Elton John and the bison ballerina

Bison approaching, Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba, Canada

You’ve heard of dairy farmers playing music to their herd to relax them into squeezing out more milk, right? It’s old news.

Well, I just met a bison bull with a penchant for Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’.

We were driving through the Lake Audy Bison Range in Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba, keeping our eyes peeled (a painful procedure with the windows open) for bison. Just over 40 bison graze this 500-hectare patch of fescue prairie (one of Canada’s few areas of original prairie land), which is split into summer and winter pastures. At the moment, the cows are calving – there are around six calves in the herd as I write – so the bulls are kept apart in the summer pasture.

That’s tough for a bull. Think of testosterone and you think of a bull, horns a-raging. What has more testosterone than a bull? A bison bull, that’s what. These creatures are the biggest land animal in the Western Hemisphere. The bulls average 900kg, are capable of quickly reaching speeds of 50kph and, in local talk, can “turn on a dime”.

After stopping at a viewing platform and scouring the winter range as we drove, we finally spotted one, pacing the fence dividing men from women. He was slowly plodding away from us, stopping to sniff the air, head down, shoulders hunched. I wound down the window as he disappeared over a hill; the notes of Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’ drifted out (don’t ask why we were listening to it…).

Bison about to pirouette, close to our carAs we began to pull away, I saw his hulking head reappear at the top of the slope. He sauntered towards us, ambling in time with the music:

“Ballerina (step), you must have seen her (stride) dancing in the sand,
And now she’s in me (pace), always with me (pawing), tiny dancer in my hand…”

He got closer. I could hear his breath, great snorts of hot air singing along: “Hold me closer tiny dancer, count the headlights on the highway, lay me down in sheets of linen, you had a busy day today.”

I took fright. He was looking right at us. The engine was turned off. Maybe he hated Elton; maybe ‘Tiny Dancer’ was literally a red flag to a bull.

“Turn the engine back on, just in case he charges,” I told Craig. Craig did so, never taking his eyes from the bull. The bull came towards us still.

At the last second he turned away and did an elegant little pirouette just as he went out of sight round the back of the car.

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