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

They butt, rub, spray, and bugle, all in hopes of satisfying an overpowering urge for a little four-legged hanky-panky. Welcome to the annual rut, when the antics are amazing, the wildlife-viewing prime, and a good curled lip is better than any pickup line.

"They're getting kinda close," Jennifer whispers. She's nervous. Not that I can blame her, since the only thing between us and two behemoths dueling in the dust a few yards away is some sagebrush and far too many flies. It's the season of the rut, and like many wildlife fanatics, we've journeyed to the hinterlands-in this case, South Dakota's Badlands National Park-to catch a glimpse of wild animals doing the bump and grind.

To the uninitiated, such an admission usually is greeted with a raised eyebrow and mumblings that include words like "perverts," "voyeurs," and my personal favorite, "deviants." Call us what you will, but the simple truth of the matter is that there's more to this than meets the wide-open eye. The seasonal changes that signal autumn also create within the animal kingdom an urge to move in great masses, to converge in one spot, to frolic like love-struck schoolboys, and in the end, to breed and perpetuate the species. In other words, there's no better time to view so many wild, diverse goings-on in the world of wildlife. Just make sure you don't get stomped on by buffalo playing the mating game.

"What's he doing?" Jen asks as the flies buzz and calves bawl. The grappling and shoving have subsided. The winner has wandered off to work on his pickup lines as the dejected loser is ambling ponderously in our direction. He paws the ground, then relieves himself. (The bison equivalent of a cold shower?) Looking slowly about, as if checking to see whether anyone noticed, he proceeds to roll gleefully in the mess. I try to stifle a chuckle.

"What?" Jen demands, lowering her binoculars.

"He's putting on cologne for a date."

"That's disgusting," she huffs righteously. "You guys are all alike."

When you spend time observing that annual orgy of love and conflict known as rut, you notice that there are a lot of common and oft-hysterical similarities between four- and two-leggeds. Bulls, bucks, billies, rams, and men fight, posture, and pursue as the cows, does, nannies, ewes, and women do their best to make us grovel. Jen's right. Males are all the same.

So with such similarities between the two, I've often wondered if there's something to be learned from watching the animals-peeping into the bedroom window, so to speak. Perhaps in their rituals and ceremonies, their approaches and rejections, their mannerisms and actions, lie answers to such long-standing, perplexing questions as, "Why do some dog-faced toads attract the opposite sex like filings to a magnet?" Maybe there's something to this practice of rolling in dirt moistened with one's own waste product? Before trying it, I decided more research was in order.

Although my quest for answers began in South Dakota in summer (because of their long gestation period, bison are the earliest to rut in North America), my attentions soon shifted elsewhere. Two months later, while the leaves at home are changing colors and the pronghorn antelope, deer, moose, mountain goats, elk, caribou, and musk oxen are ignoring basic needs like food, sleep, and safety in a frenzy of dominance and procreation, I'm atop a high ridge in the Scottish Highlands. I'd hoped to visit Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming for the elk rut, that wild songfest of chilly mornings and graceful bulls balancing their antlers through the dense forest. But work called, and I'm halfway around the world, filming with the Anyplace Wild TV crew.

As the moorland mists contort like Shakespearean ghosts, the damp air echoes with the sound of urgent mooing, much like angry cattle. It's the rutting cry of red deer stags. Red "deer" are actually European elk closely related to the North American wapiti. Their bellicose bellows sound far less aesthetic than the soaring whistle of our homeboy elk, but this is the actual sound that bequeathed us the term "rut," which derives from a Latin word meaning "roar."

Elk are the most vocal and polygamous of the deer family. Mature stags will typically assemble, discipline, and defend harems of up to 30 cows. Every college boy's fantasy, granted, but truth is, it's hard being a potentate. Few bulls can successfully defend their harem throughout the rutting season without losing their multiple loves to a challenger. Those that do succeed barely eat or sleep for more than a month. Injuries and exhaustion diminish their chances to survive the coming winter. Being a lothario ain't all it's cracked up to be.

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.