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Bison or Buffalo?

Biscuit or cookies? Bison or Buffalo? The meaning of words can change over time in ways that hardly resemble what they originally signified.


What the British call “biscuits,” we call cookies or crackers, depending on whether the pastry is sweet or savory. And then we apply that word, biscuit, to a fluffy little bread instead of a twice baked or dried flat item, as it originally meant.

We created a similar misnomer with our buffalo. We’ve called bison buffalo for so many centuries it’s now acceptable to use either bison or (American) buffalo, even though they are entirely different animals. The difference would be as if we called a goat a lamb.


Both bison and buffalo belong to the family Bovidae but are not closely related. Prior to the arrival of Europeans in North America, buffalo only referred to Cape buffalo and water buffalo, which are native to Africa and Asia. Bison are found in North America and Europe.

Bison, or American buffalo, have humps at their shoulders and bigger heads than true buffalo, beards, and thick coats which are shed in the spring and early summer. Bison and buffalo can also be identified by their horns. Bison horns are sharp and short. Buffalo horns are much larger. Cape buffalo have horns that resemble handlebar mustaches, and water buffalo’s horns are large, long, and curved in a crescent.


According to the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation biology institute, European explorers are likely to be responsible for the name confusion. It may have evolved from the French word boeuf, which means beef, or because bison hides resembled the buff coats worn by the military at that time.

There are variances between the different types of bison, as well. The European wood bison are larger. American bison are slightly hairier, heavier, and shorter. Their horns also are different. European bison horns point forward allowing them to interlock horns while American bison’s structure promotes charging. In addition, American bison are easier to tame and breed.


Bison are grazers that primarily eat grasses in addition to some flowering plants, lichen, and plant leaves. Snow can sit on their shaggy coats without melting. Bison weigh up to 2,400 pounds and stand about six feet tall at the shoulder. They grunt, snort, and bellow and may act aggressively when threatened. Bison charge and butt heads with other bulls but do not fight to the death. They have excellent senses of hearing and smell but poor vision. Bison typically live up to 15 years in the wild and as long as 25 years in captivity, if not subject to wolf predation.


At around three years of age, males leave their maternal herd and either live alone or with other males until mating season, which occurs from July through September. At that time, dominant bulls may maintain a small group of females to mate. They bellow and roar when they want to get a female’s attention. They also will chase any rival bulls away. Cleverly, bulls shield the cows’ vision with their body so they can’t see other males and be tempted to stray.


After the first few weeks of the season, subordinate bulls may be allowed to mate with the remaining cows that haven’t yet mated. More males than females have been observed to display homosexual behaviors.

Gestation period lasts 285 days. Bison calves are lighter in color than their parents for their first two months. Calves are nursed for at least 7 to 8 months or until the cow is pregnant again. By the age of three, bison cows are mature enough to produce a calf of their own. Males do not assist in raising the young.


The Sioux consider the rare birth of a white buffalo to be spiritually significant. It indicates the return of White Buffalo Calf Woman, a cultural prophet and the bringer of their Seven Sacred Rites.


When indigenous people arrived 27,000 years ago, they relied on bison for food, clothing, shelter, and even their spiritual practices. Every part of the animal was utilized and meaningful for the survival of the people.


By 9000 BC, bison roamed rich grassland from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico and on the east coast from New York to Georgia. The area is described as the great bison belt. It’s estimated that the bison population exceeded 60 million in the late 18th century.


But by the 1800s, herds were nearly eliminated. Bison were hunted for sport. Passengers were known to shoot at the animals from trains. Bovine diseases from domestic cattle also played a part in their deaths. However, most of the lost bison were slaughtered by the U.S. government in an organized effort to destroy the livelihood of the Plains Indians. Only 541 bison remained in 1889.

Recovery efforts began in the mid-20th century. However, a major problem facing herds today is their lack of genetic diversity because that diversity was destroyed with the elimination of earlier bison.


Wild herds now roam in a handful of national parks and reserves in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Russia. They also are raised on ranches for commercial purposes such as meat, dairy, hides, and skulls. Bison meat tastes similar to beef but is lower in fat and cholesterol. It’s also higher in protein.


Recovery by private groups include the Inter-Tribal Bison Council which was formed in 1990. This group is composed of 56 tribes in 19 states that have established herds on tribal land.

Caution when photographing or viewing bison should be observed, as with all wild animals. Bison will attack if provoked. They may appear slow because of their weight and nonchalant grazing and lounging but they’re actually much quicker than humans and quite agile. They can jump high fences, swim, run as fast as 40 mph, and can stampede if in a herd. In North American national parks, more people were injured by bison than bears during the period between 1980 to 1999.


*Photos of bison were taken on the Oneida Nation reservation, Oneida, Wisconsin

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