Carson Valley is beautiful and interesting all year. But it assumes a special meaning during calving season, beginning around mid-February and continuing for about two months. It is a time of birth and renewal on the many ranches in the valley, and it is free for all to experience.
I fell in love with the valley after moving to Gardnerville in October 2011. Taking casual rides around the valley to marvel at its beauty and wildlife soon became a regular outing.
In early 2012, after noticing very small calves begin to appear among the growing herds, I became a serious observer of what I learned was calving season in Carson Valley. Online research revealed a wealth of information about calving, including, for the neophyte observer, a cow’s behavior just prior to the birth of a calf: walking away from the herd (do our bovine friends share the human longing for privacy?), walking somewhat erratically, lying down, walking, lying down. Looking for this behavior can save a lot of time watching cows graze.
It is just luck to see a cow giving birth close enough and oriented in a direction to provide a clear view of the event. I was fortunate to witness three live births in 2012 and four last year, two of them so close I could take vivid videos.
It is an emotional, almost spiritual experience to witness a new life in such a quiet, natural and (seemingly) peaceful manner.
As the calf emerges and drops to the ground, the dam (a cow that has birthed a calf) immediately begins to nurture it. If the calf is not completely out of the fetal sac, the dam pulls it off with her teeth. She licks the calf to clean it of mucus, particularly the nose and mouth to enable the calf to breath easily. The dam may vigorously nudge the calf and walk a few steps away to encourage it to stand and walk, then return to nudge it again.
Normally, a calf will try within minutes after birth to stand; at first it will collapse on wobbly legs, only to try again and again. Once barely able to stand and walk, instinctively it will seek sustenance and begin to nurse.
Not all outcomes are good. I have seen a cow unable to birth its calf, a severely disabled calf and a stillborn calf.
An additional treat during calving season is the opportunity to view bald eagles that come into the valley to feed on afterbirth and the carcass of the occasional stillborn calf. It is not unusual to see several eagles competing for this nourishment. Especially rewarding are sights of breeding pairs feeding their chicks. If you’re patient and really lucky you may see a young eagle fledge.
So, take your binoculars and camera and venture out. There are many viewing areas along U.S. Highway 395 between Carson City and Minden and especially on Highway 88 south of Minden. You just might be rewarded with a wonderful experience.
Bo Statham is a retired lawyer, congressional aide and businessman. He lives in Gardnerville and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.