A Sweet Little Puff of Buffalo Fluff – Part I

Above all else, autumn on the prairie reveals the beauty of her grasses, and I’d come to Kansas as much for those tall, variously-colored grasses as for the spare, clean horizon, the solitude, or the vast rivers of stars cascading through the nights.

Still, as I paged through the book of photographs lying next to the cash register at the Tallgrass Prairie Visitors’ Center, I paused at a striking portrait of a single buffalo. Seeing my interest, the enthusiasm of the young woman standing next to me became palpable and infectious. “Isn’t he handsome?” she said. “I don’t have anything against the bald eagle. It’s a good symbol for America, and I suppose I’m glad it was chosen over the wild turkey. But the buffalo have permeated our culture in a way the eagle just can’t match.” 

I’d never considered the buffalo as a rival to the eagle for our national symbol, but the thought gave me pause. “That’s true,” I said. “No one passed a resolution saying we should respect the buffalo, but they’re everywhere. They’re even on the Kansas quarter.”

Clearly, she knew her coins.”That’s right,” she said, “and they’re on the one for North Dakota, too. Do you know there was a nickel with a buffalo on it?” I did know. When my coin-collecting father began to encourage my interest in his hobby, the first coin he taught me to look for was the buffalo nickel. Minted from 1913-1938, it was scarce enough to make the hunt interesting, and yet common enough to guarantee a child success.

“Buffalo, New York was named after Buffalo Creek,” she said with a slight smile. When I replied that Houston was founded on Buffalo Bayou, a now-restored waterway that courses through the city, she grinned, and the game was on. Before we’d exhausted our collective memory, we’d called to mind buffalo grass, Buffalo Springfield, buffalo wings, the experience of getting “buffaloed”, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Buffalo Gals, who danced by the light of the moon. 

At the time, I didn’t know that Buffalo Bayou’s original name was  Cibolo Creek — cíbolo being a Spanish word for buffalo — or that the town of Cibolo, Texas, Fort Cibolo or an assortment of other Cibolo Creeks in the state  had connections to the mighty creature. No matter. We were enjoying the associations at hand.

Listening to our banter, the Ranger behind the counter smiled. “It’s good you’re so interested in buffalo,” she said. “But if you’re heading out to the Windmill Pasture, be sure and keep your curiosity at a distance. There’s nothing romantic about being chased by a bison.”

As it turned out, my hikes through pastures and prairie were free of confrontation or catastrophe. A steady wind, the movement of shifting cloud-shadows across the hills and the soft susurration of the grasses were my only companions.

Late one afternoon, I traveled to the bottomlands of the preserve to spend time following the Fox Creek trail. Approximately five hundred acres of smooth brome fields in the Fox Creek riparian area are being restored to native vegetation through invasive plant removal, periodic burning, and reseeding projects.

Native trees — black walnut, hackberry, sycamore and cottonwood — line the banks of the creek, while switchgrass, big and little bluestem, Indian grass, Eastern gamagrass and sideoats grama luxuriate in the sunny open areas.

It was in the bottomland that I came upon my first “buffalo” — not a creature, but a plant.  Buffalo gourds (Cucurbita foetidissima) are members of the cucumber family, and apparently received their name because, in times of drought, buffalo would eat them for the water they contained. They’re also known as “stinking gourds”, and crushing the leaves or fruit isn’t at all recommended.

In any event, these gourds were the only “buffalo” I encountered on the Tallgrass Prairie. For the real thing, I was going to have to head north in order to meet with Chod Hedinger, a fine photographer, a prairie enthusiast, and a docent at the Konza Prairie Biological Station. When a friend put us in contact with one another, Chod suggested he might be able to introduce me to some bison. I was looking forward to the experience.

Owned by The Nature Conservancy and Kansas State University, Konza Prairie is operated as a field research station by the KSU Division of Biology. Its three-fold mission includes long-term ecological research, education, and prairie conservation. (More technical information can be found on the Konza Prairie Biological Station website, as well as as a site dedicated to Konza Prairie Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER)).

Because of its status as a research facility, public access to Konza is limited, although hiking trails and other activities are available. As a docent, Chod was able to provide a more in-depth look at the prairie itself, even as he shared stories of on-going research projects, prairie burns and the twice-yearly bison round-ups that help to make Konza so valuable and so fascinating.

When we met in mid-October, the prairie was beautiful — fading, but still colorful. Sumac, rough-leaved dogwood and honey locust covered the hills and followed the meanders. Wild turkey skittered into the grasses, while milkweed fluff and seed cases from prairie primrose rolled before the wind.

Here and there, research plots dotted the landscape. Fenced, tagged, shaded or watered, they hinted at the dedication of researchers engaged in long-term efforts. Selections from a non-technical summary of the work done at Konza hint at its complexity.

The KPBS long-term prescribed fire management plan, and research on fire effects and other aspects of tallgrass prairie were initiated in 1972…
In 1980… a more comprehensive long-term research program to investigate patterns and controls of productivity, plant and animal population and community dynamics, soil processes and nutrient cycling, surface and groundwater, as well as expanded studies of fire management regimes [was initiated].
Bison and cattle grazing treatments were added in 1992, expanding the research program to include various aspects of grazing ecology and management. Long-term studies were expanded in the 1990s to include experimental manipulations of precipitation patterns (irrigation plots and rainout shelters), to study responses of native rangelands to climatic variability, and precipitation patterns associated with global change climate model predictions for the central U.S.

In the midst of all this high-powered science, I couldn’t help but smile when Chod pointed out this “milk jug.” It’s a rain gauge, fortified for protection against wind, curious critters and other threats to accurate measurement.

At the time of my visit to Konza, the fall bison roundup had begun. Twice each year, the herd is brought into corrals for health and pregnancy checks, the ear-tagging and weighing of new calves, and the selection of animals to be culled. 

Animals chosen for culling may be young, or older and less vigorous. Their selection is meant to simulate the removal of animals from a herd becaue of natural predation. Occasionally, healthy males may be removed to maintain herd balance. Culled animals are tested for brucellosis, then sold for breeding at auction, by sealed bid and private sale.

Calves receive ear tags at the fall roundup when they are about six months old. The numbered and color-coded tags indicate the age of the animal, its origin, and its affiliation to other members of the herd.

Tag colors designate the decade of birth. White tags represent the years 1990 to 1999, yellow tags mark animals born from 2000 to 2009, and orange tags indicate animals born in 2010 or later. The first number on the tag is the year of birth. The following two numbers are the individual’s ID. In the photo below, the mama was born in 2003 and her identifying number is 89. Her calf, still without an ear tag, probably is around six months of age, and will receive an orange tag beginning with “13”.

When I asked Chod how they managed to herd the bison into the corral, he laughed and said, “Candy, of course!”

Horses aren’t used because a fast-moving bison could harm or even disembowel a horse. On the other hand, helicopters and really big trucks aren’t satisfactory because of the possibility of frightening or stampeding the buffalo. Instead, pellet-sized range cubes consisting of 16-20% protein from alfalfa and grain with a binder such as molasses are dropped from a vehicle traveling toward the corrals. What ruminant could pass up such a sweet treat? The bison simply eat their way into the corrals.

Even with the bison corralled, evidence of their life spreads across the prairie. Like deer, they create their own trails through the grasses, and occasional wallows appear.

Typically found in areas that are sandy or dusty, wallows also occur where wet conditions prevail. Wet or dry, wallows provide the animals with protection from biting insects by coating their fur with dust or mud as they roll. In spring, wallowing helps to detach their winter coat. In summer, wet wallows help to  lower body temperature.

Once the buffalo have moved on, insects, rodents, and even small animals may take up residence in a wallow, burrowing into the earth or nesting there.

The compacted soil of a wallow also serves to collect rainwater. More than a few settlers’ wagon trains survived crossing the prairie because of water provided by wallows. Occasionally, larger wallows even were used as swimming holes by hot, dusty cowboys.

One thing hasn’t changed. Seeds carried on the bisons’ fur still fall into the wallows and sprout there. This bit of snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata), visible at the bottom of the photo above, is flourishing at the edge of its wallow. It may not be the most attractive garden setting, but the snow-on-the-mountain doesn’t seem to mind.

