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Stories

Run Like a Bunny

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Well, not exactly.  Actually they can run faster than rabbits or hares.  Fact of the matter is, they can run faster than anything on the planet except the cheetah, and the cheetah is drained and done after four or five hundred yards.  The Pronghorn Antelope is just beginning to warm up at that distance.  The pronghorn has left all of its former predators in the dusts of prehistoric time, and continues to outrun its current challengers with  little effort.  Were it not for humans and their far shooting guns the Pronghorn Antelope would have no predators which it could not avoid by simply loping off into the distance.IMG_0325

In most of the American West the Pronghorn Antelope is simply known as antelope, and its scientific name is Antilocapra americana which roughly translates as “american antelope-goat”.  It is neither antelope nor goat, but someone years ago thought it looked like the antelope found in the Old World, and the name stuck.  Many books refer to the animal as a Pronghorn or Pronghorn Antelope, because of the prominent forward pointing prong on the horn, but nobody I know goes hunting for either.  Too, I have heard some refer to this animal as the Prairie Goat or the Prairie  Ghost.  This critter has more aliases than a con man, but in my neck of the woods, at any rate, it is an antelope.

A few years ago I went with my friend Lyle to replace a rotten fence post in the hills north of here, and as we drove off from his house we went over a small rise to discover an antelope in the road ahead of us.  The critter started off down the road, and as we sped up, so too did the antelope.  There were barbed wire fences on both sides of the road, and because antelope do not like to jump over things, this antelope continued on its way ahead of us.  At forty miles per hour it continued to gain on us, so we sped up, and at fifty miles an hour we were not gaining on him.  At fifty-five miles an hour we decided we were going about as fast as we wanted to be going in that old truck on a gravel road, so we we backed off.  Shortly thereafter we came to a T- intersection, the antelope turned right to race up a long hill, and we turned left to leave him to his business as went on about ours.  We had covered about a mile-and-a-half in pretty short order before we parted ways.  Stories like this are legendary in the American West, and though many of them are doubtless exaggerated and far-fetched this animal’s ability to pick ‘em and put ‘em down is always impressive.

Until five years ago antelope were not a part of life around home.  Although elk, deer and moose were around the house on a regular basis for a good share of every year antelope only were seen perhaps half-a-dozen times over the course of the previous twenty years.  There were antelope within a few miles of here, and off and on for a number of years we hunted them several miles downcountry, but they rarely visited us at home.  Consequently when they began to colonize this neighborhood in 2007 I knew next to nothing about them.  Hunting teaches one little about the animals he or she is hunting except how to find them at a certain time.  People who have killed many antelope usually know little to nothing about their lives as they are lived over the course of their allotted time on earth.

In 2007 and 2008 antelope were here for a time in early summer, but then drifted off to someplace we could not see them.  We assumed that was back downcountry from where they had come to begin_IGP3605 with.  By early June of 2009 there were several antelope wandering around the meadows and hills that surround the house, and they showed no inclination to move on despite our presence on a daily basis.  Then one evening I happened to look out the picture window to see three female antelope moving to the north on the dirt road that runs past the barn, and one doe was with her fawn.  She stopped to lick it, then it laid down in the short grass, and the three adults moved off to the north across the county road, and on up onto the hill above the house.

I stumbled into a rocking chair that sits by the window in my eagerness to grab a camera off a shelf, and trotted down to the fawn who did not get up as I approached.  I got three or four photos of the fawn staring at me before my wife, who was driving up the road, stopped to see what I was doing.  That was enough for the fawn, and it jumped up to race away from us.  It was at this time that I decided I’d better start learning a little more about my new neighbors.

I went to the library to pick up a book I had read some years earlier, but had mostly forgotten about.  I have read it four times since then, and my wife has read it twice.  It is authored by John Byers, an animal behaviorist at the University of Idaho who has studied the antelope on the National Bison Range in western Montana for thirty years.  I have read many dozens of books about wild animals over the years, and I must say that this is one of the two most enjoyable of them all, the other being Adolph Murie’s A Naturalist in Alaska.  Not only is this book highly informative it displays an exuberance for wild critters that is a joy to read.  A friend of mine who taught biology at Montana State University for many decades said, “It’s just what a book like this should be.  The best of old time wildlife biology done by a thoroughly competent modern biologist that makes you want to be there with him.”  If you like this kind of thing read this book.  Most of what I know about antelope biology I learned from Dr. Byers.

