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Animal Moms: A Mother’s Day Guide to the Prairie

Each spring brings the budding anticipation of new life at Ranchlands.

At our Zapata Ranch, newborn bison with tufts of red hair take their first wobbly steps among the Rocky Mountain iris and blooming prickly pear cactus. Soon (within a few hours), they will be loping alongside their mothers in the sandy creeks of the San Luis Valley. Coyotes trot nearby, looking not for the calves, but for the nutrient-dense placenta left behind.

Meanwhile, at Chico Basin Ranch, the resilient Beefmaster cows calve unassisted in the pasture. These mothers are known for their attentiveness to their calves, an ability to thrive in a multitude of environments, as well as their fertility. These hardy mothers are not formed by the involvement of a heavy human hand, but instead, emulate something much closer to natural selection.

A swift fox mother with her kits outside of their burrow. Photo by Wesley Larson

Motherhood permeates much further than the obvious megafauna of the Colorado plains of Chico Basin or the high mountain valley of the Medano-Zapata ranch. The large tracts of native grasslands are teeming with biodiversity. From swift foxes to velvet ants to an abundance of migratory birds like sandhill cranes, our ranches are home to a monumental lineup of mothers.

In celebration of Mother’s Day, please enjoy this abbreviated field guide of a few of the mothers you might have a chance to meet at one of our ranches.

Pronghorn fawn & adults at Chico Basin Ranch.

PRONGHORN

At a sprinting rate nearing 60 mph, pronghorns are North America’s fastest land animal. These striking ungulates undergo one of the longest land migrations in North America, second only to the caribou. Herds near Grand Teton National Park trek as far as 150 miles in each direction. Now imagine doing that with a newborn.

  • Gestation & Newborns
    – 235 days (about 8 months)
    – Twins are common
    – Fawns can walk 30 minutes after birth. In 4 days they can outrun a human. In one week they can outrun a horse.

  • Maternal style
    – Mothers leave their young hidden in prairie grass while they graze, and return periodically to nurse
    – At 2 weeks, fawns are introduced to the larger herd
    – Fawns are weaned at 12 weeks

  • Unique Characteristics
    – Pronghorns have exceptional vision. Their massive eyes can see better than a human using 8x binocular magnification.

Photo: Bill Maynard

BURROWING OWLS

These petite but industrious owls live on prairies, pastures, shrub-steppe, and deserts. They thrive on wide expanses with minimal vegetation. Burrowing owls have a higher tolerance for carbon dioxide than other birds, and for good reason – they spend much of their life in their homes underground.

  • Gestation & Newborns
    – Incubation: 28-30 days
    – Clutch size: 2-12 eggs

  • Maternal Style
    – Preparation is key – before laying eggs, the owls often carpet entrance to burrow with livestock manure

  • Unique Characteristics
    – These owls are diurnal (active by day) instead of nocturnal (active at night)
    – The burrowing owl stows extra food in its burrow during incubation and brooding. In 1997 a Saskatchewan cache contained more than 200 rodents.

A bison cow and her calf on the Medano. Photo: Madeline Jorden.

BISON

Hunted nearly to extinction in the early 19th century, bison are a crucial keystone species of the plains. These mammals are responsible for creating habitats for many bird and plant species. Our Medano-Zapata Ranch is home to a conservation herd of 2,000 bison.

  • Gestation & Newborns
    – 9 months
    – Calves born with eyes open, weight 30-70 lbs.
    – Within minutes calves are walking, within hours they are running

  • Maternal Style
    – Mother’s prefer isolation when giving birth
    – Female bison (cows) are highly protective of their offspring, and when threatened will often retaliate

  • Unique Characteristics
    – Bison are a matriarchal society
    – Largest North American mammal

Photo by Bill Maynard.

BUMBLEBEE

In the United States, there are 46 species of bumblebees, 24 of which have been identified in Colorado. At Chico Basin Ranch, bees can be found collecting nectar from the sunflowers and coneflowers on the plains and sandhills. These social insects are assembled into colonies and are highly dependent on the queen bee.

  • Gestation & Newborns
    – The queen bee produces all of the eggs in a colony
    – Once a queen begins to hatch eggs, she will not leave her nest, and worker bees will provide her nectar and pollen

  • Maternal Style
    – If a worker bee attempts to “overthrow” the queen by laying a fertilized egg, the queen will consume the egg and begin producing hormones to ensure future bees are born without ovaries
    – While other bees in the colony die over the winter, the queen bee hibernates

  • Unique Characteristics
    – The queen bumblebee is substantially larger than the other bees – she measures in at is 20-23 mm in length, while the worker bee is 11-17 mm
    – The lifespan of a queen is 12-24 weeks, a worker bee is 7 weeks

See an incredible 1 minute time-lapse of bees hatching here.

Photo: Kevin Zacher

BEEFMASTER

Bred for ability not aesthetics, the Beefmaster cow is the exemplification of a good mother. She is attentive, tough, and protective. A breeding philosophy developed over 80 years ago, the Lasater method is based on 6 essential principles – disposition, fertility, weight, conformation, hardiness, and milk production. Beefmaster cattle have been living at our Chico Basin Ranch for over 20 years.

  • Gestation & Newborns
    – 9 months
    – Newborns stand within a few minutes, suckle within an hour

  • Maternal Style
    – Protective but gentle disposition
  • Unique Characteristics
    – Beefmasters breed in a shorter 60-day breeding season
    – Dystocia (difficulty calving) is very rare in Beefmaster cows
    – Beefmaster cows consistently birth and wean an acceptable calf every year

The seasons are particularly punctuated on a ranch, as the cycles of life are vividly on display. Spring brings a tangible opportunity to celebrate the joy of birth, and just as importantly, motherhood. We hope this Mother’s Day offers you a moment to celebrate and reflect on the mothers in your life. We will be celebrating both the mothers inside our homes and the ones just outside the door.

Photo: Brennan Cira

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