Springs with negative results and was approaching Old Spring when a big red ram leaped up out of Round Pool, 150 yards away.

I stood still and he stopped and looked steadily at me for perhaps 2 minutes; then he unconcernedly walked toward me as far as Old Spring, 75 feet away, and proceeded to drink his fill, drinking about 2 minutes at a time. Between drinks he raised his head, with his mouth dripping water, licked his lips, and yawned once. Meanwhile, he studied me in a speculative sort of way. After three drinks and study periods, he walked up on the bank on my side of Old Spring to within 50 feet of me, where he gave me a thorough going over, and I him.

When finally he was through studying me he walked past me within 30 feet and started north. When I turned and took a step or two after him, he was alarmed and ran up the mountain about 50 yards before he stopped and turned back for a moment, then began a high-headed "spooky" climb away.

Subsequent encounters with this ram, whom we named Mahogany, found him maintaining a distance of around 200 yards.

Our interim reports are replete with similar records of this singular type of reaction to humans, which is usually cited as an example of extreme curiosity on the part of the sheep. But once more the use of the word curiosity must be questioned as a specious, anthropomorphic oversimplification of a complex area of bighorn behavior. Curiosity is defined by Webster as meaning "A desire to learn or know; a desire to learn about things that do not necessarily concern one; inquisitiveness." This is a simple, limited motivation toward learning for its own sake with no further objective either stated or implied, and we find no clear evidence to support this human characteristic as an identifiable bighorn attribute.

It seems more likely that a complex array of animal instincts contributing to self-preservation in one way or another is at work in most of such instances. Ewes, frustrated in oestrus by the absence of rams, may be seeking substitutes just as rams in the absence of other rams with which to battle will charge into boulders, or tree trunks, or even a mountainside as will be described later. Just as adults in frustrated mating fervor may be seeking substitute sex objects, the lost lamb may be seeking a substitute mother. In any case, such evidence suggests a temporary aberration induced by the stress of an individual experience or emotional need, unshared by other animals at the time.

In the interest of bighorn conservation, particular attention has been paid to these singular instances of bighorn behavior because of a keenly felt necessity of seeing them in proper perspective. The temporary nature of such reactions must be emphasized and the absence of repetition by the same animal noted. Of more importance still, it should be remembered that this is actually atypical behavior engaged in by a small percentage of the population. Although such behavior heightens interest by its relative rarity, it can be dangerously deceptive if used as a basis for planning bighorn-human relations of the future. It is only when the reaction of an individual is shared by its companions that it is likely to become measurably important in bighorn management and protection.

The leader of the Badwater band seemed to have little fear of humans. She maintained her distance from them with a placid insistence which suggested that her lack of fear was based on a confidence generated by experience which had taught her that a certain distance from humans meant safety from them. Since the reaction of a leader appears to a considerable degree to be communicated, the entire band responded to our presence with increasing indifference, until by March the hundreds of park visitors on the highway below them were ignored completely unless someone disturbed the accepted conditions by leaving the highway and beginning to approach them. This action usually brought the band into a preflight huddle, and, if the approach was continued, ended in retreat up the mountain.

This was a mild presentation of the most formidable problem facing the Death Valley bighorn today—human encroachment. Whether it is the relatively harmless but insistent approach of the photographer, the less prevalent but still considerable activity of the poacher, or the possibly overwhelming usurpation of water sources by a mining boom, the question is always there: How much human encroachment can the bighorn tolerate without jeopardy?

The development of another acceptable bighorn-human relationship began in the winter of 1955, when we commenced our 18-month association with the Furnace Creek band. We made no effort to follow them any more than was necessary to keep them within observing range of 12-power glasses. We remained unobtrusively in the open at all times and withdrew if our proximity became disturbing. We took pictures all day, recording their eating behavior and habits as they moved slowly but steadily over the rolling hills and up and down the sides of the bisecting canyons, paying no attention to us as long as we kept a distance of about 100 yards. Here was something new in our sheep observations: These animals seemed not to care whether we were above or below them, and they made no effort to keep between us and an avenue of escape. There was no cliffy terrain within a mile of where they fed, but this did not disturb them in the least. As a matter of fact, they fed closer and closer to us as the day wore on, until just before noon they bedded down with their backs to us less than 200 feet away.

Their progress in bighorn-human relationship was rapid from then on, until by January 5 they fed directly down to the highway and gave an astonishing exhibition of indifference to people and winter traffic. They foraged right on the shoulder of the highway on fresh green shoots of Stephanomeria. Cars passing caused them only to stop eating to watch but did not frighten them! Then, for the first time, Old Mama, their leader, led them across the highway.

The next day they all crossed the highway repeatedly. This began to worry us. They were becoming a traffic hazard and people were piling out of their cars with loaves of bread to feed them! By now this band was feeding to within 5 or 6 feet of us, which was fine for making study pictures of horn formation, eating behavior, identification markings, etc., but was dangerous for the sheep.

On January 10 they set an alltime precedent for Death Valley when the entire band stood stock still in the middle of the highway and blocked traffic. (See figs. 13 and 14.) Old Mama walked between two cars with people standing within 4 or 5 feet. On several occasions she fed to within the minimum focal range of our cameras, too close for pictures.

By the 12th, 20 to 30 cars of people a day were coming into the wash to see and photograph the sheep. In order to avoid accidents to sheep and visitors as well as to avoid contributing to the formation of a pauper band of bighorn in Death Valley, we tried scaring the sheep off the road, running at them, honking horns, shouting, throwing gravel, and firing guns over their heads. They would move 100 feet or so away, then stare at us curiously as much as to say, what are you doing that for?

Never before had Death Valley bighorn reacted this way to humans, for the simple reason that never before had humans reacted this way to gradually gain their confidence. In the instance of both the Badwater band and the Furnace Creek band, we had set up new, nondisturbing conditions for a bighorn-human relationship which were accepted by them with a startling alacrity and completeness.

The first and probably the most important of these new conditions was the fact that we came and stayed in the area where they fed, bedded, and watered, but did not disturb them or interfere with their activities in any way, nor did we allow anyone else to engage in aggressive actions of any kind. As much as possible, we kept constantly in sight of them throughout the daylight hours, because we soon discovered that they became suspicious of us only when we disappeared for a while and especially if we reappeared closer to them.

The Badwater band never overcame its nervousness while on pavement to the extent of crossing the highway, but the Furnace Creek band was crossing freely within a week. The leadership of the two bands may have had much to do with the difference, but also of great importance was the fact that the Furnace Creek sheep found the choicest food on the shoulders of the road. However, in itself the presence of a fresh, lush growth of Stephanomeria on the road shoulders and berms was not new. The new condition was that when the sheep were feeding on the shoulders we stopped all cars, called the attention of the park visitors to this rare opportunity for observing bighorn, but curbed the inclinations of some persons to pursue them. The bighorn quickly accepted their protected status as being permanent and appeared to take it for granted that all cars would always stop for them. This created a traffic hazard.

Response to Noises

Probably the most unexpected phase of this development of bighorn reaction to humans through their voluntary acceptance of these new conditions was their refusal to be disturbed by our violent, noisy efforts to frighten them. They no longer attached a sense of danger to cars, roaring motors, honking horns, shouting people, or exploding cartridges.