After a day filled with corrals, research plots, expansive views and Chod’s knowledgeable and enthusiastic commentary, I was left with several souvenirs of the Konza Prairie — stories and photographs, more plant names than I could remember, a turkey feather, a prairie primrose seed case.

The only thing missing was a physical memento of the bison. For that, I would have to wait…

(to be continued)

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109 thoughts on “A Sweet Little Puff of Buffalo Fluff – Part I

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Ruth. I learned so much on the trip, and kept learning once I got home. As you know, one thing leads to another, and there’s no way to present it all at once — that’s why this post turned into a two-parter!


  1. “…a physical memento of the bison.” What could it be? Although I’m sure the clue is in your title, I look forward to your telling about it.

    Your first image is a stunning one. And, it was an interesting discussion you had with the young girl you met regarding our American symbol.

    As I was reading I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder to view Howard Terpning’s print “The Long Shot”, one of my husband’s favorites hanging on our living room wall over the piano, within view of my computer. I wondered again if perhaps their rifles were pointed at a buffalo. There is no buffalo in the painting so our imagination needs to fill in the blank. I have questions to ask my husband now. What kind of rifle are they using? It doesn’t appear to be the stout “buffalo gun” or rifle.

    And then I leafed through a book of his work and googled dozens of prints. No buffalo. But he certainly did paint the Native Americans, and horses on the Plains of our heartland. Born in 1927 he comes out of Oak Park, Ill. and lived in Missouri, Iowa and TX. He is still a living artist having received much recognition for his Western Art.

    On the other wall is “Morning Fire” by Don Crowley who captured images so realistic, they seem like photos. I searched his work also for a buffalo, and could not find one.

    I’m lingering on that first image, a wonderful painting, and wondering who could have painted it (and others) in such a captivating way?

    1. Georgette,

      I’ve linked the first image to the artist’s page. It’s an acrylic on canvas done by Robert Bateman, and the larger, uncropped image shown there is even more powerful. The title fits it well: “Chief”.

      One thing I discovered while traveling through the prairies is how diverse people’s interests are. Some are obsessed by the grasses, others prefer the flowers. The girl I met was in love with buffalo. Some photographers focus on the weather, a choice that makes sense given the huge Kansas skies and magnificent storms.

      In the same way, Mr. Terpning appears to have chosen a focus – the Plains Indians as people. I just scrolled through a collection of his work and didn’t see even a hint of buffalo, except for one robe that might have been a hide. One of the nicest sites I found allows online viewing of a book about his work called “Terpning -Tribute to the Plains People” . I’m glad to be introduced to him.

      I thought the most interesting connection between Crowley and Terpning is their commercial work. I couldn’t figure out why posters for such films as “Gone With the Wind” were included in the results for Mr. Terpning. Now I know – those were part of his early work.

      Have you been to the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa? It’s on my to-do list, for sure. Their collection of Western art is supposed to be fabulous.

      As for that puff of fluff – I think you’ll be surprised.


    1. You’d think I would have remembered that one, Steve, since I commented on two different views of the plant at your site. Of course, at the time I was more impressed with its stick-to-it-tiveness than its relationship to buffalo.

      I did find it on a list of known vascular plants of the Konza Prairie, so it’s around. Even studying the list is interesting and filled with surprises. There are at least nine species of milkweed, for example. I wouldn’t have expected that.

      Of course many plants’ names are familiar, although I couldn’t have recalled the scientific name without a nudge. Assorted “drummondii” and “muehlenbergii” were there, and even “Chamaesyce glyptosperma”, or ridge-seed mat-spurge. The name made me think of that remarkable precursor to the armadillo, the glyptodon, and now I know – those ridges are the link between plant and animal. The glyptodon had ridged teeth.


      1. There are three instances of “buffalo” on the Konza pIant list, but I was just reminded that one vernacular name for the wildflower best known as the bluebonnet is buffalo clover.

        We might say that a person who can’t help stealing Ridgies potato chips is a glyptomaniac.

        1. It seems that “Astragalus lindheimeri” or “Lindheimer’s milkvetch” also is called by the name buffalo clover, at least by some folks. I didn’t know or had forgotten that the name applies to bluebonnets, too. They’re everywhere, those buffalo.

          No glyptomaniac here, but enough of a glyptophile that I don’t keep potato chips in the house. I can resist a lot, but not those.

  2. Thanks for this! When we cross the border, I wonder how Buffalo came to be so called. Certainly your point about this giant’s place in our collective imagination will explain in part the provenance of the city’s name. Likely there is another story waiting to be told.

    Some years ago we visited Heads Smashed In Buffalo Jump. If you ever make your way to Alberta, be sure to check it out. The website is here.

    1. Allen,

      There’s apparently little or no question that Buffalo, New York was named after Buffalo Creek, but how the creek got its name is another matter entirely. There are multiple theories – everything from the creek being named after an Indian who was himself named “Buffalo”, to a confusion between native words for “beaver” and “buffalo”. I won’t even attempt to recap the four-paragraph section on naming from the Wiki – it’s here, titled “Name Origin”.

      As for Heads-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump – this is the first I’ve heard of it. Before I went to the page, I was sure it was a joke, but clearly it isn’t. It’s one of those things that’s slightly horrifying and humorous all at once. I’m looking forward to reading more about it.

      I have a blog friend in Calgary who made it to Houston a few years ago. Now, my goal is to get to Calgary to visit with her on her home turf. If I make it, you can be sure I’ll be sure to stop at the Buffalo Jump!


  3. Oh gee, I don’t know where to start. Maybe you remember how I expressed my love of the prairie. I am fascinated by anything prairie, especially the beauty of the grasses and yes of course the diversity of plants.

    This post was quite enjoyable and and as usual so well written. I had to laugh about the young woman’s knowledge as well as yours concerning places and things named after the buffalo. The photos are simply great and I am looking forward to the continuation of a “prairie story.”

    Oh and the buffalo gourds can be dried, painted and used as Christmas tree decorations. The gourds hold up very well if dried properly.


    1. Yvonne,

      Years ago, I collected some gourds up around Kerrville that I’m now sure were buffalo gourds. They did keep well. They were up at the cabin for about two years before they just disappeared. I suppose someone threw them out — I could have thrown them out myself and just don’t remember.

      The next time I come across some, I may collect a few and see what I can do with them. I saw several pages and videos online dedicated to gourd art. There even are formal groups – who knew? It would be fun to have a few for the Christmas tree.

      I thought about you when I read about the process of restoration taking place in the bottomland. Volunteers go out and collect grass seed (and perhaps other seed) and that’s what’s used, acre by acre, to bring the land back. There’s seed gathering that goes on here, too, both at Nash Prairie and probably now at the new Deer Park Prairie Preserve. I need to find out more about that.

      I had my first buffalo burger during my Iowa hometown’s centennial in 1957. Today, just outside that same town, the Neal Smith National Wildlife Preserve has been established – with its own buffalo herd. Neal and his wife were friends of my parents, and I took Mom and one of her friends there on our last visit to Iowa. Nice memories.


  4. Oh thank you so much for this post. It brought back memories of our prairie sabbatical. I love the buffalo’s eyes. The first time I saw them up close was at the Tallgrass Prairie preserve. So powerful.

    I laughed about how they moved the buffalo. We went to the Clymer unit, also owned by the nature conservancy outside of the Dallas Area. They had buffalo at one time, and we asked how did they move them from pasture to pasture. And Jim said basically the same thing “we walk down the road with a bucket of feed and they follow us.” What a sight that would be. Susan

    1. Susan,

      Their eyes are amazing, aren’t they? They’re so small in comparison to that great body, and yet when you make eye contact with them, they’re clearly taking your measure, thinking it over. It’s not unlike making eye contact with an elephant. They’re so large, and mostly so slow, it’s surprising to experience them as alert and responsive – perhaps moreso than most of the people we pass every day.

      There’s a Kansas ranch called the Z Bar that has a huge buffalo herd — around 3,000 animals. (This isn’t the Z Bar near Strong City and the Tallgrass Prairie, but a different ranch in Barber County, Kansas.) The ranch manager, Keith Yearout, makes a couple of interesting points about them.

      One is that the prairie needs the buffalo as much as the buffalo need the prairie. Where cattle overgraze, native grasses and plants begin disappearing. When they put buffalo on the land, the prairie started coming back – not just the plants, but also prairie dogs, burrowing owls, golden eagles, prairie chickens and antelope. I can attest to that – I saw eagles and antelope myself.

      But what I love is his tale of going out across the pastures in his truck. The buffalo recognize it from quite a distance away, and will come running, just on the off chance that he might be carrying some of that cake feed – buffalo candy.


    1. Nia, you’ll especially like the second part of this story. I don’t want to give out any spoilers, but trust me – there will be things that you’ll like.

      I’m glad you enjoyed this post, too!


    1. Gallivanta,

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. This isn’t unlike your most recent project — caterpillars, part one, and then butterflies, part two. In a comment up above I mentioned the nine species of milkweed that grow on the Konza prairie. I don’t know what each of them hosts, but it would be interesting to find out.


  5. Dad would like that rain gauge. He always had a rain gauge but much smaller, of course.

    I remember those buffalo nickels. My brother and I always kept an eye out for them.

    That third photo – following the unusual caution sign – is my favorite. It captures that open feeling and reminds me of the feeling I get when I gaze at the ocean.

    The wallows! Oh, how determined and hardy the settlers were. I’ll think of them the next time I turn on the faucet.

    1. Bella Rum,

      I loved those rain gauges, and the back-porch metal thermometers from the hardware store or feed mill. They were almost as good as the gal with the fuzzy dress that turned pink or blue, depending on whether it was going to be fair or stormy.

      When I disposed of Dad’s coin collection, the buffalo nickels went, but I kept the Indian head pennies. I always pick up pennies from the ground, too – and once I picked up an Indian head.You never know.

      There is a good bit of similarity between the ocean and those “amber waves of grain”. Why don’t we ever sing that song any more? Maybe I’ll add that to my list of Good Suggestions for politicians – that they should start every day with the Pledge of Allegiance and a nice, patriotic song. It couldn’t hurt. ;)

      As for those wallows — I suspect anyone who had to drink from those probably had some sickness to go along with that determination and hardiness. At least if there were wallows, there would be buffalo chips to make fires to boil the wallow-water.


  6. Great post, as always. I know a cattle farmer who studies buffalo to try to figure out how best to raise his beef cattle naturally. He tries to manage his pasture to imitate the environment in which the buffalo thrived.

    Thinking about the association of buffalo and America brings to mind a good memory. About 15 years ago we were on vacation in Rouen. We were visiting the Tour Jeanne d’Arc when it came to be time for lunch. So we ducked into a little restaurant on one of the narrow streets. It was oddly decorated in Old West Americana and the music that was playing was someone with a thick French accent singing American country music (badly). We took a table and a man who I gather to have been the owner came over, becoming very excited when he discovered that we were Americans (we had our kids with us). It was clear that this man loved the American west. I wish I could do justice to how weird it was to be sitting in a kitschy cowboy-themed restaurant while in that place. I asked him what he recommended and he enthusiastically responded with a word I did not recognize. So I asked him to repeat it, in English if possible. He beamed as he said, “Bison.” Then he pressed his thumb and first two fingers to his lips and did that kissing thing I would not have guessed French people really did.

    1. Bill,

      Clearly, I know almost nothing about cattle and bison, but one thing I read in several places while writing this is that the animals forage differently. The grazing habits of bison help with maintainance or redevelopment of prairies,while cattle can be destructive. It’s all very interesting.

      One thing that did tickle me was an observation by the Manager at the Z Bar Ranch. Talking about bison, he said, “If one of the neighbors’ cattle gets in with them, they will walk it to death because they travel so much more than a beef cow.”

      That’s a wonderful story about your visit to the French Cowboy Café. The romance of the American West truly has spread around the world, and bison seems to be gaining ever greater favor as a meat. I kept running into buffalo and elk on café menus in Kansas, and now even my own meat market has buffalo available.

      I did have to learn about the difference between commercial and conservation bison herds. When people say there are 500,000 bison in America now, that number refers primarily to the large commercial operations, family farms with just a few animals, and so forth.

      On the other hand, the bison at the Tallgrass Prairie were reintroduced in 2009 with just 13 animals from Wind Cave National Park. According to a report I read, the Wind Cave herd was chosen as the parent herd for the preserve “because of its high levels of genetic diversity, and no evidence of cattle gene introgression.”

      Now, there’s a phrase I never imagined I’d have use for!


  7. Linda,
    Glad you enjoyed your visit to the Konza Prairie Biological Station. I never get tired of spending my time out there as a Docent, volunteering giving tours such as yours. As a Docent it is our job to educate the younger generation (and our generation) as to how important this eco system is (the Tall Grass Prairie). Looking forward to part 2.

    1. Konzadocent,

      Now that I think about it, I’m certain that even you don’t know the end of this tale. You’ll get a kick out of it, I think.

      I really had hoped to get there in the springtime this year, but I’m not sure that’s going to happen. Winter’s dragged on so long that it hasn’t been a very productive season, work-wise. There’s a good bit of catching up to do before I can hit the road again. But I have plenty to read, a new copy of Haddock’s “Wildflowers and Grasses of Kansas”, and plenty of time to hone my skills of observation here in Texas, so I’ll be ready to enjoy another trip even more.


  8. You have thoroughly stirred up my curiosity to check out this area. I have heard of it many times, but I never got around to exploring it. It’s now on my to-do list for this year. Thanks!

    1. Homestead Ramblings,

      You really would love it. You’re so close – I headed west through Louisburg to Ottawa. Then, I zigged and zagged up to Council Grove, but you could even go on to Emporia, and then the Tallgrass Prairie is only a very short distance away. Cottonwood Falls is wonderful, too, and has lots of galleries and a historical society, as well as the wonderful Courthouse and the Emma Chase Café (one source of buffalo burgers!)

      I still have to write about Teter Rock and the Stone Scenic Byway. They’re also in the area – there’s just so much to see. Here’s one of the sites I used to get an overview the second year I came up there.

      I do love the fall, but I’ll bet every season has its gifts to offer. Happy traveling!


      1. I showed your post to the hubby last night, and he checked it out on google maps. There is a few day trips planned in our future. :) Thanks for the info.

  9. This is fascinating. I had no idea — and your photos of the prairie in the fall are real stunners. I’ve only seen a few buffalo or bison — there is a protected area in our town for them — or it was. Not sure if it is still there since an apartment complex moved in. It may just be smaller now.

    I think a good case COULD be made for the buffalo being the national animal, now that you mention it.
    Oh, and the herding info you shared — that was very new and fascinating. I’ll look forward to the next post!

    1. Jeanie,

      Thinking about the bison as a national symbol, it occurs to me that “The Bison has landed” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “The Eagle has landed.” And instead of “The eagle is flying” as an expression for payday, a whole generation would have had to make do with “The bison’s stampeded.” I’m just not sure about that. Maybe it’s best to let bison be several states’ official mammal – which they are.

      I loved the thought of those bison being led into the corrals with range cubes. I can remember being bribed with cookies as a kid – not to mention the lollipops the doctor always had in his bag when he made house calls. Would I like to go back to those days? Yes and no, I suppose. But the only people who did the nagging back then were our mothers.

      I can’t quite get my mind around an apartment complex displacing bison. That’s getting a home where the buffalo used to roam!


  10. I’d never given it any thought either, but it does make sense. they’re very unique creatures. I remember how exciting it was to find a buffalo nickel as a child. I have one in my possession that our daughter left behind on one of her very brief entries into our lives. I’m saving it for her among other treasures she’s left behind.

    1. sherri,

      One of my friends has a theory that all of the “stuff” kids leave in parents’ attics and closets is a way of leaving-but-not-leaving – that the treasures they refuse to claim are a way of keeping a presence in their first homes. I did it myself – and now some of those treasures are stuffed into my own closet.

      I still remember my dad and his little ritual in stores. Whenever he got coins in change, before he put them in his pocket he’d give them a quick look to see if there was anything of interest. What amazes me about that today is how much knowledge he must have had to be able to identify the “good stuff”. I understand more than I did about all of the coin books, catalogues, magazines and such that came into our house.


