Mating Games

bull and cow moose

The cow moose is looking at her calf just out of the image.

The bull, on the other hand, is only interested in the cow and when she will come into estrus.

When I stepped out onto our deck and saw the cow and calf moose, I turned back to summon our visiting grandchildren. Soon, six kids and my wife joined me. The cow and calf were unconcerned by our presence and our grandson quickly pointed out that they were not alone. A young bull stood not 50 feet away, his interest in the cow obvious. The cow called once, a long single mid-tone note that likely meant something to the bull, but he didn’t react. Maybe it meant, “not yet, buster!”

Later that day, my wife posted about the episode on a Facebook group page and several other people responded that they had seen them as well. One person noted that she did not realize that moose would hang out in family groups.

Well, frankly, moose don’t do that. During the summer months, if you see a moose cow, calf and bull together, it is purely coincidental. This time of year, though, the cows are in heat and the bulls are following the luscious pheromone trail she leaves in her path. He has no interest in the calf, and it likely isn’t even his.

It seems that each species has a little different idea of what romance should be. If you have been in the woods or in Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Parks, lately, you may have heard bull elk bugling and seen them carrying on with shameful belligerence toward all the cows they can round up. These harems may be 20 or more cows strong, with calves adding to the mix. Like the bull moose, the bull elk doesn’t care about the calves, his interest is breeding as many cows as possible.

In one form or another, this is the story for all ungulates such as elk, pronghorn antelope, deer, caribou and moose and many other species across the globe. The males and females are separate for most of the year, only coming together to breed after males sort out who is the biggest and baddest and has that right.

Bears, especially grizzly bear boars, see things differently. If they find a female with offspring, they will attempt to kill the cubs. This accomplishes two things: first, it might just eliminate offspring from a competing boar (they might be his own cubs as well, but he doesn’t know that). Second, once the cubs are dead, the female will cycle back into estrus, and if the boar hangs around long enough, he might get lucky. It seems odd that the female would have anything to do with the murderer of her babies, but that is the way nature is.

Members of the dog family, wolves, coyotes and foxes, to name a few, form strong pair bonds during the mating season and raise their pups together. With wolves, only one pair, the alpha male and alpha female, mate and the rest of the pack become surrogate aunts and uncles, helping to raise the youngsters.

In the invertebrate world, mating is sometimes a dangerous prospect. Male spiders are often smaller than females and must approach potential mates carefully or they may become her next meal. With some species, the male approaches the female with a gift, a juicy fly or other prey already wrapped up in silk. In one species, the male that brings a gift may be rewarded with a mating session ten times longer than a male that successfully mates without bringing a gift.

Hermaphroditic garden snails inseminate each other and that should be the end of it. However, instead of the “normal” way, they shoot a “love dart” (called a gypsobellum) which pierces the skin of their mate. Too much lovemaking can result in death.

As unique as each form of mating is, there is one unifying goal: to create the next generation. From an ecological standpoint, that is the only definition of success—if next year there are little ones running around with your genes. In that one respect, I am a wild success.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho