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The beauty of the beast

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A cow moose and her calf as seen on trip with Dr. Vince Crichton- Certified Wildlife Biologist in Riding Mountain National Park.  (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

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A cow moose and her calf as seen on trip with Dr. Vince Crichton- Certified Wildlife Biologist in Riding Mountain National Park. (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

A solitary creature, the icon of the north feels no need to congregate like deer. Bulls gather no harems like elk. But make no mistake; the moose is just as driven by an imperative to connect. Moose are one of nature’s greatest lovers.

Everything — the white fur fringe that hugs a cow’s butt like a tight skirt, the flaring antlers, the pendulous bell on the bull — are sensitive thermostats to sex hormones that pump through their mighty bodies.

In 12,000 years, say biologists, Bullwinkle hasn’t changed a bit. For aboriginal people, whose oral traditions say they and the moose have always been here, the animal’s significance as a symbol of life holds true even in death.

Retired Winnipeg biologist and moose expert Vince Crichton said one of the oldest moose antlers known to Manitoba scientists was discovered during the excavation of a northern dam.

"When the Conawapa Dam was being built, they found bones in an old grave," said Crichton. "A mother and a child. There was this one moose antler that covered the child and it’s one of the oldest ever found in Manitoba, 4,500 years old."

Hudson’s Bay Company explorer Samuel Hearne recorded moose sightings as far west as Lake Athabasca.

A bull hits his prime at five to six years old, with a rack of antlers that can span 1.5 metres. By 15, that rack shrinks and becomes spindly, signalling the end of its fighting and mating days.

A prime bull weighs in at up to 725 kilograms. Most live into their teens.

Nature favours the bull and his rack, Crichton says. Bulls drop their antlers in December and start growing them again from scratch; fully 75 per cent of every bite they eat — from water lily tubers in summer to leafless dry shrubs in winter — goes into that horny crown. By July, it’s magnificent.

The velvet that covers the bone comes off in sheets and ribbons. A master of economy, the bull leaves nothing to waste: He eats the rich treat even as he rubs it off against the nearest spruce.

"It’s all about the bull, to see who’s the king of the hill," Crichton chuckles. "It’s about who gets all the sweeties and that’s the only function that antlers serve."

By contrast, antlers with bulbous bulges or bubbles are a telltale sign the bull has suffered castration. It’s nature’s way of marking out eunuchs.

"Antler architecture is the study of what kind of lover a moose is," Crichton says.

Anyone who’s ever heard two bull moose in battle, their antlers knocking to the rhythm of a sword fight, will never forget the sound.

Jousting can have deadly consequences for both combatants and leave the bereft cow in search of another lover.

In New Hampshire many years ago, scientists made a discovery that proved that piece of lore is true: The skeletons of two prime bulls, antlers locked together, that had starved to death, staring each other in the eye.

"This was two big bulls, that locked antlers in New Hampshire. Those locked antlers? That was the end of the game for them," Crichton says.

Hunters know stalking moose can be deadly. The massive creatures can outrun a human, especially in thick bush. If you’re charged, you’d better be a good shot because you won’t survive the attack.

All of this means surveys conservation officers conduct across North America don’t mean much unless you take the social structure of the moose and its evolutionary imperative into account.

"You can’t just count the animals. You have to look at the social structure, too," Crichton says.

That includes cows. Unlike other mammals, their fertility increases with age.

"A three- or four-year-old girl? She’ll have a single birth. Older females can have twins. And 10 years and up, all those old girls have twins," Crichton says.

That’s a finding Manitoba scientists such as Crichton nailed down for the database in North America.

Their breeding cycle is sensitive and short. Every fall, every 30 days, a cow goes into heat for precisely 30 hours.

A cow bred late, say in December, will have a calf born late, during tick season, risking the newborn’s survival. It’s one reason bulls duke it out: A young inexperienced bull may mate a cow too late. A mature bull knows the ropes.

The average newborn, by the way, weighs about 13.6 kilograms and it can stand on its own legs from birth.

By the end of September, some 22 per cent of cows are bred.

In the annals of moose lore, there’s one chapter that only Canada can lay claim to: A rare albino moose with blue eyes.

While white moose are born, in small numbers, almost anywhere, none is like the spirit moose of Foleyet, a tiny town in northern Ontario.

Only the spirit moose have blueish eyes. Other whites have the same colour of eyes as other moose: brown.

Whatever the eye colour, most hunters, and certainly traditional aboriginal hunters, see white moose as special.

Among First Nations from Mi’kmaq to Cree, the respect given to white moose is offered to only one other animal: the white buffalo. Both are sacred. Hunting one down, as trophy hunters did earlier this year in Nova Scotia, can trigger a firestorm.

The spirit moose in Foleyet is considered unique. First sighted by non-native hunters in 1908, hunting them is strictly illegal in Ontario.

Finally, if you’re ever in Riding Mountain National Park in the winter and you happen to see a moose, there’s one way to sex them without antlers: the cow’s white shapely crescent on her back end is a telltale sign. It would be cruel to suggest the bull’s-eye target is how a bull knows where to aim. After all, they are very smart animals.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

 

 

 

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