Did you know you can sleep buck naked between two bison hides in minus 50 degree weather and stay toasty warm?
Did you know an adult male bison that weighs 2000 pounds can maintain a running pace of 55km an hour for longer than a race horse and jump a barricade 2 meters high? I learned all this and more when I visited the Fort Whyte Nature Centre and took their award-winning tour A Prairie Legacy:The Bison and It’s People. Former teaching colleagues from Hong Kong are visiting us here in Winnipeg and wanted to learn more about some of our native animals. Although they were interested in seeing polar bears in the wild, we told them a trip to Churchill would be too expensive and time-consuming. We suggested that instead we’d introduce them to an animal synonymous with Manitoba–the bison. Someone recommended Fort Whyte as a good place to see bison. Here are Dave and our Hong Kong friend Tad in the foyer of the Fort Whyte Nature Center. Lisa was our knowledgeable guide. She has a degree in eco-tourism and knows everything there is to know about bison. Here she is showing us the Metis flag. The Metis people began hunting the bison in the 1820’s. We hopped into Lisa’s van and within minutes we were driving right into the middle of the Fort Whyte bison herd. Lisa opened up the van doors and suddenly we were up close and personal with an animal that is larger than a polar bear or moose. The bison were in the process of shedding their winter coats and Lisa showed us the huge stones they have worn to a smooth sheen as they rubbed against them in order to help get rid of their fur. Our visitors John and Sandy check out a hank of bison hair that has fallen off of one of the animals. Bison hides are so warm that RCMP officers at work on the prairies used to wear coats made out of them all the time. The Fort Whyte herd are Plains Bison which have just a little larger heads than the Woodlands Bison. Dave made me pose with a hank of bison hair for a beard. We learned that bison fur is very dense. For every one hair follicle an ordinary cow has, a bison has seven. Lisa introduced us to a bison called Twisty Horn because one of his horns curls up and the other one down. Both male and female bison have horns. Those horns can grow to be 66 cm. long and are a powerful weapon for self-defense.
We met Charlie the bull of the herd. Young males are removed from the herd before they turn two years old because Charlie gets snarly when he has competition. Once he slammed and killed a young male because he was jealous. Charlie’s big head has earned him the nick name of Mr. T.
This year Charlie fathered seven babies. All the bison in the herd help to look after them. The babies are ready to keep up with the herd just thirty minutes after they are born. They nurse for the first five months. Adult bison are herbivores and sustain themselves on grasses.
Lisa taught us how to read the bisons’ tails. If their tail is hanging down and swaying they are contented and relaxed.
If their tail is straight up it means they are angry or anxious. We also learned about the cow bird which perches on the bison’s back and eats parasites.
Bison dung chips are odorless and colorless. We saw plenty of them in the meadow where the bison graze. First Nations people and early settlers sometimes used the chips for fuel.
Bison live to be about 25 years old. They seem to know when the end of their life has come and go off alone away from the herd to die.
A bookmark I picked up in the gift shop as we were leaving Fort Whyte, provided some final life lessons from the bison. Stand your ground. Have a tough hide. Keep moving on. Cherish wide open spaces. Have a strong spirit. Roam wild and free. Let the chips fall where they may.
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