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Animal Rut: Doing The Wild Thing

They paw, prance, bang heads, and curl lips. The rut is on, and there's no better time to observe the wild kingdom.

My duties concluded, I head for Wyoming’s Wind River Range, where November is sliding toward December and the wind chill is -20°F. As I sit peering from beneath stunted timberline pines, a herd of bighorn sheep grazes a few yards away. There must be close to 100 of them scattered in small pods across the freeze-dried summit of Whiskey Mountain on the eastern flanks of the Wind River. Short days and bitter cold signal the end of fat summer living for these sheep, but they’re using the brief remnants of autumn to good effect, namely, getting it while they can.

This is a backcountry Peeping Tom’s heaven. I’ve managed to arrive at the peak of a month-long melee of butting, spraying, and rampant fornication. The rams cluster in boisterous herds, occasionally straying from their head-butting duels to pester any ewe that smells right. The ewes that are in heat, called estrus, are obvious; they’re the ones being pursued by gangs of rams, the largest among the males continually pressing and propositioning her, while simultaneously trying to defend his courtship against the relentless interlopers.

I watch one dominant ram for hours, all rippling muscles and full-curl masculinity. He approaches the ewe of his dreams with quick, mincing steps, head held low, flicking his tongue in a manner that even I’d call piggish. When he sidles up, she moves off, more interested in grazing than romance. He’s relentless, though, reaching a foreleg and gently striking her in a “leg beat.” The more he tries, the more clownish he becomes.

I quickly realize the sad news that this ram’s in love. Whenever she urinates, he promptly noses the wet dirt, then rears his head while curling his lip in a near-universal rutting gesture called flehmen, which lets him better “taste” her breeding readiness.

As the sun sets on Whiskey Mountain, shadows climb over the herd. Rising wind and curtains of snow herald the arrival of winter’s first big storm. Time to pack up camp and get out while I can.

Through the thickening flakes I see antlered bucks pursuing delicate does, sidling forward, heads tilted, displaying many of the same behaviors I’ve witnessed all summer and fall. The particulars may differ between rutting species but the similarities are overwhelming, a point reinforced once more before I reach home.

It was near Evanston, Wyoming, and a group of rutting bucks were bearing down full steam. The female was experienced in tactical maneuvers, though, and played a wily game of “maybe, maybe not.” The bucks fumed and postured and jostled for the appropriate vantage point from which to make their moves. There was no tongue wiggling or flehmen gestures, but it was pretty darn close as they jealously eyed one another and rustled about.

Eventually, the waitress flipped an icy shoulder at all the truck drivers, poured more paint-thick truck-stop coffee, then left the doors swinging on squeaky hinges after she retreated into the kitchen. Rejected, the grizzled truckers threw loose change on the counter and headed into the night. We humans may have undergone a lengthy evolution from hoofed grazer to techno-primate, but one thing remains: There’s still an echo of the rut in us.

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