For nearly thirty years we have been stumbling on deer, elk, and moose babies in our travels around the neighborhood, and in 2006 a nearly dead elk calf was brought to us, and we were able to nurse it back to health, and it returned to the herd from which it came the following spring.  Stumbling on these critters, however, is just that, a simple matter of chance.  Because these animals are comfortable in dense cover, one can never tell where they might be.  Antelope, however, are only comfortable in open country where their large protruding eyes alert them to potential perils.  Even if you are the fastest critter in North America a little head start on danger is always an added advantage.

This means that antelope are frequently to be seen when they are around.  If you can see them, of course, that means they can see you, but if they are several hundred yards away it is unlikely they will respond to your presence.  If you have given them reason to be wary of you, of course, they will move away.  During hunting seasons they become particularly skittish, and the sight of a human on a ridge a mile away is frequently enough to put them on the move.  That is not the case, however, when they are hanging around the house in early June.  Sometimes when they are in the meadow three hundred yards from the house they will pay me little attention when I am outside.  They are always aware, but like most wild animals are not inclined to more expenditure of energy than is absolutely necessary.

When I first read that antelope feed their fawns on a regular three hour schedule for some weeks after their birth I must admit I was skeptical.  The book advised me that an antelope mother will feed her young at five in the morning, then eight and eleven, then two in afternoon,  and so forth and so on.  “Oh, bullshit,” I remember thinking, “that can’t be so.  Maybe on the bison range, but surely not everywhere.”  However, because most of the antelope were visible off and on most every day I was able to test this out.

One morning I noticed a doe dawdling about on the side of a ridge about five hundred yards below the house.  It was about eight-thirty, and she was by herself.  I did not know where the fawns were, indeed, did not know if she had fawns to begin with.  I kept track of her for two more hours, and she wandered about nibbling on this and that, then she laid down to chew her cud for awhile, then got up and began to forage again.  A little after ten-thirty she trotted down to the county road, shortly returned to where she had been, and eventually began to drift up the ridge that leads to the top of the hill above the house.  The higher she climbed the more she appeared to a have a destination in mind, and when she disappeared from sight on the far side of the ridge I headed up the front side of the hill to sneak along the top far enough to look into the sagebrush where the hill drops off to the north.  There was the doe nursing her two fawns.  It was five minutes before eleven.  She was early.

I watched them for fifteen minutes as the fawns finished nursing and the doe ingested their feces and urine before licking them clean in order to remove any odors that might attract coyotes.  Coyotes are the greatest threat to the fawns in the first days of their lives, and it is thought they may take nearly eighty percent of antelope fawns before they are able to outrun a coyote.  As I have said elsewhere, it’s a jungle out there.  The three of them eventually wandered off through the sagebrush where the fawns laid down in a patch of short grass, and the doe trotted to the bottom of the hill, and returned to feeding.  I went back to the house to tell my wife what I had just witnessed.  “You won’t believe this,” I said.

For the rest of that June, and during the early summers of 2010 and 2011 we watched this behavior many dozens of times over.  The antelope do not wear watches, of course, and sometimes theIMG_0153 schedule is off as much as half-an-hour either way, but for whatever reasons they maintain this roughly three hour interval for feedings at least here and on the National Bison Range.  We have been able to watch and photograph antelope fawns almost at will.  On the second of June I watched a doe put her one day old fawn down in what I assumed was the grass at the edge of the county road, and when I went down with a camera discovered the critter lying on the road itself on top of an old tire track.  It never batted an eye while I made my photographs.

By the end of two weeks the fawns are capable of  following their mothers most everywhere though they still spend most of their time bedded down.  If you do find a fawn bedded down, however, it will not be as easy to approach as it was ten days earlier.  It is just as likely to hop up to run off.  By the end of three weeks they are as flighty when approached as the adults.  By that time they will have lost the chocolate brown color they were born with, and they look like real antelope.  Photographing them at this point requires a long lens and lots of luck.  By the first part of July the half-dozen does and the fawns that have been present since the last of May will be gone.  Some antelope may drift by from time to time, but will disappear as quickly as they appeared, and I will be unable to find them even with binoculars.  Doubtless, these are the Prairie Ghosts that I am seeing.

