Today I’m celebrating my birthday (which was two days ago) in Buffalo by going to watch the Bills play the Chiefs. I’m pretty excited, and in honour of this event, I’m going to blog about buffalo. Specifically the American buffalo, since I’m in ‘Merica and all.

American buffalo are also commonly known as bison, and were once found from Alaska to Mexico, in great abundance. Today their range is much more restricted, to protected areas scattered through the continent. The biggest herds are found in Yellowstone National Park and in Wood Buffalo park. They usually live in savanna or grasslands, but will also occupy forest or desert areas if there’s enough grazing for them.

A herd of buffalo graze peacefully.  Photo credit: Steven Schimmrich
A herd of buffalo graze peacefully.
Photo credit: Steven Schimmrich

Buffalo are big. How big, you ask? Well, they’re one of the biggest species of bovids in world, and are the biggest land mammal in the Americas. They can grow up to 3.5 meters long, with shoulder heights of over 180 cm. Wild buffalo weigh up to 1,270 kg, but they can get even heavier in captivity, where they are farmed for meat. The largest buffalo ever recorded was 1,724 kg. Buffalo have a large shoulder hump and massive heads, which give them an impressive, if dopey, stature. Both sexes have horns, which can grow over 60 cm. The rule here is: don’t mess with buffalo. I would not want a 1000 kg beast with half a meter long horns angry at me.

Add to that the buffalo’s agility, speed and the fact that they are good swimmers, and you have a fairly dangerous animal on your hands. Though they look extremely unwieldy, buffalo can jump almost two meters vertically, and can run over 60 km/h when upset. Pretty impressive for such a large creature.

Look how big the head and shoulders are!  Source:
Look how big the head and shoulders are!

Buffalo live in herds that have a fairly strict social structure. Groups are formed based on age and sex, with cows living in big groups away from the bulls. The cows aren’t completely exclusive, however – they do let bulls under three years of age and older males into the group. Bulls either live individually or in groups of males that can be as large as thirty. Buffalo feed on grasses, and grazing involves periods of grazing, rest and rumination (chewing cud), and then moving to fresh spots. When they travel, buffalo tend to move in a line, for whatever reason. I guess they like order.

Reproduction in buffalo takes place between June and September. Bulls compete for access to females, often staking claim to a small herd and chasing females away from other males. Calving occurs in the spring, and calves are born weighing 15-25 kg. They stay with their mothers for a full year, reaching sexual maturity from two  to three years of age. Bulls usually don’t mate before six years of age, because before then they are not large enough to actively compete for females.

The decimation of the buffalo population in the late 1800s is well known, but it’s still a little ridiculous to see the actual numbers. Before Europeans came to America, there were an estimated 60 million wild buffalo. It’s easy to see how people would have assumed these creatures were an endless source of meat. By 1890, however, there were only 750 buffalo left, in part due to planned killing of the buffalo to destroy the livelihood of Native American groups that depended on the animals. I guess at this point someone realized that destroying the entire buffalo species was a pretty terrible idea, because they have since recovered, living in reserves and protected areas. There were approximately 360,000 buffalo living as of 2000.

Well, I’d better stop here because I’ve got a football game to go to. Unfortunately for the Buffalo Bills, I’m not rooting for them. I think if they were actual buffalo they’d have a much better chance of winning today’s game. Then I’d probably cheer for them.

Cover photo source: Wikipedia