  11. Do you know if there are differences between buffalo and bison? Or are they the same thing? My favorite bison experience was sharing the snow-packed roads with them on a snowmobiling tour of Yellowstone. We would zip past, knowing that we needed their good graces to get by.

    1. Rosemary,

      Actually, there are differences. Both bison and buffalo belong to the order “Bovidae”, but they’re not the same species. Bison (scientific name “Bison bison”) are found in North America and certain parts of Europe. Buffalo incude the Cape Buffalo (sub-Saharan Africa) and the Water Buffalo (Asia, North Africa, Southern Europe).

      They certainly have a similar appearance, but the bison have a very shaggy winter coat that it sheds in spring, while the buffalo have a closer, smoother coat. And the buffalo have larger horns.

      Precisely how the bison came to be called buffalo in this country, I don’t know. What I am sure of is that “buffalo” became so common, so quickly, that it never will give way to “bison” in popular culture.

      I was thinking about the song lyrics – “Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam” – and just for grins did an internet search for “buffalo roam”. My gosh. Songs, Movies, Shops, Clothing, Bars.More music. Even the title of my post wouldn’t be quite as rhymic if I’d used “bison”.


    2. I just happened to bump into this, which also is relevant to your question and something I didn’t know. “In the seventeenth century, French explorers in North America referred to the new species they encountered as “les boeufs”, meaning oxen or beeves. The English, arriving later, changed the pronunciation to “la buff”. The name grew distorted as “buffle”, “buffler”, “buffillo”, and, eventually, “buffalo” (from ‘The American Buffalo in Transition,’ by J. Albert Rorabacher).”

  12. I’ve never seen a live buffalo, Linda, so I can hardly wait for Part Two of this one!

    It sounds as if you used your time in Kansas wisely — learning new things, seeing new sights, and talking with new people expand one’s horizons even more than merely reading a book.

    Your segment on the wallows makes me wonder if wild dogs roaming the prairie used to shed their winter coats the same way. Something tells me that my Sheltie would much prefer going to the groomer and being fussed over!

    That snow-on-the-mountain plant — is it considered a weed, or are my eyes fooling me because of the “soil” it’s growing in?

    1. Debbie,

      I had to laugh at my response to your question about the snow-on-the-mountain. My first thought was, “There aren’t any weeds on the prairie.” Then, I realized there are – except they’re the plants that we cultivate that move in and try to take over. On the prairie, there are “natives” and “invasives” – and the pretty snow-on-the-mountain is a native wildflower. There’s another one called Snow-on-the-prairie that’s just as attractive. I was lucky enough to see fields filled with it last year, and it’s an amazing sight.

      I’m not sure there were wild dogs on the prairie – except for the prairie dogs. Well, and coyotes and wolves. They certainly shed, but not like the bison, who can look pretty ratty at the end of winter. But more about that next time.

      New people and new places – that’s the heart of travel for me. I always have a book or two (or three or four) with me, but they’re ones that relate to the area I’m traveling in. And of course there are new books to buy as souvenirs.


  13. Linda, yours is truly one of the most well-written blogs that I read. So much information, and all of it presented in an entertaining way. A wallow? Who knew this meant anything other than something you do when you’re feeling sorry for yourself! Happy to add this to my vocabulary, and spend the rest of the night remembering my own experiences with buffalo on the Midwest prairie (that one time a Big Guy decided the middle of the highway was the perfect place to amble… :)

    1. Emily,

      I’d forgotten that expression – “Don’t wallow in self-pity!” my grandmother used to say. And I remember hearing of people who’d “wallow around in their misery”. What an image that evokes now, with a little more understanding of the nature of a wallow.

      I’ve encountered and missed deer on the highway. I can’t imagine coming across a bison. I did see a page from somewhere out West — probably a park or preserve — with huge cautions about night driving. Their point was that buffalo eyes are so small they often aren’t caught by the car lights, and their massive size just disappears into the darkness. There were photos of unfortunate autos that clearly lost in their encounters with the animals.

      You know how much I appreciate your opinion, Emily, and I thank you for your complimentary words. I was a little surprised to realize that this post had to be divided into two sections. Perhaps this is how books get written. The writing just goes on and on, and suddenly there are chapters. ;)


  14. I love the idea of buffalo candy, Linda. Peggy and I have often come across buffalo in our wandering through North America, most recently on our trip up the Alaska Highway last summer. Huge flashing signs warned motorists to drive carefully. The big wood buffalo grazed along side the road. They weren’t something you would want to run into but they kept our cameras busy.

    The wood buffalo also maintained wallows at frequent locations along the road. Wallow sites take a long time to disappear. We found some very impressive ones in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. When I was doing genealogical research, I came across an ancient one where the Mekemsons had lived on Mill Creek outside of Cynthiana, Kentucky in 1800. Brush and trees had grown up in it but the distinctive hollow was still obvious.


    1. Curt, I noticed in my reading about wallows that many still are visible from space. Although they’ve overgrown, they often are filled with reeds or other plants that distinguish them from the surrounding prairie. I don’t know this, but I suspect that biologists interested in prairie ecosystems may be making use of such resources to advance their work.

      Of all the characteristics of buffalo that amaze me, the size of their legs compared to their body is at the top of the list. Yes, their legs look pretty sturdy, but honestly – atop a one-ton body? And able to carry that body at 35 mph? It’s really something. They remind me of Mr. Pickwick..

      I must say – your family has ended up in some interesting places. Of course, part of the interest lies in just knowing about their travels and their lives, and your work has surfaced so much of that history. One of these days I’m going to devote a bit more attention to the lost-in-the-shadows part of my family that homesteaded in western Nebraska. From what I can figure out, they weren’t as taken with the pioneer life as some, and came back to the relative civilization of Iowa.


      1. I doubt Mr. Pickwick could make 35 MPH, however. :) Maybe 2 MPH if he really pushed it, and then for a very short period of time.

        My family also moved on to Iowa and my dad was born in Nebraska. –Curt

  15. We had a bull and two cows for a while when I was growing up. Someone in the town where we lived had a small herd of buffalo and dad decided it would be fun to breed a few…that was, until the Bull got loose :-) I can still see my dad chasing after him on a 3 wheel honda 90. Those things can move (buffalo) about 35 to 40 mph for a ways. The darn thing disappeared into a corn field, 3 days later a neighbor called and said it was grazing behind his house. Dad ended up calling the guy he bought it from and the bull was guest of honor @ the4th of July celebration (buffalo burgers). I too loved that picture you have on this post!

    1. DM,

      You’ve just confirmed what I’ve read and been told about how fast buffalo can move. They may not go on like that forever, but I certainly wouldn’t want to have one of them after me, let alone an entire herd.

      The bull disappearing into the corn field reminds me of the story of the two baby elephants that disappeared outside Hugo, Oklahoma. They were circus escapees. You’d think either one – buffalo or elephant – would be pretty easy to spot, but apparently they can fade into the wallpaper when need be.

      How did they capture the bull once it turned up? I suspect there’s a bit of a story there, too!


  16. Hello Linda:

    The American buffalo certainly has been very popular in the United States. Your blog post is very eloquent in narrating its importance and the competition with the eagle in becoming the national symbol of the nation.

    Another animal that almost became the national symbol of the U.S. was the grizzly bear and not the bald eagle. Even national symbols are not sacrosanct. Teddy Roosevelt once proposed that the United States change its national symbol to the grizzly bear—a brave, independent animal said he, much better than that “dandified vulture” the U.S. had adopted. In those days, Russia’s symbol was the eagle: a double-headed one, that faced both East and West, a symbol still useful to remember today.

    I enjoyed your awesome pictures, and of course, took notes on how to write proper English. Some of these days, I’ll learn. Promise you!



    1. Omar,

      I’d never heard that Roosevelt proposed the grizzly bear as a national symbol. All I knew was the more famous (and at least partly apocryphal) stories about his hunting experience in Mississippi and the creation of the Teddy Bear. The only source for the quotation about the “dandified vulture” I’ve been able to find is the film “The Wind and the Lion”. All of the secondary sources quote those lines, but whether they’re from Roosevelt or the film I don’t know.

