As strong as a bull moose

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114064192030765.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘Not a beautiful animal, except to another moose.’);

The moose is by far the largest member of the deer family, and in an ugly deer contest it would win both first and second prizes. It has a short body and gangling legs with the front pair being longer than the rear pair, resulting in a humped back appearance and an awkward gait. Its head is huge with a protruding muzzle and a short neck, giving it an asymmetrical appearance. The large head is necessary to support the rack of antlers (they may reach a spread of 6 feet) the bull is burdened with at certain times of the year.

A full-grown bull moose may stand more than 6 feet in height and weigh more than 1,400 pounds, and is circumpolar in its distribution. In Europe, it inhabits forests in Siberia, Sweden, Norway and the Baltic region. In North America, it is found in wooded areas of Canada and the northern United States, where it reaches its greatest size in Alaska.(I could tell you about my encounter with a moose some years ago in Alaska, but I will save that for another time.) Though the moose may be an ungainly and disproportionate creature (except in the eyes of another moose), it has the distinction of having a political party named after it.

In 1912, the Republican Party was locked in a bitter fight to name a nominee for president. The incumbent, William Howard Taft, was opposed by Robert M. LaFollette and former President Theodore Roosevelt. They believed Taft was too conservative and in bed with big business. Most of LaFollette’s delegates threw their support to T.R., but Taft won the nomination. Roosevelt was incensed and joined the Progressive Party to oppose both the Republicans’ Taft and the Democrats’ Woodrow Wilson.

When concerns arose about Roosevelt’s health and vigor, he proclaimed, “I am as strong as a bull moose.” From that time on, the Progressive Party was known as the Bull Moose Party. While T.R. was campaigning, an assassin fired a bullet into his body, but it struck his metal glasses case and a folded speech he was about to give, and only stunned him. Though his aides urged him not to give the speech, he insisted on giving it after making the comment, “It takes more than one bullet to kill a bull moose.” However, these heroics did not carry the day, and Wilson was elected president, and the Bull Moose Party faded from the political scene in 1917. Sometimes when I walk by Memorial Hall in Rockford, I can visualize the old Bull Moose standing on the steps and dedicating this outstanding building in 1903 when he was president.

The moose is undoubtedly the monarch of northern forests, and as he crashes through the woods, he seems to embody what is magnificent in the Animal Kingdom. In general, moose are solitary, but they may form into small bands in winter and trample down the snow where food exists. In Alaska, these areas are called moose yards. During the warm months of the year, moose feed mainly on water plants, and in winter on vegetation provided by shrubs and trees.

During the mating season in the fall, the usually timid bull moose becomes aggressive when seeking a mate. His roars and bawls of superiority echo through the forest, and he will frequently clash with another male to determine who will win the favor of a female. He is a vicious fighter, using his antlers and forefeet. The bull can be called within gunshot range with a horn made of birch bark, if the mating call of the cow is imitated. The gestation period is eight months; and one to three calves are born. They stay with the mother for two years.

After the mating season, the gigantic antlers are shed and amazingly grow back to full size the next summer. The shedding of the antlers during the winter is an advantageous adaptation. In deep snow, the ponderous moose is easy prey for hunters wearing snowshoes, and indiscriminate hunting almost drove it to extinction. But modern game laws and areas set aside for the protection of these animals helped to save them.

The Irish elk—a mooselike, extinct animal—is thought to have become extinct eons ago because its antlers of more than 11 feet hindered rather than helped in its struggle for existence. Maybe this was a warning to other species not to carry too much weight attached to their heads?

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Feb. 22-28, 2006, issue

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