That this acceptance hinged on its being voluntary on their part and was possibly limited by an association only with the Furnace Creek Wash area became apparent when they ventured out on the fan below Deadman's Curve on January 16 and headed for Navel Spring and water. Perhaps it was a sense of being pursued that made them nervous. In any case, once they left their established feeding ground, we were not allowed within 200 yards of them.

All morning they moved rapidly, feeding comparatively little, down the wash nearly to the Ryan Junction, where they turned directly across the face of the hill toward Navel Spring.

In spite of our efforts to reach the spring first, the sheep made the last quarter of a mile so much faster than we thought they could that they had been at the spring for 10 minutes at least before we got there.

As we entered the narrow mouth of the box canyon occupied by the spring, the entire band led by Old Mama "spooked" and bounded up to a promontory 100 feet to the south. They stopped there for a while but continued to regard us with apprehension. These were the same sheep that had fed to within 2 or 3 feet of us when out in the open. Apparently they had a fear of being trapped in the box canyon. Old Mama and Little Whitey did not come back down for another drink, but one by one, with the greatest distrust of us, the others did.

Oddly enough, Old Eighty, usually the wariest of the band (fig. 17), was the first to reach water. She descended a few steps at a time, mincing sideways in her determination not to let us out of her sight. She then stopped and looked back up at the others who remained fixed, staring down at us. Then she looked quickly at us, tossing her head. Finally she turned back as though to give it up, hesitated, turned quickly, and plunged the remaining distance down to water. Once there, she was still too nervous to drink much—one swallow at a time, then throwing up her head to look more fully at us.

The sound of the cameras made her jump away although she had heard the sound many times before. One of the other sheep starting down dislodged some small rocks, and the sound of these, to which she would have paid no attention elsewhere, now threw her into a panic from which she didn't recover until she was back up with the others. The one who had caused her fright was in turn frightened by her flight and dashed back with her to the top, where they all stood in what we call the "spook huddle"—heads close together and held high, with all senses keyed to the alert.

We finally withdrew entirely from the canyon before they would return to drink.

Some of the nervousness, wariness, suspicion, and fear seemed to stay with them for the 3 days that we followed them after this watering. They never went back to Furnace Creek Wash to stay, only passing through it on their way across the mesa to the foot of Pyramid Peak.

About January 16, Old Mama became nervous and restless. Her unborn lamb was kicking harder every day, and approaching parturition might have been urging her toward seclusion. She seemed to be trying to elude not only us but the other bighorn as well, and this seemed to kindle a general anxiety among them all. Three days later we could not get within 50 yards of them. On this day they disappeared on Pyramid Peak after 3 weeks of close association with us in the wash. As a specific band, they never returned to Furnace Creek. Individual members of the band have been observed in Big Wash, on Paleomesa, and in the washes back of Navel Spring. Possible reasons for this apparent abandonment will be discussed in later chapters.

When Old Mama returned on February 2 without the band but with her newborn lamb, she was as wild and unapproachable as tradition would dictate—with one exception: She was still unafraid of cars, and quickly taught her lamb that only when cars disgorged people was any attention to be paid them. (This eventually led to the lamb's being struck by a car and left for dead on the highway. See "Growth, Behavior, and Care of the Young.")

Old Mama appeared on the one hand to cling to the accepted conditions guaranteeing her security and complete freedom of terrain and highway, but on the other she imposed a new one involving the requisite distance between her lamb and the tidal wave of eager photographers which poured into the wash when news of her return with a lamb was broadcast. She raised her lamb there for 10 weeks, and when she left in April her new, indifferent aloofness was as unbreachable as ever.

In the meantime, however, she had been joined on March 14 by a band of five new bighorn—three ewes, a 2-year-old ram, and a lamb about the same age as her own. These sheep were wild, apparently were not used to cars on the highway, and might have been seeing humans close up for the first time. Their reactions to humans, to Old Mama, and to Old Mama's reaction to humans, therefore, became of great significance to the study of the development of bighorn-human relations.

The new sheep were startled into an anxious huddle by the jeep door slamming in the wind after I got out to set up a camera. Led by the mother of the new lamb (not Old Mama and her lamb), they began a wary withdrawal across the wash when I was 200 yards distant. The wariness gave way to panic as I crouched over the movie camera, and they hurtled up the mountain for another 100 yards before they seemed to notice that Old Mama and her lamb were still standing placidly in the wash below them. They looked from me to her and back again, gradually relaxing as I made no effort to get closer to them. When I got back in the truck and waited, they little by little worked their way back down to the old leader, and eventually began to browse close to her, with one eye on her and one on me, like a sailor with one eye on the barometer and the other on the sky.

For the first week the mother of the second lamb, by then known as New Mama, competed with Old Mama for leadership and tried repeatedly to lead the band out of the area. On several occasions she succeeded in getting them about half a mile up toward Pyramid Peak before they inevitably began to look back at Old Mama feeding in the wash. Then, usually led by the 2-year-old ram, they would rush pellmell back to the old leader, followed reluctantly by the unsuccessful contender.

The new band continued to take their cue from Old Mama, gradually relaxing toward us until March 24 when we followed them to water at Navel Spring. As with the other sheep previously, they (including Old Mama) because nervous, anxious, and alarmed at our presence in the box canyon with them. It might have been a coincidence, but, just as with the first band, they disappeared after watering but returned after 4 days absence and resumed normal activity in the wash. By the time they left we had formed an entirely new concept of the relative importance of the matriarchal system in bighorn behavior.

On April 7, 1956, we found that two miners had moved into the very center of the Furnace Creek feeding area and were preparing to set off a heavy charge of dynamite just as the band fed toward them from the Big Dip, a short distance east of Travertine Point. Three of the sheep, led by Old Mama, actually went up on the ridge above where the miners worked, and after watching them for a few minutes lay down and went to sleep on a ledge 100 yards above the impending detonation. The other four members of the band did not see their leader ascend the ridge and continued to browse in the wash below. Those in the wash were out of sight from us when the blast occurred. We were watching Old Mama and her three companions at the time but they never moved or stopped chewing their cuds. The cloud of dust from the blast attracted their attention to the extent that they watched it for a few minutes as it billowed up in the sunlight.

We found the other four sheep a mile below the scene of the blasting, and the contrast in their behavior was notable to say the least. While we were still half a mile away, we saw them huddled on a promontory at the edge of the wash, and as we approached, the symptoms of anxiety we had come to associate with the loss of a leader began to develop. At 9 o'clock that morning these four sheep had fed behind Old Mama to within 30 feet of us; now, without her, their tension visibly increased when we stopped our jeep 100 yards away. As we stepped out of it, they fled as though they had never seen a jeep or people before.

We watched from a quarter of a mile away the rest of the day as they moved restlessly from one point to another, feeding ravenously for a few minutes in the wash, then suddenly dashing frantically for a high spot again. Between times they looked for Old Mama and the others, up and down the wash and across it and back up toward Pyramid Peak.

As the day wore on, it became apparent that temporarily at least a new leader was being born, for the three younger ones began to turn to the older ewe and await her decisions and to follow suit.