      Recently, I found a wonderful site called The Quote Investigator. I’m sending off the question to Mr. O’Toole, who may or may not take it up. But his research is impeccable, and if anyone can put the issue to rest, he can. Otherwise, I’ll put it on my list of “things to explore later”. Do you happen to have a source for the quotation?

      There’s also that famous proposal from Benjamin Franklin that the wild turkey should be come the national symbol. He did lay out his reasoning in a letter:

      “For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. He is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

      Of course, the letter wasn’t addressed to Congress or to any of those involved in the selection process, like Thomas Jefferson. It was written to his daughter, Sally Bache, so in fact it may just have been a dad teasing one of his kids with a silly proposal.

      One other thing. While writing this, I remembered your comments about the slaughter of the buffalo, and that whole terrible history. You might enjoy reading this report, The Extermination of the American Bison It was written by William T. Hornaday, Superintendent of the National Zoological Park, and the online copy shows a hand-written inscription from Hornaday to – Theodore Roosevelt!


      1. Hi Linda:

        I found this information on the Internet in a speech delivered Suzanne Massie to the Committee for National Security Washington, D.C. May 2, 1989, dubbed ” The eagle and the bear: can they dance together?”

        Ms Suzanne Massie said:

        “Certainly one thing that one observes as a historian is that history has a funny way of doing flip flops: today’s guerilla fighter is tomorrow’s patriot; yesterday’s wartime enemies, today’s treasured allies, and vice versa. Even national symbols are not sacrosanct. Teddy Roosevelt once proposed that the United States change its national symbol to the Grizzly Bear — a brave, independent animal said he, much better than that “dandified vulture” we had adopted. In those days, Russia’s symbol was the Eagle: a double-headed one, that faced both East and West, a symbol still useful to remember today.”

        The link to this speech is: http://www.suzannemassie.com/eaglebear.html

        I don’t recall at this moment, where else I read about this same proposition made by Teddy Roosevelt. I understand he highly admired this formidable creature.

        Good luck with your historic research about this subject.



        1. Thanks, Omar. I’ll include that information in my email to the venerable Quote Investigator, and use it myself to try and track it down. If Roosevelt is the source, I’d love to find the speech, letter, etc. where he first made the suggestion.

  17. My first close encounters with bison were in South Dakota, near Custer State Park. We stayed in a small cabin and had been amply warned to stay away from the huge animals. That felt difficult, at best, as the footprints dug deep into the grounds around the cabins. The beasts seemed always a few feet away.

    In 2010 Jim and I went to Yellowstone in the beginning of June. Snow still covered much of the park, and herds clustered to protect little ones. One grouping settled in within a trail loop around bubbling mud pots. A few were mere feet from the trail. Jim and I watched as many adult humans chose to continue on the trail anyway, lots of small humans in tow. I told him NO, we would not continue that way. The trail was a loop, we certainly could just turn around and go back the way we came. And we did.

    No bad thing happened to those who chose to continue. But the Darwin principle must come into play at some point.

    1. Melanie,

      Those cute little bison just wanted to see who the new visitors were, don’t you think? I confess – I’ve become much more savvy in the “wild” and much more comfortable outdoors than I was years ago, but coping with bison snuffling around is different than having some deer come through camp.

      One thing I’ve learned is that the Yellowstone herd is the only herd that’s been continuously on its land since prehistoric times. Because they haven’t been hybridized, they can be more aggressive than animals in commercial herds, but they’re not given to attack unless taunted or otherwise disturbed – like this . Speaking of the Darwin Awards, those people are eligible.

      Still, what a great opportunity, to see them up close, in the wild. I don’t think I’d want to mix and mingle with them during breeding season, but in the fall would be great.


      1. Oh gee…. I could have been on same trail, as it was a wooden boardwalk much of the way around the mud pots.

        I read recently that the Yellowstone herd is culled regularly (no surprise). But the big fear is from those that leave park property for winter grazing. Ranchers (of course) are afraid that they will infect cattle with the brucellosis. I don’t know if that is realistic or not.

  18. What an entertaining conversation! Again you had me looking up words. Thank you for that, and yes, I meant that sincerely. I love our rich language. Gear-up, I’m off on another tangent! ;)

    Remember when Reader’s Digest had that little blib in their features entitled: Increase Your Vocabulary? I used to read them in every issue! Well recently I have read an article that tells me our future young adults will never be able to understand what you are telling us in your lovely article. Apparently, words to be taught will be taken down to their most plain and rudimentary level, such that your use of buffaloed will simply be confused; susseration whittled down to rustling; and brome simply grass. Words like enjoy, delight, and fancy shall be relegated to the simplest of thoughts: like.

    Who needs a thesaurus?

    I will quit my rant; it’s best to save it for my own space. But I will tell you this…

    In school we were taught to write intelligently and creatively, to make the reader want to know more about your topic, or feel emotionally about your characters, and today’s news about the Common Core Standards has my hair on end.

    We are to become dinosaurs in our own time you and I, though I hesitate to compare my ability to your excellence as a wordsmith.

    1. Oh yes, and for the record I will be enthusiastically waiting for part two! Or should I have said it in *newspeak: I can’t wait for part two.


      *loosely ref: Orwell’s 1984

    2. Lynda,

      I do remember the Reader’s Digest vocabulary feature. I loved it almost as much as I loved the vocabulary cards we used in school. I don’t remember which grades were involved, but I do remember sitting at the table after supper for a couple of years going through those cards. I think we were to learn something like twenty-five new words each week.

      I don’t know what the latest is from Common Core, and I really don’t want to know. I’ve gotten to the point where, if I mistakenly begin reading an article about the latest from the educrats, I just stop reading. I’m tired of feeling my blood pressure rise and my anger level, too. There are things that could be done to vastly improve our educational system, and none of them involve spending more money. But who wants that?

      And I believe I’ll stop right now, except to say that, if I had children of my own, and they were of school age, I’d be putting everything else aside in order to home-school them.

      I don’t think we’re going to become dinosaurs, Lynda. I think we already are. Or, on a more hopeful note, we might be playing the role of those last bison. They nearly disappeared, but they were brought back from the brink. All it took were some dedicated people to make it possible.


      1. Well, the article didn’t make my blood boil, but it did make me less sad about no longer being in the classroom. When teaching starts to become this lock-stepped there simply is no getting around it. You have to teach the program. I am right with you on the home schooling! If I had kids I too would be keeping them home to get a well rounded education!

        I truly love your analogy of us to the bison. They are so powerful.

  19. “Oh, give me a home
    Where the buffalo roam…”

    There are rows and rows of homes in my neighborhood, Linda, but no buffalo. Not a single one.

    When I was about ten (a distant era now half a century gone) my parents took me to the state natural history museum. Against the far wall of the very first room stood a large glass case which contained a stuffed buffalo. It was a tribute to the taxidermist’s art, though, as I recall, it showed some signs of age. Perhaps the hide was a bit worn and tattered around the edges. Pretty much everything in that museum originated in North Carolina, so the implication was that, yes, son, buffalo once roamed here. They belong. They are part of your heritage.

    I think that even then I had some trouble with cognitive dissonance. I could not reconcile the peaceful and orderly lawns, shopping malls, roads and fences of my world with the creature I saw before me. The American bison is massive. It stands as tall on four feet as a grown man stands on two. Where could a herd of these creatures live and roam without causing havoc?

    Later I would learn the answer: Out West. Out West in the legendary land made famous by John Wayne. Apparently there are still places Out West with room for herds of charging buffalo. I first saw a living buffalo somewhere Out West, perhaps in Yellowstone Park. More recently I drove past herds of them in South Dakota. I found buffalo on the menu in Idaho. Now I’m pleased to report that their numbers have recovered sufficiently that buffalo burgers are available at my local grocery. We have a package or two in the freezer right now.

    Increasing their numbers is good, but somehow I have a feeling that turning a national icon into an agricultural commodity is not exactly what Brewster Higley had in mind. That outcome certainly had no place in my own youthful imagination. I want to ask, how can we reimagine our lives to make room for buffalo among us? If we could solve that one, we might find solutions to some of our other pressing problems, such as global warming, appearing as mere side effects.

    1. Bogon,

      In fact, we are reimagining our lives to make room for the bison, all across the country. Prairies and bison go together, and while prairie preservation is necessarily limited because so little unbroken prairie remains, prairie restoration is becoming important to more and more people.

