Cows and Birds: Musings of a Rancher II

The first time meeting a bull I thought there should be much more care taken. We parked the pick-up in the two-lane adjacent to the white mound napping and chewing his cud. He didn’t move or glance our way as we approached. I walked equal to the rancher; if he was going in, I was, too. He knelt by the bull and offered me introductions to Woolly. Slowly turning his head in response to the rancher’s hand scratching his ears, the huge head swung our way and the dark eyes settled. Rising he stretched and re-positioned himself so the rancher and I could better serve various itches. His hair was wiry and thick, tough, curly, and oh so dirty, yet we continued, and the bull let his head rest heavy towards the ground, loosening his hind he shifted to keep his balance, his shoulders came down; he was in his element – secure, under control, and yet completely content.

I could have tipped this cow.

A cow on rangeland during sunset

I made it a point from that day forward to groom Woolly and he made it is priority to let me. When he was sold and the next bull, Gus, arrived I found that he too would accept, no – he would ask for scratches and rubs by backing into my area so I could better reach the parts he couldn’t. Summers began scratching bulls and then waiting for them to sing. Woolly was temperate and soft. Gus had a hearty bellow but kept it short and would only holler when he found other bulls to listen. Then Freddy arrived and my heart learned to tune into the song of the Shorthorn/Hereford cross. He lets it go. Deep, throaty, and intense, he bellows with strength opening his mouth and lifting his head high. He sings to the cows during the day and to my open window at dusk – it’s how I settle in; it’s our ritual and I can’t find rest without his nightly song.

We make these patterns, together. The bulls and I, and the cows, and the calves who know the sound of my truck tires and engine, the timber of my voice. I know how a cow calls to her calf to come close and the call when the calves get to playful; the cow call to the herd to head for water, and the call to me when they need something they don’t have (like a taste of cake). I know too the plaintive cry that means something is wrong and I’ve stood on winter nights with cows desperately calling to a frozen calf who won’t ever answer. We know each other’s voices and we pay attention.

The cows and I do the same with the birds. Songbirds are by far the most amazing. They are able to make two sounds at once by independently controlling muscles and tissues within their voice box. Some birds can sing two unrelated pitches at exactly the same time, simultaneously singing notes that rise and fall. Like the bull, the birds are full of energy and they too are giving away secrets – announcing their location to predators and defending their territory, all the while also inviting lovers to approach without caution. On the short-grass and mixed grass prairie I hear the Colorado State Bird, Lark Bunting warbling his whistles, the thick-billed Longspur twittering. If I’m very lucky, I might hear a Grasshopper Sparrow kip kip kip zeee.

I call them by name and they flick past me and over the backs of foraging cows. Some birds learn repertoires, others mimicry, while others practice song in the nest before even being able to fly. I wonder what they make of cow bellows, the exchanges between cow and calf, and my horrible renditions of popular pop music. However, I do know that when I listen, when I give into the asking of the prairie to be still and absorb all of the sound – the wind through grass, wings, love, bravado, a cow burp, and a calf exhale – I am ultimately and with no doubt honoring one of the most powerful rituals of all – the process of being a healthy grassland.

Stewardship Program Manager, Rachel Belouin

This is part II and final of this series. If you missed part I check it out HERE!

This blog was written by Stewardship Program Manager for the Southern Plains, Rachel Belouin. To learn more about our Stewardship work check out our Stewardship Page.