Toward evening we made an experimental approach, thinking that with a new leader becoming established among them anxiety might be lessened, but such was not the case. Here the importance of the quality or nature of existing leadership was suddenly underscored, because as we walked slowly toward them, the new leader stood transfixed until we were about 100 yards away, when she bounded away in precipitous flight, which ended only on the distant rim of Paleomesa.

What becomes increasingly apparent is a correlation between the success of bighorn-human relations and the nature of the leadership present on both sides of the entente. The following points must be emphasized and remembered in the formulation of any plan for the future of the bighorn in Death Valley:

1. The prolonged and continuous associations we have had with the various bands of Death Valley bighorn from 1954—61 was not accidental. It was part of a plan of action.

The formulation and execution of a plan involving more than one person carries with it an assumption of leadership, and this plan implicitly involved all persons in Death Valley in that their cooperation was sought and substantially received. It resulted in a marked increase in the number of reports of sheep sightings to reach National Park Service headquarters. One of these was the Badwater band, another the Furnace Creek band, and still another the 14 bighorn on Death Balley Buttes—all serve as good examples of the cooperation that developed.

2. In all three instances, the development of our relationship with the three bands was about the same and was made possible by our control of (or leadership in) the human reaction toward them. Only by our continuous and unobtrusive presence were we able to convince the sheep that humans could be an acceptable condition of their environment.

3. Once the bighorn had accepted us, we felt compelled to insist that other humans visiting the area refrain from disturbing the conditions which had proved acceptable to the sheep.

4. While it is quite probable that the majority of these observations would never have been made had we done other than present ourselves without overtures and waited for them to set the distance between us, it is also quite probable that even these conditions would not have proved acceptable were it not for the type of bighorn leadership present in each band. All three old ewes had apparently never had any reason to associate humans with danger to themselves, and their initial wariness soon gave way to a placid unconcern. Contacts were made with other bands in both the Badwater and Furnace Creek areas, but such contacts could not be maintained because of the flight of the leaders. If the leadership is fearful, conditions involving proximity of humans may never be acceptable to the band.

5. It must be considered more than coincidence that nowhere in the Death Valley region have we observed, nor do we have a record of bighorn continuing to water at a source which has become the headquarters of humans. It would appear that the continued presence of people at or near a water supply has to the present created unacceptable conditions for the continued utilization of that source by the bighorn. Whether it has been the mere presence of people at the springs or whether further acts of aggression took place to trigger abandonment is not known. Whether controlled conditioning to human proximity at or near water sources could bring about permanently acceptable conditions for continued use of one water source by both humans and bighorn in Death Valley is not known and could be determined only by controlled experiment.

Herd Leadership

While herd leadership has emerged as an important factor in the life history of the bighorn, very little is known as to the quantity and quality of control exercised by the leader.

An indication of the quality of control is found in the response of bighorn to sounds whether natural or otherwise. The reaction of individual animals to a particular sound would, of course, vary with the experience of the individual with that sound. Our efforts to "spook" the Furnace Creek bands off the highway were quite illuminating. When standing 15 or 20 feet behind them as they fed with their heads down, facing away from us, the first sudden, loud clapping of hands accompanied by a loud shout produced an immediate huddle and a bounding away for perhaps 15 feet. A walking retreat followed, but the leader, Old Mama, then began to lag and come to a stop at about 75 feet while the others continued away to a distance of 50 yards. Here they stopped and fixed their attention on Old Mama while she "evaluated" the situation. In a very few moments she dismissed this incident and returned to browse; the others immediately returned to her and also began browsing.

A few minutes later we again clapped and shouted, but with a modified repetition of results. Old Mama jumped and took only two or three steps away while the others "huddled" a few feet beyond her, watching her, not us. The third time produced practically no reaction. Old Mama raised her head and looked at us, while the others, without moving away at all, looked first at her then at us for a moment and returned to browsing. Thus, it would appear that leadership is by example, somewhat as among the more primitive tribes of the human race (Hockett, 1960).

Certainly superior physical strength or prowess plays no part in attaining the position of leadership. Old Mama was obviously the poorest physical specimen of the band, and, in common with many leaders we have known, much the oldest.

In contrast to the status of the primitive human leader, there is no respect or deference attached to the bighorn leader. We have many observations of the leader being routed out of a bed she had just made and occupied scarcely long enough to warm it. Sometimes there are bullies in the bands, but we have yet to see one of these as leader.

Competition for leadership sometimes arises between two ewes. The Badwater band afforded one of our best opportunities to study this. An old ewe who carried her head at a distinctive tilt and had a large bump on her left horn was unquestionably the leader. But there was also a contender for the throne, "Droopy," as we called her because of her unique dropping horns. (See figs. 5 and 6.) Droopy always traveled close behind or side by side with the leader. But the two tended to feed separately from the others and sometimes rested apart from them.

On many occasions Droopy seemed to make persistent efforts to lead the band in a different direction from that chosen by the leader. She would do this by turning off on a ridge which the leader had already browsed by. The other four (who usually traveled and fed in a close group) would follow Droopy for some distance before noticing that the leader was not in front of them. Then they would stop and look around for the leader, whereupon Droopy would seem to increase her pace until she reached some high point where she would stop and look back at the others.

Sometimes Droopy's attempts would last for half an hour. The leader would calmly feed or watch as though it had nothing to do with her, as the four in between looked first at her, then at Droopy, while Droopy turned this way and that as though trying to persuade them to follow her. They never did. In the end they turned back toward the leader, leaving Droopy alone on her little hill. She would sometimes remain aloof for an hour, but eventually she would rejoin the band, passing all others until she once more took her place second in line.

At times it is difficult to distinguish an actual leader, because while feeding in travel, the band will follow, for a short distance, the first to diverge in any direction.

Especially when alarmed, the first one to bolt will likely be followed for a short distance. Then leadership becomes more apparent, because as soon as a safe altitude or distance is attained the real leader will stop for an evaluation of the danger, and the others will go into a huddle a short distance beyond her and await her decision.

Definite travel of any distance, however, such as a change in feeding territory, a search for water, or a climb to night bedding grounds, is always led by the same individual—one of the oldest ewes in the band.

On January 12, 1956, we witnessed a most unusual episode on the face of a cliff about a mile above the Natural Bridge. One of the outstanding characteristics of the bighorn is the casual self-confidence with which it approaches and traverses seemingly impassable terrain. On this occasion, however, it took a great deal more than casual self-confidence on the part of the leader to extricate her little band from an impasse.

The band of seven were moving at a fast walk, with occasional short bursts of running, along what appeared to be a well-defined trail across the face of a nearly perpendicular slope, when the leader suddenly stopped, stared for an instant straight ahead, then turned suddenly and ran back, the rest of the band turning and running with her. A few minutes later, she returned to the same spot and stopped again. While the others watched, she surveyed the cliff ahead, raising and lowering her head from time to time, taking one cautious step forward, then backing up.

We could see then that a part of the old trail had fallen away, leaving a chasm about 8 feet across. The trail immediately approaching it was apparently about 6 inches wide, running across a sheer cliff in a slight curve, making it a very difficult approach, even for a bighorn.

The leader finally gave up again, turning quickly, and running back to the others.