      For example, when I was growing up in Jasper County, Iowa, there were no buffalo apart from the zoo in Des Moines — at least, that I knew about. Now, in that same county, in Prairie City, Iowa, 5600 acres have been turned into the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, with its own herd of bison, and a huge core of volunteers dedicated to restoring the prairie.

      As it was explained to me, the more prairie, the more room for bison. And, the more bison, the more land begins reverting to prairie, particularly if it’s properly encouraged.

      As for their role as an agricultural commodity, that might be just fine, too. I knew buffalo meat is lean, but I had no idea it’s even more lean than chicken. And it’s more acceptable to some people because it’s grass-fed (with occasional grain finishing) and almost never contains antibiotics. The market’s had its ups and downs, but if consumer demand remains stable and herds are rebuilt, it could be a good thing.

      As for that home where the buffalo roam – note that the song doesn’t say “oh, give me a house”. Your house may be your home, but the buffalo’s home requires an absence of houses. Therein lies the necessity for some truly creative thinking and dedicated work if the herds are to increase.


      1. Thanks for your dedicated work in creating a reply that is both responsive and inspirational.

        Does your revised blog site no longer accept embedded HTML? I tried to include a hypertext link to explain Dr. Higley yesterday. Today I would like to offer one that confirms buffalo have returned to my state, albeit more as agricultural commodity than as valued fellow residents. If I get the “cannot accept” message again, I’ll post it as plain text.

        1. Clearly, you got the link embedded. Now and then things become a bit glitchy around here. WordPress.com functions as the beta for WordPress.org, so there’s often work going on in the background that can affect site functions. It usually resolves itself pretty quickly.

          I did go looking for info on the good Brewster Higley, and I certainly found it. That’s quite a tale in itself. I’ve been playing with some lines from the song as the intro for Part 2 of this little tale, so I’m glad to know about him. And I loved that link about the visit to the NC buffalo. It’s obviously a very different experience on a ranch or farm, but it’s also clear that no matter where they live, the bison love their candy!

  20. Mike & I have visited an Elk & Bison Prairie at the Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky – it was nice, but wow I love your pictures of the country-side up there!

    1. The Bug,

      It is beautiful country. What I’ve learned is that it’s the same in the fall as it is in spring, though – often it’s the luck of the draw whether you’ll get the wildflowers, pretty grasses and so on. Actually, it’s always the luck of the draw.

      Closer to home, if one weekend doesn’t work the next one might, but a long trip like that has to happen when it’s planned to happen. This was my third trip in three years through the area – I guess third time was a charm!


    1. And if I hadn’t been so danged caught up with the buffalo, Wendy, I would have realized it was time to get out my notes about ” Courir de Mardi Gras” and head east. I honestly was going to try and get over to Church Point this year, but time got away from me. Next year!

      Glad you enjoyed this little tale. I think you’ll like Part 2 – no chickens there!


  21. “…how diverse people’s interests are. Some are obsessed by the grasses, others prefer the flowers.”

    At some “Science Fair” years ago I stopped at a display which consisted mainly of grass samples. The fellow responsible for the display gave me an impressive lecture focused on the various grasses native to the B.C. interior. I don’t remember much detail about the grasses but the idea that an “amateur” botanist would spend the time collecting, studying and tending his display made quite a lasting impression.

    Scrolled over the image of the “Chief” assuming it was a professional photograph (or you had gotten very lucky with your camera). I went back once I read that it was from a Robert Bateman print.
    I have met Bateman a couple of times but it’s unlikely he would say that about me.
    My wife and I knew the woman he bought his current home from quite well and I built a residence for another artist friend of his who produces similar detail: http://www.davidbarkerartist.com/steam.htm

    1. Ken, I’m not surprised so many of Barker’s paintings have “sold” next to them. They’re truly beautiful. As visually stunning as much Western art is, I’d be happier living with something from Barker hanging on my wall – probably because of the water and the boats.

      On the other hand, “Chief” is pretty impressive. How neat that you’ve met both painters, and had the opportunity to work with Barker.

      Did you happen to notice Allen’s comment above about the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in Alberta? I just spent a few more minutes at the site, looking at photos and watching the videos. Have you ever been there? I’m going to need more than a week for that kind of trip, but my goodness, it would be wonderful.

      I think what’s most touching about people like your grass collector/science fair entrant is their hunger to share their passion with other people. And sometimes it seems as though the collecting, the cataloging, the displaying, and such are enough – ends in themselves. They’re a guy in Houston who began collecting beer cans and beer can tabs and tops, and ended up with an entire house. Why not?


  22. I would love to see one of these magnificent, gorgeous creatures in person… We recently saw a traveling exhibit in Atlanta of “Art of the West,” and the buffalo of course figured prominently. The rapid disappearance of their — and other wildlife — sadly.

    I know I’ve said this before…. But I’d love to visit those lovely vast prairies one day. That land is so foreign to me!

    1. FeyGirl,

      I’m looking forward to the day I get to be a little more up-close-and-personal with a bison, too. Clearly, visiting a ranch would be a good way to do it. The Kansas ranch that has the largest herd in the state does have “visiting days” – it would be fun to work in a visit there sometime.

      You’d love the prairies. The horizon can be a little vertigo-inducing, but the variety of plants and animals is truly amazing. Even outside places like Konza and the Tallgrass prairie, there are stretches of open range where you can just walk into the grass and walk forever – or so it seems.

      By the way – I’ve spotted a black-crowned night heron in the branches of a live oak where I’m working currently. I’ve seen him three days in a row – quite a treat!


      1. Vertigo-inducing is a great description, judging by those images!! The prairies and the Badlands — two of my main bucket list must-see places to visit, in the States.

        Aw, a night heron’s made his (temporary? permanent?) home near you! One recently followed me through some wetlands; as shy as they are, it really WAS a treat!

  23. Oh, I learned a new noun today thanks to you: wallow. What a wonderfully descriptive term.

    It’s been a close day chock full of intense emails and thick technical reading and endless twitchy demands. What a relaxing read your post was for me (who could do with a few months on a prairie) to think about bison wandering through tall grasses under a big big sky.

    1. nikkipolani,

      Maybe we can arrange a Sanity Lunch for you out on the prairie. There’s no question that, when life seems to be closing in, even through nothing more than an overabundance of small demands, a little horizon can work wonders.

      I learned something about the physical nature of wallows that does tickle me. When a buffalo – or a herd of them – wallow, they continue to enlarge and deepen the wallow itself. So, we could say that someone who wallows in self-pity, for example, might do little more than add to their depression! That makes me laugh.

      Happy weekend, and happy rain, perhaps.


  24. Now that I think about it, the buffalo would be a good symbol for the US. Even though it’s promiscuous and polygamous, it does have strong family values (LOL). It is independent and pugnacious, and guards its young fiercely.

    We should care for our grasslands. It was grasslands, the savannahs of the horn of Africa, that made us human and helped mold us as a species. It is said our love of parks hearkens back to those savannahs, and we instinctively know how many trees are “right” in such areas.

    1. WOL,

      It took all of five seconds for your first paragraph to remind me of the (in)famous bit of doggerel that introduced grade-school me to a few interesting concepts:

      “Hogamous, Higamous,
      Man is polygamous,
      Higamous, Hogamous,
      Woman monagamous.”

      I went looking, and found my beloved Quote Investigator has done a little digging around this one, himself. You can see the results here, along with his argument that William James in a drug-induced stupor isn’t the source. Fun stuff.

      I do think one of the hardest concepts for some people to grasp is that trees can be interlopers, too. The use of bulldozers and fire to beat back the forest is appalling to some, but once they understand that our activity brought those trees to the prairie, taking them out doesn’t seem so horrid.

      I know this – I’ll never think of “grass” and “lawn” as synonymous again.


  25. I never knew there was so much to know about buffalo until I read this post! No – one as far as I can see has as yet mentioned ‘buffalo mozarella’. Do you have this culinary delight in the USA?

    And greetings from determinedly grey, cold, wet Glasgow, Scotland UK, where the one flourishing daffodil in our neighbourhood thus far, was lying prone on the soggy ground today. Such is the strange world we live in that a friend has been sending it reiki from the Bahamas where she is escaping from our weather. Clearly hasn’t worked, this time!

