CHAPTER XIV. THE WILD SHEEP (Ovis montana)
ft. in. ft. in.
Height at shoulders 3 6 3 0
Girth around shoulders 3 11 3 3-3/4
Length from nose to root of tail 5 10-1/4 4 3-1/2
Length of ears 0 4-3/4 0 5
Length of tail 0 4-1/2 0 4-1/2
Length of horns around curve 2 9 0 11-1/2
Distance across from tip to tip of horns 2 5-1/2
Circumference of horns at base 1 4 0 6
The measurements of a male obtained in the Rocky Mountains by Audubon vary but little as compared with the above. The weight of his specimen was 344 pounds, which is, perhaps, about an average for full-grown males. The females are about a third lighter.
Besides these differences in size, color, hair, etc., as noted above, we may observe that the domestic sheep, in a general way, is expressionless, like a dull bundle of something only half alive, while the wild is as elegant and graceful as a deer, every movement manifesting admirable strength and character. The tame is timid; the wild is bold. The tame is always more or less ruffled and dirty; while the wild is as smooth and clean as the flowers of his mountain pastures.
The earliest mention that I have been able to find of the wild sheep in America is by Father Picolo, a Catholic missionary at Monterey, in the year 1797, who, after describing it, oddly enough, as "a kind of deer with a sheep-like head, and about as large as a calf one or two years old," naturally hurries on to remark: "I have eaten of these beasts; their flesh is very tender and delicious." Mackenzie, in his northern travels, heard the species spoken of by the Indians as "white buffaloes." And Lewis and Clark tell us that, in a time of great scarcity on the head waters of the Missouri, they saw plenty of wild sheep, but they were "too shy to be shot."
A few of the more energetic of the Pah Ute Indians hunt the wild sheep every season among the more accessible sections of the High Sierra, in the neighborhood of passes, where, from having been pursued, they have become extremely wary; but in the rugged wilderness of peaks and canons, where the foaming tributaries of the San Joaquin and King's rivers take their rise, they fear no hunter save the wolf, and are more guileless and approachable than their tame kindred.
While engaged in the work of exploring high regions where they delight to roam I have been greatly interested in studying their habits. In the months of November and December, and probably during a considerable portion of midwinter, they all flock together, male and female, old and young. I once found a complete band of this kind numbering upward of fifty, which, on being alarmed, went bounding away across a jagged lava-bed at admirable speed, led by a majestic old ram, with the lambs safe in the middle of the flock.
In spring and summer, the full-grown rams form separate bands of from three to twenty, and are usually found feeding along the edges of glacier meadows, or resting among the castle-like crags of the high summits; and whether quietly feeding, or scaling the wild cliffs, their noble forms and the power and beauty of their movements never fail to strike the beholder with lively admiration.
Their resting-places seem to be chosen with reference to sunshine and a wide outlook, and most of all to safety. Their feeding-grounds are among the most beautiful of the wild gardens, bright with daisies and gentians and mats of purple bryanthus, lying hidden away on rocky headlands and canon sides, where sunshine is abundant, or down in the shady glacier valleys, along the banks of the streams and lakes, where the plushy sod is greenest. Here they feast all summer, the happy wanderers, perhaps relishing the beauty as well as the taste of the lovely flora on which they feed.
When the winter storms set in, loading their highland pastures with snow, then, like the birds, they gather and go to lower climates, usually descending the eastern flank of the range to the rough, volcanic table-lands and treeless ranges of the Great Basin adjacent to the Sierra. They never make haste, however, and seem to have no dread of storms, many of the strongest only going down leisurely to bare, wind-swept ridges, to feed on bushes and dry bunch-grass, and then returning up into the snow. Once I was snow-bound on Mount Shasta for three days, a little below the timber line. It was a dark and stormy time, well calculated to test the skill and endurance of mountaineers. The snow-laden gale drove on night and day in hissing, blinding floods, and when at length it began to abate, I found that a small band of wild sheep had weathered the storm in the lee of a clump of Dwarf Pines a few yards above my storm-nest, where the snow was eight or ten feet deep. I was warm back of a rock, with blankets, bread, and fire. My brave companions lay in the snow, without food, and with only the partial shelter of the short trees, yet they made no sign of suffering or faint-heartedness.