During the next half hour each of the others made more or less the same approach—the hesitant back-and-forth movement along the cliff toward the edge of the chasm and final flight back to the band.

One of the yearlings was followed out to the edge by the leader, and, as it hesitated, the leader suddenly gave it a strong push from behind. The yearling was pushed off, but, instead of leaping across, it flipped around and dropped down, managing to regain its footing about 3 feet below its former position, where it stood for some time before cautiously inching its way back to the trail.

Now the leader backed away from the ledge and with no more vacillation "took a run at it." Two leaps negotiated the dangerous curving approach, and a third cleared the 8-foot chasm itself. The others, after some obvious screwing-up of their courage, followed suit—except two who got panicky and ran back along the trail, searching frantically for some other way across. In the end they too made it, only to find the entire band in a cul-de-sac. They milled about again after going back to the dangerous crossing and staring up and down the cliff across which they had come, apparently deciding that even they couldn't make it back that way. After half an hour of this futile effort to find a way of escape, they dismissed the whole thing by lying down for a siesta, placidly chewing their cuds or stretching out in complete relaxation!

Forty-five minutes later they all arose as though at a signal. The leader, as if in accordance with a previous decision, walked to a ledge above a dry falls cut back into the cliff. Without any hesitation, she leaped and began a hair-raising 50-foot descent, zigzagging back and forth from one side of the falls to the other until she reached the talus slope at the foot of the cliff. She never looked back once she started, and even after reaching the talus slope she kept on going at a broken canter across the badlands. The others followed her lead without hesitation or mishap, and the entire band disappeared in a southeasterly direction toward the upper drainage of Natural Bridge canyon.

In none of the instances where competition has developed has the current leader been disturbed by the competition activity. This is probably because of the likelihood that the activity is not truly competitive in the sense that the contender actually wants to replace the leader. It seems more likely that the contender simply wants to go somewhere or do something else but doesn't want to do it alone. The true leaders among bighorn seem to be those self-sufficient ones who have reached a point in life of knowing what they themselves want to do and of being determined to go about doing it regardless of what the others want to do. There is no evidence here to indicate any concern on the part of the leader for the welfare of the band. In fact, the very lack of concern about everything, an overall fearlessness in her approach to the business of survival is indicated as prerequisite to the status of leadership. It seems possible that such matriarchs may have developed their independence through having outlived former elders of the band whom they themselves may have followed during earlier phases of development.

Possession of the quality of leadership, however, does not insure a following, for some who have it live alone. This in turn indicates a possible matriarchal influence in the choice of a leader and in band formation.

Rams of all ages appear to accept the temporary leadership of ewes whenever both sexes travel together, but a ram has never been observed by us in the role of leader except to other rams. The same suggestion of patriarchal influence is usually present in the sense of tribal, rather than paternal, leadership.

Lambs, having less experience with pain or fright, will often precede fearful adults into feeding or watering areas where the conditions are unknown and as yet unaccepted. Many times we have observed a band of sheep standing in a gaunt fearful huddle above a spring for minutes while a lamb works its way down to water. Once it was there, drinking and still safe, the others would break huddle, rush down and join it—sometimes displacing it in their drive to fulfill their need for water.

Here again, of course, no overt act of leadership is involved. The lamb reacted according to its experience and found conditions acceptable for watering. By going on in and drinking, it created acceptable conditions for the others.

While some leaderships are undoubtedly outgrowths of family ties, others are probably accidents of propinquity, as suggested by Old Mama's inheritance of the second band of blond strangers in Furnace Creek Wash, none of whom shared her identifying family characteristics in any way. She seemed to tolerate, rather than welcome, their attachment to her for about a month. Then she separated herself from them and their dependence on her.

The conflicting loyalties or instinctive dependencies indicated here will be discussed further under "Herd Composition."

The phenomenon of matriarchy as a factor in the survival pattern of the bighorn can be readily traced to the inception of postnatal training as the day-old lamb wobbles forward in its first instinctual drive to emulate its mother's way of living. (See "Growth, Behavior, and Care of Young.") Through her example many of the decisions are made of what, where, and when to eat, to drink, to rest, and to sleep. Through her the lamb learns what to fear, what to trust, and when and where to seek a new home.

The leaders have been our liaison with the other bighorn.


How gregarious the bighorn is seems to depend on the relative abundance of its food supply—in good years the bands are likely to be much larger than in bad years. The natural tendency seems to be toward group living, but it is by no means a fixed pattern. Dry years or cycles with their correlated depletion of water and food supplies find the bands dividing into smaller and smaller groups as the cover thins and a given area supports smaller numbers of sheep. (See "Herd Composition.")


Bighorn play (and training) may begin within a few hours after birth. We once watched a ewe place her forehead against that of her 8-hour-old lamb and gently but firmly shove it off its feet. The sprawling lamb eagerly returned for the same treatment. This happened three or four times before it forgot to get up and went to sleep.

Playing reaches its peak among the young in the spring or whenever food is easiest to get, in the morning and evening when it is cool, and when they are likely to have more companions to play with.

On February 9, 1958, a band of 14 blond fat bighorn were reveling in the lush vegetation of a "good flower year" on Death Valley Buttes. All afternoon they had basked in the sun, but as the day had cooled off their activity increased. The two older rams began to challenge each other in true bighorn fashion; and the little ones even tried now and then to emulate them, standing on their hindlegs cocking their heads sideways, and advancing a few halting steps toward each other, and even bumping horns a little as their forefeet dropped back to earth.

As darkness approached, their playing increased still more. All ages and sexes began butting playfully at each other, bouncing into the air, twisting and kicking as they sailed downhill for 15 or 20 feet at a bound. Sometimes they went nowhere, and just jumped up and down in one place, twisting and turning as they did so.

Presently they began destroying the lush new green of the desert shrubs in their exuberance, trampling, pawing, and thrashing their horns in them and sometimes grabbing large mouthfuls before darting away. This activity continued until after dark and began again at daybreak, when for over an hour we were treated to the greatest playing exhibition we had ever seen. Round and round on a steep loose talus slope they raced, leaping, bounding, kicking, butting the air, each other, plants, rocks, or just butting. The 3-year-old rams backed off and "let each other have it" from about 10 feet apart with a clonk perfectly audible from where we watched three-quarters of a mile away.

They found a crumbling cliff at the edge of the slope and there the youngsters gathered, seeming to enjoy the feel of the edge giving way under their feet, leaping off into space with the greatest delight, and scampering around and back up again. There was much shoving going on too, apparently in an effort to shove each other over the edge. The two 3-year-olds joined in this and were pushed about even by the youngest of the merrymakers.

The six older ones, the ewes, disappeared into a ravine leading up to the top of the ridge, where first the six lambs and then the two rams soon followed. Within what seemed no more than a few seconds we first heard, then saw, all 14 racing pellmell across a talus slope a quarter of a mile east of the ravine into which they had disappeared. Even the old "ladies" were playing then, as round and round they raced for several minutes. Then as though at a signal they all stopped and began to graze.

