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Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis)

Activity Cycle

  • Largely determined by availability of food and water (rain dependent)
  • Predominantly diurnal but also may be active on moonlit nights
  • Alternate between feeding and rest-rumination bouts
  • Feeding bouts generally occur at dusk and dawn
  • Some areas used repeatedly as bedding sites by groups

Social Groups

  • Matrilineal (based on female associations)
    • Linear dominance orders among ewes
  • Gregarious and exhibit site fidelity to natal home range. "Home range groups" or "ewe groups" tend to be related females and lambs.
  • Young learn from older sheep their home range, escape terrain, water sources and lambing habitat. Familiarity with range is an advantage in evading predators.
  • Rams are not as tied to a specific group; tend to range, moving between "ewe groups"
  • Rams with larger horns and body size dominate both males and females



  • Male horn size is a symbol of rank.
    • Head-to-head combat between rams may occur during mating season.


  • During the rut, bighorn rams will snort loudly. The lambs bleat, and the ewes respond with a guttural "ba."
  • Adult males utter a growl or gutteral

Olfaction/Scent Marking

  • Scent mark spread by rubbing eye glands on trees and rocks

Agonistic Behavior and Defense

  • “Clashing” of rams’ horns during rutting season to determine / maintain rank

Other Behaviors


  • Playing between lambs is highest during spring when food is available and lambs are young
  • Threat jumps, clashes, and mounting are the most frequent social patterns used by lambs associated as play



  • Can move over level ground at 30 mph and up mountain slopes at 15 mph

Interspecies Interactions

(Bighorn Institute website, 2002; USFW, 2000)

  • Natural predators include: mountain lions, wolves, bobcats, coyotes and golden eagles (and humans)
  • Non-native competitors include: cattle, horses, domestic goats and humans
  • Disease caused by domestic livestock
  • Mule deer are the primary competitor for resources
  • Known to become alarmed and startled by a flock birds or other sudden animal movements
  • Urbanization and human disturbance (habitat fragmentation, recreation use, development)

Magnificant Climbers

Bighorned sheep scaling rocks

Bighorn sheep nimbly traverse jagged, rocky areas to avoid predators and seek shelter.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Hansen (1980)
Shackleton (1985)
USFWS (2000)
Valdez (1999)

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