    1. Anne,

      And until you showed up, I never had heard of “buffalo mozarella”. A little searching confirmed it’s a cheese, which I had suspected, but it’s made from the milk of domesticated water buffalo, not our bison. I found a completely entertaining article here, in the “NY Times” which I suspect you’ll enjoy as well.

      Now, I want a taste of it myself, but I fear getting the real thing is going to be tough and probably not in my budget.

      We have sunshine today, and more cold in the coming week. There are a few wildflowers and blooming trees now, and if we get the rain that’s forecast, things will perk up even more. Condolences to your daffodil. Perhaps you should clip it and bring it indoors, where it can be more comfortable and shed a little sunshine for you!


  26. As an outsider, I have to say I think the buffalo speaks more to me of America, than does the eagle. After all one walks the Earth, while the other flies the sky.
    Most of all Linda, I was taken by your use of “soft susurration of the grasses ” – now that is simply wonderful descriptive language!

    1. eremophila,

      The more I read about and think about the buffalo, the more fond of it I become. I suspect there’s no chance in the world for a change, and probably one isn’t deserved. But I have learned that the bison was recently (2011?) declared our National Mammal. So the big, furry one is getting some respect, after all.

      Isn’t “sussurration” beauiful? It makes me think of “murmuration” (as in a flock of starlings) and even “tintinnabulation”. Of course all of that takes me back to my early poetry classes, and sends me off again to figure out how “that word” is really spelled. Of course, it’s “onomatopoeia”!


  27. Lovely and informative post! I too enjoy talking to docents at visitor centers and museums when I travel. There is so much to learn, and some of the best conversations I’ve ever had are with these strangers.

    1. Terri,

      On the same trip, I not only was gifted with Chod for a day, but also met some wonderful docents at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. None of these people were professionally trained in their respective fields of interest. All of them were passionate about their subject matter — prairies, sculpture, painting — and that passion clearly had propelled them into a life of intensive learning.

      How nice of you to stop by. Of course you’re always welcome.


  28. Wonderful post, Linda. I could almost smell the sweet smell of grass with the undertone of ‘Eau de Bison.’ I’m ready for the rest of the hike!

    My first sightings of bison were here in Charleston. Like Bogon, in NC, we here in SC used to have native bison. The Charleston Museum still has a stuffed one. A bit dusty and worn out looking, now. The Museum was just a short walk from our downtown apartment, when I was very young. Mama would take me down there all the time.

    We’d also frequently visit the zoo in Hampton Park, a former horse racing track and, later, the site of the S.C. Inter-State and West Indian Exposition 1901/1902. I was always thrilled to see the ‘bussalo’ and the ‘jo-raffe.’ Looking back, it was a sad little zoo, typical of zoos in the 1950’s. Tiny cages and pens, with sad animals just standing in them.

    There’s currently three or four bison at Charlestowne Landing, among other animals native to SC. While the pens there are much larger than the ones at Hampton Park, in my mind, they’re still way too small. I find it a depressing place to visit.

    It would be nice to see bison running free, as they do on the preserves and parks of the MidWest and West. Or even on ranches.

    1. Gué,

      One of the best things that’s happened over the years is the transformation of zoos. What we see as petting zoos now are larger and in better condition than the “real” zoos that we visited when I was a child. And it’s not just a matter of physical facilities. They’re paying much more attention to the social needs of animals, too. Herd animals need a herd, for heaven’s sake. A lot of that sadness among the animals years ago probably was loneliness.

      I have a hard time getting my mind around bison in North and South Carolina. But I was equally surprised to know that they existed even in New York. I don’t pay much attention to football, but it just this minute occurred to me — that’s why the Buffalo Bills have a buffalo on their helmets.

      I just went looking, and found this history for the team – which started out life as the Bison! I had wondered if they were named after Buffalo Bill Cody, and in fact they were.

      “Buffalo’s team in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) in 1946 was the Bisons. In 1947 a contest was held to rename the team, which was owned by James Breuil of the Frontier Oil Company.

      The winning entry suggested Bills, reflecting on the famous western frontiersman, Buffalo Bill Cody. Carrying the “frontier” theme further, the winning contestant further offered that the team was being supported by Frontier Oil and was “opening a new frontier in sports in Western New York.”

      I smiled at the thought of your mama taking you to the museum. We both were extremely blessed to have parents who did such things – and not just on special occasions. People keep saying, “What? You want to go back to the 1950s?” There was good and bad then, too — some of it very bad — but if we could just reclaim a few things, like the educational system and allowing children to be children, it would make me happy.


  29. I discovered last summer that grasses could be beautiful, well, some of them. Your photos look serene. The buffaloes remind me of, surely, a movie: Dances With Wolves. filmed in S. Dakota and Wyoming. Yes, I think the buffaloes just need more good press for publicity. They represent native livelihood and the early pioneering spirit. The Bald Eagle? Hope you’ll have a post on it to let me know why it’s the symbol of your country, and not the buffalo.

    1. Arti,

      I suspect you feel a bit like most people up north just now. The sight of any grass will be beautiful. Add in some flowers and trees and warmer temperatures, and it will be very nigh heaven. Even we have another winter weather advisory for freezing temperatures and possible ice tonight. It’s well time for this to be over.

      I remembered a comment made by the ranch manager at the Z Bar ranch and went off to find it for you. That’s the place that has developed a large herd. He says he doesn’t believe the reports by early Kansans of great herds stretching for miles, and then adds,

      “You will see a group of 200 and then maybe a quarter of a mile away, you will see another group of 200. But like a ‘Dances with Wolves’ scene? I don’t think that ever happened. We don’t experience that behavior. We have 3,000 buffalo and when you get that many together, the dust would be too much. They kick up dust, and they don’t want to breathe it anymore than anybody else.”

      That just tickled me. I’ve never thought about such great creatures being irritated by the world around them, but insects clearly get to them (that’s why they wallow), and I suppose it makes sense that they’d limit their group numbers in very dry conditions. Or even not so dry, for all that.

      I’ve never thought about why the eagle and not the buffalo, but then I had a thought. When the eagle was chosen, it was very, very early in our country’s history. It may very well have been chosen before even the earliest explorers made it out to the western plains to see the great herds. I’m going to have to explore that – because I’m not certain myself! All I know is that I’m really, really glad they didn’t choose the wild turkey!


    2. On the other hand, I’m working on finishing Part 2, and I just found some eyewitness accounts of buffalo herds from 1846 that sound pretty “Dances With Wolves-ish” to me. More research clearly is required!

  30. I enjoyed this well written lyric essay on your Kansas visit . It was rich with a descriptive sense of place, some interesting anecdotal information and great supporting photographs. I almost felt that I was there.

    1. What kind words, Mary — and what a delight that I could give you at least a bit of a sense of “being there.” It’s beautiful country, with such a rich history. I suppose the truth is that, like any place in the world, the trick is to stop and look around a bit – there are treasures everywhere.

      I’m so happy you stopped by, and enjoyed the post. Thank you for your generous comment.


  31. Informative story about one of my favorite creatures. I would love the opportunity to visit the Kansas prairie and the preserve, or others. I’ve seen bison/buffalo up close (behind a fence) and they are magnificent creatures.

    I’m not sure I buy “they were only in small groups.” I’ve read native American histories and first-hand accounts about the large herds. However, perhaps they hung out in smaller family groups until they were herded into large groups for the slaughters.

    My logic may be off…but if a few bison can create the wallows you photographed…what about those massive herds. As far as I know the prairies were doing well…but if they created massive wallows during dry times, then the great dust bowl may have happened a lot sooner.

    1. Martha,

      I think what we have is a difference in behavior between today’s “large” herds, and the great herds of the Plains, before the slaughters. I just got Part 2 posted, and in doing research for that, I found plenty of historical evidence for those truly large herds — not just large, but enormous.

      One of the accounts I read said that the bison herds were so large they didn’t have to take much account of the wagon trains or military columns. They’d just open up (the bison) to allow whoever was coming through to pass, and then they’d close ranks again and keep on grazing.