While most of the playing is usually in the morning or evening, optimum conditions may bring it on at any time. The next day at 1:30 p.m. four of the youngest began playing on top of a boulder about 4 feet high and just big enough for all four to stand on. Once there they tried to push each other off. Three times when two were on top of the rock alone, they stood and "sighted" just as their fathers do. Both male and female lambs do this at times, but the males do it much more. It consists of cocking their heads and sighting down their noses as adult rams do in battle before the charge.

We supposed that the good grazing and cool weather were responsible for such excess energy. We had seen lambs do this before, but only once before had the ewes joined in, and that was on March 31, 1956, before a big rain in Furnace Creek Wash. This band in Furnace Creek had deviated from the usual routine by sunning themselves on big flat rocks until well after noon. Finally at 1:30 they all began to rise and stretch. The young ram was the first to get on his feet and browse away a short distance. They all browsed around the bedding area for a few minutes and then started down the hill; once they started down, their behavior changed.

It was a cloudy, cool day with the smell of water in the air, which may have affected them. They took little extra runs this way and that all the way down, until as they came out on the bench just above the wash above the Big Dip one of the lambs suddenly started to run full tilt down the slope of a bench and then plowed all four feet into the slope, raising a cloud of dust from which it reappeared running wildly back up the slope toward the bench and across the bench about 100 feet to the foot of the mountain. There it turned, while all the others watched, and raced across the bench again. This time when it reached the crest of the bench slope, instead of running down, it shot straight out into the air in a leap at least 30 feet long before it landed in the gravel of the wash below.

Upon landing it continued to bound and bounce into the air 3 or 4 feet, progressing more or less in a circle, kicking and writhing this way and that. By now, the others were affected by these antics and the entire band in varying degrees joined in what by now had a remarkable resemblance to a wild dance of some sort. Even Old Mama shed her dignity long enough to round the circle a time or two—and her lamb, although it was lame, joined in a tentative effort now and then. This went on for probably 3 minutes and was over before we even thought of getting pictures of it.

It seems obvious that the training begun at an early age by the mother is continued in the form of play, and play, therefore, assumes a greater role than simple recreation in the life of the growing bighorn as it does for most young animals. (See "Growth, Behavior, and Care of Young.")

It would appear that a lamb raised alone would be at somewhat the same disadvantage in later competition as a human child would be without playmates or a formal education. A lone lamb in a band, like a child, compensates for the lack of contemporary playmates by playing solitary games and by pressing adults into sometimes reluctant participation in its program. In contrast to the group games on Death Valley Buttes, we observed several weeks of playtime activity by single lambs in both the Badwater and Furnace Creek bands.

On February 21, 1955, as darkness fell, the Badwater band started straight up the face of a cliff 2 miles north of "The Bay." The 6-month-old lamb as usual chose this precarious (so it seemed to us since we could scarcely see the ground to walk on) time to gambol and frisk about on the near-perpendicular face of the cliff. (See fig. 48.) At one time it leaped a 4-foot chasm, kicking its heels and tossing its head as it did so.

The next day after the noon siesta the lamb, on rising, had a very playful session with its mother who, for once, responded. Such a lamb often tries to play with the ewes, who usually ignore it until they become irritated and butt it away. Later, this lamb ran to its mother again as though teasing, thrust its nose into nursing position, and quickly gave a surprisingly strong shove, nearly knocking the ewe from her feet. Then before the ewe could regain her balance and whirl on the lamb, it had dashed away, gleefully kicking its heels as it went.

In Furnace Creek Wash on February 15, 1956, the 2-week-old lamb was very active and playful. At one time the ewe was feeding between two large rocks. The lamb ran and jumped on one rock, from there to its mother's back, then to another rock, and scampered off up the side of the wash. There it walked bravely, ears forward, head up, looking up the canyon side, up and down the canyon. Suddenly it looked back and could not see its mother. Its ears came down and back, the bravado vanished, and small bleats and a panicky run brought it back to within sight of its mother.

That play is sometimes directly blended with serious activity is suggested in the habitual off-season sex play of young ewes and the rams up to their third year, before the latter have finally left the family group for the winter ram herd. This "play" occasionally results in actual copulation and may contribute substantially to the spread of the lambing season in Death Valley. Playful sexual behavior begins within the first few weeks of life and continues to maturity.


We have no conclusive data on the subject of bighorn memory. Many incidents, which at first appeared to be attributable to memory, have with repetition shown such prominent instinctual characteristics that labeling is approached with hesitation. That bighorn have some memory goes without saying, but efforts at quantitative or qualitative determination of its dimension would seem unwise in view of the still unmeasured potentialities of their eyesight, hearing, sense of smell, direction, equilibrium, and physical coordination.

Such questions as these arise: Does a bighorn know its way through the mountains because it has been there before and remembers its way around, or does its physical and sensorial equipment make it possible for it to follow where other bighorn have gone although no trail is visible to us? When we first began observing bighorn at Nevares Spring, was their apparent terror in approaching Round Pool caused by a remembered traumatic experience, the lingering scent of a passing predator, the remembered crack of a poacher's rifle, or was it a socially "inherited" reaction having nothing to do with the present, a family or group fear handed down from generations and conditions long since nonexistent?

Climbing Ability

Their climbing ability has long held a legendary status in bighorn lore, tall tales growing taller and widening their scope as new facets of wonder "spring like the bighorn from nowhere!"

The true record of their prowess in mountaineering is incredible to the casual observer, because their normal habits of travel are deceptively easygoing in appearance to the point of laziness, and sensational demonstrations of the peak of their phenomenal abilities are so rare that they are seldom seen by any but the most persistent or fortunate observers.

The normal undisturbed manner of bighorn travel, whether up or down, is leisurely and along the lines of least resistance, with frequent rests along contouring trails. They appear prone, especially in the summer, to conserve their energy as much as possible.

The climbing training of the young through play and emulation of their elders has been discussed under "Play" and will be more fully developed under "Growth, Behavior, and Care of Young." The adults' application of their highly developed climbing abilities to their every-day activity is phenomenal but is usually executed with such deceptive ease that it often passes unrecorded.

During the 1955 census at Willow Creek, I had been standing near the blind above the springs examining the entire area through binoculars for about 20 minutes when I decided to go into the blind itself to see if I could get some idea of how successful a hunter would be in keeping the area in view from that point. As I started toward the blind, I suddenly realized that a magnificent full-curl ram was, and had been during this entire time, standing directly below me, not more than 50 feet away. He stood with his massive horns lowered, looking up, the translucent amber of his eyes startlingly noticeable from where I stood. He had apparently "frozen" in this attitude and held it ever since I had appeared 20 minutes before. Outstaring a bighorn can become a tiring job. We have observed them many times maintain complete immobility for hours at a time.

When my eyes fell on his, although I had moved nothing else, he knew I had seem him for the first time. His head raised slightly and a tremor ran through his body as muscles tightened. For a count of five he stood, then blew loudly once through his nose. Four leaps took him across a boulder-strewn gully, a sharp turn to the right and he was gone. It took me 2 minutes to follow him to the point where he had disappeared. As speedily as possible, more or less on all fours, I attained the summit of the point above the blind, a distance of perhaps 50 feet across a precipitous incline of smooth solid rock strewn with talus. As I reached this point, the ram appeared at the crest of a ridge about 200 yards away. He looked back for an instant and then disappeared beyond this ridge. I checked my watch, entered the time in my notebook—12:32. When I looked up, the ram was in sight again, approaching the crest of the second ridge away, where he came to a full stop. In my glasses I watched him turn, instantly relax everything but his senses, draw one deep breath from his exertion, and then lapse into immobility again. The distance, as carefully as I could estimate it, was a quarter of a mile. I had previously tried to work my way along the route he had taken and after half an hour had given it up because of the loose boulders of 3 to 4 feet in diameter piled one on the other against the almost perpendicular walls of the canyon.