_IGP3648 - Version 2The does and fawns have begun to congregate in larger groups, and the buck who had been with them with hope on his mind until the middle of June has given up hope for the time being, and disappeared, too.  Sometimes I will see them near the road when I go to pick up my mail two miles away, and other times may see them two to three miles north of the hill above the house, or at other times two miles to the west.  They are doing what antelope are supposed to do.

One thing that antelope might be supposed to do is jump.  Whitetail deer that are larger than antelope fly like birds over fences five feet high.  One would suppose the lighter and faster antelope would do the same, but it does not.  Antelope prefer to crawl through or under a barbed wire fence which is by far the most common fence to be found in an antelope’s territory.  What is called sheep fence which is made up of wire spaced four or five inches apart both horizontally and vertically is like the Great Wall of China to an antelope.  Antelope, like white men, it seems, can’t jump.

Actually, they can, but don’t like to.  I have seen them jump a barbed wire fence where the top wire was broken leaving the fence about three feet  high.  They did this a number of times when I was driving up and down the county road earlier this summer.  Jumping a fence that high did not seem to be a concern.  To boot, they had to jump from a ditch below the fence, but they never hesitated.  Had the top wire been intact I suspect they would have looked for a way under the fence, but whenever they were hanging out on the road as I drove by they would run to the place where the top wire was broken, and over they went.  They were on the road a lot as they went from field to field, and this was their escape route whenever a vehicle approached.

It has been theorized that over the course of the pronghorn’s evolution as one of nature’s fastest creatures their leg bones have been slimmed down to an absolute functional minimum, and the added impact involved in landing makes jumping a risky business.  That sounds reasonable to me, but I have no way of telling whether it is so or not.  For whatever reasons, the Pronghorn Antelope displays a noticeable distaste for verticality.  They are pretty good at slipping under fences, however, hardly slowing down as they slide beneath the lowest wire in a kind of high-speed belly flop which sometimes leaves a small cloud of antelope hair floating in their wake.

Today is the last day of August.  Four days ago a buck antelope was along the county road about two hundred yards below the house.  He was alone, and I do not know if he was the animal that was Male Antelopewith the does here at the beginning of June.  I have no idea where any of the does might be.  I have been glassing the surrounding country for the first sign of elk coming down from the high country, but have seen neither elk nor antelope.

Within a few days, however, I will be awakened by the sound of a bull elk bugling below the barn, and know that the rut has begun.  Rut is a word used to describe the annual period of sexual activity in which the males fight one another for access to the females.  The word is derived from a Latin word meaning “to roar” which is what some members of the deer family sound like.  Bull elk don’t exactly roar, but their loud, whistling call which begins on a low note before gliding upward until it reaches high, clear, bugle-like notes followed by a series of low grunts is impressive, nonetheless.  I have been fortunate to have listened to this every year for over thirty years.  I look forward to it every year, which is why I am up on the hill above the house every morning and evening to look for elk.

The antelope will begin their rut about this time, too, and that may explain why I saw the buck antelope, but no does.  Dr. Byers says that he was mystified when he first began his study of antelope, and could find no female antelope in the early part of September.  Eventually he discovered that the males have a number of special hiding places where they attempt to keep a number of does concealed from other males.  This does not work particularly well as the rut progresses, he says, but must work well enough or the bucks would not waste so much energy trying to keep these small harems together.  So perhaps the buck I saw has a little group of does hidden away out of view.  The country around here is all up and down, so it is possible there are a number of antelope I am just not seeing.  I have not seen the buck, either.

In a few days there will be anywhere from twenty-five to a hundred elk romping around within a few hundred yards of the house.  It will be difficult to get a full nights sleep with the bulls chasing cows and each other around while stopping every little bit to let a out a loud bellow.  As it is with the songs of male birds, the bugle is both a warning to other bulls, and a “Hey, baby, look at me” call to the females.  Life around here will be like closing time at a bar in town for the next few weeks.  Maybe this year I will have some antelope to watch, too.  I am looking forward to that.  In fact, I’m heading up onto the hill right now to start looking.  I’ll let you know how things turn out.

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