      From what I understand, the grazing habits of the bison kept them on the move, so wallows had a chance to re-vegetate over time. And, from what I’ve been told, a good wallow would serve many bison, so it wasn’t like everyone had to have their own little place to roll around. There’s a video in the next post that shows a bison wallowing. It’s quite amazing. I’d never thought about the fact that they can’t roll over, because of their hump. They get so far, and then have to go the other direction.

      I just read another article today about a herd being established in Alberta, in the southwest part. It’s amazing how much attention is being paid to them now — in Calgary, they were astonished by the birth rate, and how beautifully that herd is adapting.


  32. Fascinating how they herd the buffalo into the corral. I have seen recalcitrant pigs lured into their corrals in much the same way in Yorkshire. The farmer walks ahead of them dropping tidbits here and there. I guess animals and people as well respond to treats! Another great and informative post, and the photos are wonderful.

    1. Kayti,

      You know the old saying about catching flies with honey or vinegar. It makes perfect sense to me. Give me a choice between Brussels sprouts and mint gelato, and there is no choice, even though I happen to have a perfectly adequate recipe for Brussels sprouts.

      Clearly, animals respond in the same way. I once knew a horse whose favorite was sweet potato, and I know several lettuce-eating cats. Mine won’t touch human food – no tuna, no chicken, no beef – but offer a piece of a certain kitty treat, and she’ll sit up and beg.

      It really does tickle me to think that they know those big, old bison so well that they can lure them here and there like a housepet. Of course, with those horns, it’s far better to find a nice, peaceful way to get them from here to there.

      Thanks so much for the kind words. I just got Part 2 posted, so you can follow the tidbits to the buffalo fluff!


  33. Two absolutely magnificent posts. I want to walk right into the picture of that prairie in autumn. So subtly beautiful! The wallows are fascinating. At first, I thought, uh-oh, too much damage to the land, but then you make clear how very functional they are for the cycle of life. Brilliant post, and only part 1! On to part 2!!

    1. Susan,

      The wallows really are interesting. They do regenerate after a time, although often with different vegetation than the surrounding land. Here’s a fascinating photo and article about an old wallow that still exists in the Dallas/Ft.Worth area. I couldn’t find a better photo, but I’m assuming those are sculptured buffalo they’ve included for effect.

      The autumn was so beautiful. But now, I’ve seen photographs of some of the places I visited in the springtime, and I’m wishing I could go back in a month or two. It’s not happening – but maybe next year.


  34. Great Blog, I lived just south of where you are describing, there were more sand hills and less canyons ravines and gorges. I have seen a buffalo herd in a small oilfield town called Iraan. The rancher raised beef cattle, breeding cattle as well as longhorns also.

    I was so excited being a hunter to be offered an antelope tag in New Mexico while living there. Then I learned people actually had them hanging around ranch corrals as pets. One year during a drought ( that’s when we didn’t get the average 9 inches of annual rainfall) they had to go out and trap the antelope, they were not smart enough to jump a fence and were too short to reach over a stock tank to get water.

    There is, or used to be a summer event in the Palo Duro canyon which I was told was the pre-cursor for the musical called “Fiesta” at Six Flags over Texas, San Antonio. It used to be a 6 week summer event in the canyon.

    Here I go rambling again. I really enjoyed reading your thought. Thank you for sharing.

    1. foamheart,

      That is different country out there. I’ve been through Iraann (how many people know that Ira and Ann gave their names to the town?) and many, many years ago I had some car trouble betwen Pecos and Carlsbad — not something you’d hope for, but it worked out fine.

      I’ve heard about that production at Palo Duro. They have an amphitheater where they put on summer productions of a musical about the history of Texas. I’ve heard very good things about it, but I’d far rather visit the place on the off-season, when the kids are in school and there aren’t hordes of people. Just me — I was all by myself all the way through the Panhandle and the Caprock Canyon area, except for three bikers and a car filled with photographers speaking a language I couldn’t even identify. We all were enjoying the beauty and the space, though – it was a great experience.

      I laughed about the non-jumping antelope. Up in the hill country, a friend had a white-tail deer hanging around his place for years. He had a funny, uncomplimentary name for that creature because it was just as dumb. I can’t remember the name just now, but I remember that deer – completely baffled when the rest of the herd jumped the fence. It would take a half hour, every time, to walk the fence until it found a way through to follow its friends.

      So nice to have you stop by. You’re always welcome to stop and chat. As you can tell, I like to ramble a bit, myself.


      1. Your last picture above, although I know what it is, reminded me of one of my favorite cowboy poet’s songs.

        Hope you don’t mind, it just seemed perfect. Thank you for the welcome.

        1. I don’t mind at all! In fact, if I’d known the song, I might have posted it myself, but I’d never heard it. Now I have, thanks to you.
          A good tune’s always welcome, too.

  35. A really interesting post, punctuated by some beautiful nature images. With you around, Linda, we don’t need National Geographic or any encyclopedias!

    A little buffalo fact that surprised me when I found out about it many years ago, was that mozzarella is made from their milk in Italy. For some reason, though, I still think of it as strange that they would be native to that country.

    Thank you, Linda, for all your visits to my blog. Please see the linked page I’ve included for where I can be found now.

    1. Andrew,

      Oh, my – I’m no National Geographic, although I might be able to give Wikipedia a run for its money here and there.

      I heard about that buffalo mozzarella somewhere along the line and did some exploring. As it turns out, the cheese isn’t made from our buffalo’s mik (too bad) but from the milk of a species of water buffalo, which we don’t have. Apparently it’s wonderful stuff, but very difficult to make and, hence, rather expensive. Still, it would be fun to try.

      I did see that you’ve moved your blog. The good news is that, since I see your new posts on Twitter, I still can keep up with them. Sometimes not being on FB and Google+ is an obstacle. Luckily, it’s one that can be overcome.


  36. My father also collected Buffalo nickels, and I have them now. Most are worn smooth and devoid of detail, but a few are sharp, and it’s oddly exciting to look at those, even now.

    I never realized that “wallow” could be a noun. And “susurration” — what a perfect word.

    We have a provincial park here called Buffaloland, although I’ve been there twice and have yet to see a single Buffalo. Maybe it’s time to shuffle off to somewhere else?

    1. Charles,

      I wonder what it is about those nickels? Almost everyone I know has a few kicking around. They remind me especially of the days when a nickel was big money. You could ride your bike two blocks to the gas station that had a penny candy counter, and fill two pockets with goodies. But I never spent the Buffalo nickels until I showed them to Dad, just in case they were good ones.

      A wallow really is an interesting little system. I suspect the verb might have come first, because it’s rooted in the Old English “wealwian”, “to roll”, which itself goes back to Old German. But the Online Etymology Dictionary says that the noun dates back to the 1590s. Apparently someone was wallowing around in Europe back then.

      I see you got your buffalo from Alberta. Maybe they shuffled back to their home province.


  37. Having been interested in all things American Indian when I was in grade school, Buffalo held a certain fascination. I always hated those stories of earlier American trains heading out West with passengers onboard who would shoot buffalo for sport and leave the carcasses to rot where they fell. Indians killed them but only for what they could use or eat. And, that is proper. The herds back then must have been magnificent. They are often majestic looking beasts.

    My connection to buffalo seems to be ongoing with Buffalo nickels in my modest coin collection. Also, my father in law once rented some land to someone with a buffalo herd. Far as I know they only got out once and crossed the busy highway!! It was in the local news on TV.

    My husbands AV contracting firm is called ViSonic Systems. You’d be amazed how often people write down or say Bisonic instead. Not that I mind…makes me smile.

    1. Judy,

      I can well imagine those buffalo would have made the news when they escaped and crossed the highway. You’ve reminded me that we’re nearly to the time of the great alligator crossings. It always happens, and it’s always an amazement when they start crossing the freeways in search of – what? water? mates? Who knows. Maybe they just get spring fever, as we do.

      The stories of the decimation of the great herds are unutterably sad. They’re important to remember, and learn from, lest we do it again with other species. Still, it’s wonderful to know that a reversal can take place, as it has with the brown pelican, and it’s amazing to witness the dedication of the people who are committed to bringing the bison back.

      A bionic bison would be pretty cool, don’t you think? I wonder if some museum already has an animatronic creature? Probably so.


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