I had first seen him at 12:30. It was now 12:34. He had covered this distance in 4 minutes at 15 miles per hour.

The ability to "bounce" from one wall to another in ascending or descending has already been well illustrated under "Herd Leadership," in the instance of the 8-foot section of a cliff trail that had recently fallen away, leading to the entrapment of a band.

A highly developed sense of balance was demonstrated by a young ram on a cliff below Keystone Canyon on the evening of December 3, 1957, The old ewe Droopy and this young ram had been under observation since daylight, and as darkness fell the last we could see of her she was lying down, placidly chewing her cud: The young ram was standing 10 feet above her on a loose ledge looking down at her. The ledge began to crumble under him, and she got up and moved from under the falling rocks. Completely unperturbed, he just spread all four feet out a little and rode down the small landslide until it stopped; whereupon he simply relaxed where he stood. She lay down again a few feet away. As we left them there, they were chewing their cuds in the moonlight.

Their agility and ability to regain their equilibrium in the air was demonstrated on August 28, 1957, when three mature rams, old acquaintances of ours, were jousting in South Nevares Wash.

I had gone into the drainage below them and was close enough, I hoped, for good pictures of jousting. Two of the rams made a running jump and got up a 15- or 20-foot bank. The third one, Toby, started to do the same thing, but The Hook caught him full in the face as he hit the crest and knocked him over backward. Toby spun around in the air like a cat and came down on his feet. The Hook stood waiting at the top for him to try it again, but he went around and came up a safer way.

On March 17, 1956, the second Furnace Creek band fed down to the junction with Whitewash Canyon, turned up that canyon at 12:30, and at 12:45 climbed out on to a jutting, narrow, intersecting ridge that ended in a 75-foot drop. Here they pawed five beds and went into siesta until 2 p.m. The ridge was so narrow that as the others were getting up to leave, the ram (still asleep) fell off it and scared the whole band as well as himself. He caught himself about 10 feet down, shook himself vigorously, and unconcernedly climbed back up.

While we have not yet observed rams "tumbling down cliffs and alighting on their prodigious horns" (Browne, 1864, p. 691), we have recorded above the type of incidents that give rise to such reports. Here is another example in which my own activity is given in detail as well as that of the ram because of the apparent influence of my presence in determining the climax:

On August 14, 1957, I arrived with pick and shovel at Navel Spring at 11:30 a.m. By 1:15 the sun came into this box canyon and I gave up shovel work for the day and took all equipment back out to the truck. I found it was 135° in the cab of the truck, there being no breeze where the truck sat in the cut.

I loaded up and drove back out of the cut to get some breeze, pulled out the extension of the truck top for shade (fig. 4) and was preparing to eat lunch when I saw a big ram coming over the skyline above the spring. Glasses showed it to be an adult ram, hurrying along in a half trot, mouth open in the heat. He stopped now and then to look around, seemed to see me and the truck, but paid no attention.

He dropped into the spring by the north trail and crossed below the mesquite to the tanks. He stopped in the opening and gave the area the wonderfully wary, head-up going over that is so becoming to rams. He seemed a little disturbed by the evidence of my digging at the tunnel. Then he dropped out of sight, which I hoped meant he was getting that much-needed drink. I was glad I came out to where I did because he probably wouldn't have come in if I had been much closer.

But suddenly he bounded back after he had been in there but a minute. He raced across the opening to the first ridge at the foot of the north trail. Then he stared back down at the spring trying to see what frightened him. It was probably a rock dislodged from the cliff overhead by a flock of linnets, who were doing that all morning as I was working at the spring. (I was hit a stinging whack on the arm by one rock about an inch through. Another larger one whizzed past my head by inches.)

The ram seemed to think some one was pelting him with rocks from some place he could not locate. He stared down awhile and then moved to another spot and stared again. He faced toward me twice to give me the once-over, but almost instantly he dismissed me in favor of the "rock thrower." Finally he started to leave, although he could not have drunk his fill in so short a time. He reached the overhanging ledge which runs along just above the trail, on his way out, his mouth now really open. He tried to walk in the shadow of the ledge, even to the extent of squatting down as he walked to get out of the sun. He stopped, pawed briefly, and lay down, mouth wide open, with his muzzle and one horn still in the sun. My thermometer read 100° where I was.

He was on his feet, almost at once, startled again by something. He came out from under the ledge and looked up as though it might have been another rock from above. There was a strong breeze up there carrying the dust away as he pawed three times and lay down again.

I began my lunch. In 10 minutes he leaped up again. Strong gusts of wind were whirling by me now and then and I could hear them fade away in his direction. Maybe they made him nervous. Something surely did. He lay down again, the third time, but got up again and appeared to be giving up and leaving. He moved out in the open, walking steadily, head out and down, with his mouth open. His head came up and he paused a moment on the skyline, then dropped out of sight. I was glad that I was a good quarter of a mile away or I would have been feeling guilty by now, thinking I was the cause of his going away thirsty. As it was, he would probably go around the hill into the canyon where there was real shade and come back when it was cooler, as we had seen them do at Nevares.

I waited until dusk and was ready to go when there he was, just as I thought he might be—the old ram, coming back over the hill in the evening! He dropped down nearly to the sheer dry falls, then browsed, watching, taking his time now—waiting for ewes to come in, probably, poised on the edge of the 200-foot cliff above the spring. He seemed to be expecting others.

He looked down over the edge—and I could hardly believe what I was seeing—for he crouched down with his front feet out and inched down over the edge. Fifteen or twenty feet down I could see what appeared to be a ledge only 3 or 4 feet wide. He backed up and I thought he had changed his mind, but he was just looking for another place. Again he crouched on the edge with his front feet inching over and down! I heard myself saying, "Go on around, you old fool! You've got lots of time!"

I remembered seeing rams' skulls up on cliff faces just like this one, and now I was about to see one made. He backed up again, but he was not going on around the way he had done at noon—he went back toward the falls, still looking, still determined to go over! This seems to be the time of day that bighorn like to dare the devil. When humans can scarcely see to walk on level ground, they choose to scale cliffs, or jump over them! I looked at my watch—just 7:20—when he crouched farther down than ever—then over he went—at least five times his own height—no jump—just a sort of push out and let go— straight down, and folding flat to the ground when he landed—no bounce. No nothing for a second or two—then a tense, slow rise—then stock still for a count of 10. He didn't have a foot to spare—he couldn't bounce, there was no place to bounce to, but off—and down seemingly in the same fashion for another hundred feet. I couldn't tell whether he was hurting somewhere or just summoning up all his resources for the next plunge.

Then he moved a little but still stood there as though he might be feeling a little weak in the knees. I know I was.

