California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Program

Bighorn Behavior

Bighorn sheep typically appear very stoic, calmly sitting out the most violent mountain storms while lighting strikes near. They can often be observed standing on the highest point gazing into the distance. While they appear calm and relaxed, this is a type of vigilance behavior. Using their keen eyesight, they stand guard looking for predators.

At the right time of year their personalities shine. For rams, this is during the rut (mating season) in late fall. To establish dominance and the right to mate, rams put on an amazing display of behaviors. In the low stretch, rams lower their head and stretch their necks to appear bigger. The real battles come in the form of neck wrestling and spectacular head butts or horn clashes which create a sound like thunder. Ewes show their motherly instincts in spring and early summer during the lambing season. Ewes increase their vigilance behavior, and if the mothers in a group detect a threat they huddle close to each other with their lambs in the center protected from harm

Rams horn wrestling
Rams "horn wrestling" part of dominance behavior with lamb watching
Ewes in lambing terrain
Ewe in late winter visiting lambing terrain
Ram mating behavior
Ram mating behavior (typically October through December)
Bighorn in recent burn
Ewe / lamb group browsing fresh sprouts in a recent burn (7 Oaks Fire / Mt. Baxter)
Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep: View the sheep's intricate mating habits in a segment from the Counting Sheep documentary, created by Green TV in 2004. Commentary by University of California White Mountain Research Station biologist John Wehausen. (2 minutes and 19 seconds)    Entire film