Friday, February 9, 2018

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Buffalo (But Were Afraid to Ask)

The American bison, also commonly called the buffalo, is a North American species of bison. Its scientific name is Bison bison. Historians believe that the common term arose from the French word for beef, boeuf. Your characters may have come in contact with this large herbivore at some time in their lives, especially if they crossed the plains.

Bison stand between 7 and 15 feet tall at the head, 5 to 6.5 feet at the shoulder. They are characterized by the large hump on their shoulders and slimmer hindquarters. Bison bulls also have a beard that can be up to a foot long. Both bulls and cows have sharp horns that can grow to be 2 feet long. They have cloven hooves.

Bison weigh in somewhere between 900 and 2,200 pounds and live from 12 to 20 years. Despite their massive size, they’re quick on their feet and can run at up to 40 miles per hour. They can also jump high fences and are strong swimmers. Their shaggy coat is so thick that snow can settle on a bison’s back without melting.

Bison feed on various plants found on the plains: grasses, herbs, shrubs and twigs. They typically forage for 9 to 11 hours a day and eat up to 1.6 percent of their total body mass in food daily. Like cows, they regurgitate the plant mass and chew it as cud before final digestion. They prefer to graze in the morning, chew their cud in the afternoon, and graze again in the evening. They also wallow in the dust or mud to combat insects, shed excess hair, and scratch itchy patches.

Cows and young bulls live in small, separate bands that come together into massive herds during the summer mating season. Mature bulls have their own bands that can number up to 30 animals. Older bulls are often solitary. Although the males battle for mating rights, these contests rarely turn dangerous.

The females give birth to one calf after a nine-month pregnancy. These calves can weigh between 30 and 70 pounds at birth and are a red-orange color. They don’t grow a hump or horns until a few months after birth, so they’re commonly called “red dogs” until then.

Bison are nearsighted, but they have excellent senses of hearing and smell. They communicate with grunts, and will snort or bellow if threatened. Due to their poor vision, a bison herd is quite apt to stampede at the slightest unusual noise.

Unless your characters lived during the early half of the nineteenth century, the bison would already have been on the decline due to the extensive efforts of settlers to eradicate the animals – for food, sport, and to deprive the Native Americans of their most important natural asset and drive them onto the reservations. Some 50 million animals were slaughtered during this time, reducing the once enormous herds to only a few hundred animals. Thankfully, bison numbers have rebounded somewhat today, and about  500,000 bison live on preserves and ranches.

Until the settlers decimated the population, Plains Indians relied on the bison for a wide variety of useful items. Not only did a bison provide from 400 to 800 pounds of meat (depending on whether it was a cow or a bull), but nearly every part of the animal was used. The horns were used to fashion spoons. The thick hide on the top of the head was turned into bowls. The heart was used as a pouch to carry dried meat. The tendons and ligaments were used for sewing and leathercraft. The thick coat was tanned and used to make the walls of a teepee, and could be used as a valuable trade item. Even the stomach had a use as a cookpot: drop a few hot rocks into a water-and-meat-filled stomach and you’ve got a tasty soup.


  1. Good article and much appreciated, even if I was late in reading it. I've never mentioned them in a story as they take place in the late 1880s and in South Texas and North Mexico where they did not range. I do describe the value of buffalo blankets in "Marta's Ride," they kept the girls alive. Thanks again for an interesting article.