It was getting darker as he started moving again! There was no way out there—except over the edge.

This time he bounced once about 10 feet down, and off, and down another 10 feet—and onto a trail crossing the face of the cliff!

He was in no hurry now, ambling along the trail a few feet, stopping to look at the sunset or whatever. He didn't seem to need a drink very badly. Perhaps he had come back to spend the evening and wait for the ewes to come in.

At 8 o'clock he still had not gone to drink, and I could barely see the top of his horns where he stood on the last crag before going down to water.

The above incident is reported in full in the hope that it will lead to a better understanding of the background of such activities, the conditions under which such things happen: The terrain, the weather, the temperature, the time of day, the objective of the effort, the amount of energy expended, and above all, the role apparently played by my own activity in disturbing the acceptable conditions of his watering there, impelling him to take a shortcut.

In any case, the evidence of this report will do little to detract from the widely held belief that the bighorn's ability as a mountain climber is probably unexcelled and has contributed substantially to its survival to the present time.


Fighting, per se, finds practically no place in our data to date. The "fighting" of the rams in rut will be discussed fully under "Fighting With Other Males."

The negligible contact that the present-day Death Valley bighorn may have with predatory enemies has not been witnessed by us, precluding any description or evaluation of the bighorns' prowess in that field.

Their evident indifference to territorial claims is seldom pushed beyond a token defense. On November 18, 1956, in the Big Wash, the resident band of nine ewes were joined by six strangers, and we had an opportunity to see how strange bands reacted to each other when they met.

Kinky (a 5-year-old ram) ignored the two younger rams but became immediately interested in one of the ewes, who eluded him. But some of the ewes showed more animosity to each other than the rams did, cracking horns like rams are supposed to do.

One of the young rams came up to the older one and they rubbed noses and scratched each other's heads with their horns.

We went back to our truck to get cameras and lunch. We could hear horns crashing up the ravine and hurried back to find the entire band of 15 placidly bedded, chewing cuds.

Bighorn in Death Valley seldom have been observed actually fighting over water, food, or a resting place. The extent of a typical conflict of these proportions is indicated by the following observation made near Badwater on February 21, 1955: One ewe turned out to be a tyrant who would not make her own bed but roused the others out of theirs. Even the old matriarch was displaced, two or three times, pointing up the idea that she ruled only by example and was not "boss" of the band.

There never seems to be more than halfhearted resistance to this tyranny, the "displaced person" occasionally turning and presenting her horn for butting. The two seem to be rather cautious about it, carefully adjusting their respective pairs of horns against the other until the position of contact suits both, then the push begins. This usually is no more than a rocking back and forth two or three times, not even moving the feet, then relaxing, raising the heads and looking about for several minutes, lowering the heads, adjusting the horns, pushing back and forth, etc. Occasionally, one apparently pushes too hard, and the other will suddenly shift a hind foot back and lunge with enough force to cause the other to give ground. Once or twice this has ended in a short chase, which in itself usually ends in the two calmly feeding side by side for a few minutes, then returning to rest, neither one apparently feeling concerned over what started it.


Rest, for the bighorn under certain conditions to be described, seems to vary substantially by age class and sex.

The newborn lamb rests more than any other, with the length of rest periods growing shorter and the interval between growing longer as the lamb grows older. The ewe that is under pressure of milk production seems to eat longer and rest less than dry ewes. Rams under rutting pressure are likely to be observed resting more than ewes or lambs. (See "Growth, Behavior, and Care of Young" and "Reproduction.") All age classes and sexes rest more when range conditions are good, and under normally acceptable conditions all bighorn apparently rest all night. The actual time per individual daytime rest period ranges from the few seconds of a young lamb during travel and play periods to an occasional 4 or 5 hours when a band is over stuffed or overtired.

Their manner of resting varies, although what controls the variation is not known to us. They may go into a standing rest on a certain point one day and lie down in the same spot on another. The smoothness or roughness of the terrain seems to have no effect on their decision. The standing rest position is almost identical to the trained stance of prize domestic animals on exhibition, with the front legs forward and the front feet higher than the back feet, hindlegs extended to rear. This position seems nearly as restful as lying down. This manner of resting is more commonly seen when animals are alone but does not seem to be associated with nervousness or fear in the sense that resting on foot may be safer than in a prone position.

The majority of daytime resting or, as they are commonly referred to in this region, siesta periods, are spent lying down. Usually all four legs are folded under the body, the forequarters lowering first, then the rear, followed by a slight roll to one side to shift the weight directly from the shoulder, the belly, and the hip to the ground. The neck and head are usually erect and in balanced relaxation above the body, but on some occasions, possibly from severe fatigue, the head is thrust forward and rested on the muzzle and the tip of one horn. Some brooming of the horns may be caused by this position.

Bighorn do not always prepare a bed before lying down, but if they do it is accomplished by two or three or half a dozen pawing strokes of a front foot, apparently designed to remove some of the large rocks and to loosen the remaining surface of the site. The objective of this effort appears to be the formation of a shallow oval basin from 2 to 3 feet long and 2 or 3 inches deep, depending on the size of the animal involved. The desired cradling effect of the basin is further achieved by the manner of occupancy. An observation on December 3, 1956, in the Big Wash threw some light on this. We watched Old Mama bed and saw again how the basins are actually formed. We had often wondered how with three or four pawings they did so complete a job. Now we saw that they didn't. The pawing was actually preparation for the basin "forming," which was accomplished by a series of shoveling effects with the knees, hocks, and hooves as she settled into the ground thus loosened.

Basins are apparently not always desirable or deemed necessary. A ram observed for 3 hours on July 8 at Willow Creek lay down repeatedly with no preparation of any kind, and at Badwater on no occasion did all six animals prepare a bed. Usually only two or three actually made a basin. They were observed many times to lie down for a half to three-quarters of an hour on rocky fans with no effort at bed preparation. And on March 31, 1956, at 8 a.m. we "found the band bedded on top of Red Mountain, lying on huge boulders in the sun." They must have found this comfortable for 5-1/2 hours, because it was 1:30 when "all began to rise and stretch."

While they may choose a spot on the sunny side of a slope in the winter, they seek the shade in the summer, with all the expected variations in between. Above Raven Spring, on September 3, 1957, a 2-year-old ram, Slim, was hot and wanted to lie down, but the rocky side of the canyon facing us had no level spots or soft ground. He found a place that was still in the shade, however, and after standing there for about 15 minutes, just sank down on his folded-up legs. He looked as though he was lying on a bundle of sticks. It must have been as uncomfortable as it looked, because 20 minutes later he was up and feeding among the rocks—only for 10 minutes, however, and this time he used better judgment. He fed to the base of the rock formation and found a good bed at 11 o'clock. He rested, with only shifts to get out of the sun, until it reached him at 12:30.

The variation in both the manner of rest and the nature of beds was further illustrated in the same area on August 25, 1957, when two big rams, The Hook and Skinny, had a time of it with 6-month-old Marco, who had gone on ahead and found himself a cozy nook in the shade, and after much pawing, turning round and round, lying down and getting up, had settled himself for a nice rest while the others rested down below. But Skinny saw him, and no sooner was he settled than big Skinny went up and routed little Marco out of his bed. It had hardly been big enough for the lamb, but Skinny was stubborn. He pawed and turned and scraped his skinny backside on the rocks and with much up and down and wriggling finally got himself settled and tried to relax. But not for long. The Hook had been watching him just as he had watched little Marco, and now it was his turn to move. The nook was not big enough for Marco or Skinny, and The Hook was bigger than both together. Did he have a time wedging himself down on the narrow little ledge! He never was comfortable but he stuck it out, half up on his "elbows" the while, until Little Ewe went by. The Hook was up and after her in a flash, and Skinny was in again, and again trying to feel as comfortable as little Marco had looked when he was lying there.

Meantime, Marco had gone on up about 200 yards to another small cave he seemed to know about and went in completely out of sight, finally alone as he seemed to want to be.

So the nature of the beds appears to vary according to the season and the current activity of the animals involved, occasionally highlighted by competition for particular sites.

Security, however, is probably the governing factor in the choice of a bedding location, whether for a brief moment of the day or the full hours of the night. Here we come again to acceptable conditions and their variations according to the experience of the animals involved.

Traditionally the bedding bighorn has been pictured as always scaling the heights of inaccessible peaks beyond the reach of all predatory enemies before he finally relaxed to rest.

The lack of a sense of security presumably offered by the proximity of precipitous terrain to watering and feeding grounds is commonly accepted as the controlling factor involved in the absence of sheep in certain areas. This may sometimes be true but certainly not always. The first Furnace Creek band on December 28, 1955, bedded down at 4 p.m., not on a high point but down in a canyon. And on November 18, 1956, a band of 18, with some of the personnel of the first band, bedded for the night in a shallow ravine a mile out on flat Paleomesa.

As discussed under "Herd Leadership," this bands' apparently imperturbable sense of security might have been a reflection of the attitude of their leader, Old Mama, who had no apparent fear of anything at that time and tended to bed anywhere that night or fatigue overtook her.

With the advent of her lamb, this mutual laissez faire between her and us came to an end. The old conditions of freedom and proximity were no longer acceptable to her, and renewed distrust set a greater distance between us. While she still took an occasional daytime siesta in the wash, at evening she reverted completely to the classic tradition and sought the inaccessible and secret bedding site which seems a prerequisite to the security of a ewe with a newborn lamb. Any effort on our part to follow her to her night beds met with increased anxiety, and she would continue to climb until she finally reached some point beyond the range of our observation. Later we found single beds on the mountain a mile and a half above the feeding grounds, on narrow ledges at the foot of overhanging cliffs with but one avenue of approach apparent. Ewe and lamb sign filled in the probable picture.

After 6 weeks of this wary existence, Old Mama's sense of security was bolstered somewhat by the appearance, on March 13, 1956, of the second Furnace Creek band, and night bedding on the mesa was resumed.

On March 16 on the edge of Paleomesa less than half a mile from the road, our field notes record, "they went up to the crest cliff and gave us good shots until sundown, then bedded right there for the night, the first time since lambing that we have known them to bed in sight of the road."

The next morning "I went up to the crest ledge to study sign from last night's bedding. Hit jackpot—62 beds used this year, 22 fresh, countless older beds of previous years, or generations. This is ancestral territory. It is odd that of all the bedding that has been done here we have not seen it before—but the camouflage is ideal, with rocky gravel slopes extending on up from the crest ledge where they bed."

While beds may be found almost anywhere in bighorn habitat, the factors of security and comfort in varying degrees, seasons, and circumstances lead the experienced observer to expect to find more beds in certain types of terrain than in others. Day beds, as has been illustrated, may be found in washes, on hillsides, along old trails and old roads, or anywhere the impulse to lie down may overtake a bighorn; but more beds seem to be found on promontories, especially above watering places, at the foot of shaded, north-facing cut banks, on the brow and at the foot of cliffs in summer browsing areas, and in shallow caves along trails to water than anywhere else.


Sanitation presents practically no problem to the bighorn since it seldom seems to spend two consecutive nights in the same place, thus holding excretory accumulation to a minimum.

The Death Valley feeding and watering conditions and the bighorn adaptation to them constitute a natural aid to sanitation, for between them they produce a quantity and quality of waste material which reduces still further what small problem they might have had.

Under normal conditions the bighorn utilization of forage materials for both food and water leaves a relatively small and dry amount of waste, deposited in groups of pellets of an infinite variety of sizes, shapes, colors, and number of pellets to the group. Once deposited, the sun and wind usually complete dehydration of the waste so rapidly that almost no odor is apparent to humans.


Urination seems to present the bighorn with no more of a problem in sanitation than does defecation under normal conditions. We have no observation of the commitment of either directly into water supplies. Many bighorn water sources, however, are located at the foot of cliffs and in other types of terrain where excrement deposited above the water is subsequently precipitated into it with concomitant fouling. However this seems to create no unacceptable condition for the bighorn because they continue to drink there.

Whether the fouling of water sources by droppings and urine is a significant communicator of disease among the Death Valley bighorn is not known. (See "Diseases and Parasites.")

Urination frequency is as variable as that of defecation and probably for the same reasons, depending primarily on the quantity and quality of food and water ingested and the nature of the circumstances surrounding ingestion.

When four of the original Badwater band returned on February 12, 1955, we observed an unusually high incidence of urination, in contrast to an earlier remarkable absence of it (only 12 incidents of urination from 6 bighorn in 8 days). Now within 3 hours we observed six incidents from four sheep.

This excessive urination continued all day. By nightfall there had been an estimated 20 incidents, sometimes a very small amount, as though not quantity but some other characteristic of the urine might be causing it.

After 4 days the incidence of urination returned to what appeared to be a normal of three observations per day.

In Furnace Creek Wash on January 7, 1956, we noted that in a band of seven, urination was very infrequent, three instances in 1 day. Two days later the picture had changed to the point that even during siesta they would rise to urinate repeatedly, which seemed most unusual.

Under average acceptable browsing conditions in dry weather on dry forage, no observations of urination may be recorded for days or even weeks if the weather is hot as well as dry. This does not mean that there is no urination but that it is so infrequent as to make is easily missed. This is perhaps more easily understood when compared with the infrequency of human urination under similar conditions.

During our 30-day observations at Nevares in the summer of 1957, with daily maximum temperatures running in the 120's, we each drank well over 2 gallons of water per day with an average urination interval of 12 hours.

The bighorn have no habits of elimination which we recognize as being designed to protect them from the effects of physical contact with excreta, such as those commonly associated with dogs and cats. On the contrary, we have recorded many incidents of sheep rising in the night, defecating and urinating in their beds, and lying back down in them. Excretory density increases with proximity to water sources and tends to reach a maximum where the sheep stand to drink. In general it would appear that it makes no difference to the bighorn when or where elimination takes place. This contrasts rather sharply and unfavorably with the Death Valley burro which is, popular opinion to the contrary, surprisingly clean at the waterhole. (See "Competitors and Enemies.")

The potential of urination as an associative agent in sign reading will be explored under that heading. The possibility of its being a factor in bighorn communication will be considered under "Signposts."

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Last Modified: Thurs, May 16 2002 10:00:00 pm PDT

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