Learning About Bison Classroom Activities

Bison landscape.jpgWhat Does A Bison Eat?

Bison Food


Students collect and press grass, forbs, and browse. Students graph percentages.


Students will be able to identify at least 3 major categories of food eaten by bison.
Students will be able to identify three plants as a grass, forb, or browse.


3 X 5 Cards

Cardboard Pieces
Stack of books or other heavy objects


Bison are grazers. After dawn, in groups of three to four, the herd rises and eventually start grazing. They eat their fill and then rest. Their day cycles with periods of grazing and rest. It has been estimated that bison eat about 1.6 % of their body mass per day of dry vegetation. The equals 24 pounds a day. But what do the bison eat?

Bison eat grass as the greatest percentage of their daily diet. These animals eat approximately 93% grass, 5% forbs, and 2% browse as averaged over the course of one year.

Grass can be defined as the plants that are usually tufted or sod-forming herbaceous plants with narrow, elongated leaves. In the Panhandle area (where the State Bison Herd is located), bison eat grasses such as: Blue Stem, Buffalo Grass, and Gama Grass.

Forbs have broad leaves and considered a herbaceous plant. Many refer to forbs as weeds or wildflowers depending on their outlook. In the Panhandle Area, the bison may eat plants such as sunflower and coshia weeds.

Browse includes plants a with woody stem. Usually, you can peel a thin "bark" off browse plants. In the Panhandle Area, bison eat browse that includes mesquite and elm.


  1. Discuss with the students which plants are considered grasses, forbs, and browse. Explain to them that although bison may eat from these all three categories, bison eat mostly grass.
  2. Have students fill out the chart.
  3. Have the students collect examples of these plants. The plants collected by the students may be different than those eaten by the bison, but they still fall into the same categories. (If not possible for the students to collect the plants, the teacher should bring in examples of these plants.)
  4. Tag each of the plants with the name of the person who found the plant, the location where the plant was found, and the date.
  5. Create your own plant press using the following method. Note: Press only the leaves of browse material.
  6. Put the plant between the sheets of newspaper, using several sheets of paper between plants.
  7. Stack about 4 plants "newspaper sandwiches" together.
  8. Place a layer of cardboard on both the top and bottom of the plant/newspaper stack.
  9. Repeat the process of layering the plants in the newspaper and placing cardboard every fourth layer.
  10. Place heavy books or other heavy objects on the top of the stack to squeeze the water from the plants.
  11. Once the plants are dry, have the students place their collections in notebooks with clear pocket pages, in a photo album, or have them create their own "plant book."


Present a forb, grass, and browse plant, and ask the students to classify each one.
Ask students the three main categories from which bison eat.


Have the students use field guides to determine the name of each plant.
The teacher could bring in examples of forbs, browse, and grass. Then ask the students to classify each of the plants.
Use rice, beans, and noodles as a manipulative to demonstrate the different percentages of plants consumed.


Grass- These plants are usually tufted or sod-forming herbaceous plants with narrow, elongated leaves.

Forbs- Any herbaceous plant growing in its native habitat except grasses and grass-like forms. Often considered weeds or wild flowers.

Browse- This group includes any plants with a woody stem. The bark can be peeled to reveal a woody center.

Herbaceous- Green colored plants with a soft stem, not woody plants.

Cafe de Bison Math!

Bison CalculationsState_Bison_logo.gif


Students estimate, calculate, and measure feed requirements for bison.


The Texas State Bison Herd is no longer free to roam the vast prairies as they once did. Currently, thirty-three animals live within a 330 acre pen system in Caprock Canyons State Park.

These animals must be fed, and water must be provided. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department staff insure the well-being of the Texas State Bison Herd. The bison graze the area within the pens. In addition to grazing, bison are fed nutritious cubes and hay to supplement their diet. The amount of food given the herd depends upon factors such as weather and the amount of grass available for grazing.


A student page for each student
One five gallon bucket
One bathroom scale
Cups that hold at least 8 ounces of water
25 pounds of dry dog food or other dry matter that can be easily weighed
Brown paper grocery bags


  1. Discuss with the students that when wild animals are captured, it is a huge responsibility to make sure the animals are properly cared for and have the necessities to survive.
  2. Have the students discover how much it takes to feed and water a bison. Show the five gallon bucket, and explain that a bison drinks that much water in a day. Have students estimate the number of glasses of water it would take to fill it. Allow students to then fill the bucket. How many glasses did it take? Compare this to a human's daily intake of water.
  3. In the wild, bison eat grass, forbs (weeds), and browse (woody plants). They need about 24 pounds of dry matter a day, when grazing in the wild. Within the pens, the bison receive three pounds of nutritious cubes every other day. Have the students weigh out three pounds of dog food on a scale in a large paper sack. How much more food do the bison need a day? Have the students each pour a cup of dog food in the sack until it reaches 25 pounds. Remind students 25 pounds of grass weighs the same, but takes up more room. As an example, fill a paper bag with dry plant material and weigh it.


Have students measure their height. The average height of a bison is six feet. How much taller is a bison?
Have students weigh themselves on a scale. An average bison weighs about 1,500 pounds. How much more does a bison weigh? If you add the weights of each child in the class together, is that more or less than a bison?


Were the students able to solve the calculations pertaining to bison?
Have students plan and calculate what they would need to care for a small herd of five bison for a day.
Currently, thirty-three animals live within a 330 acre pen system in Caprock Canyons State

Bison Seasons

Background InformationBison_baby closeup.jpgWinter

During the winter the bison are split into two separate groups.  Cows and calves make up one group, bulls make up the other.  The cow/calf group consists of 20-70 bison.  The bull group has 5- 20 members. Both groups search for exposed grass to feed on.  Bison use their heads, horns, and powerful necks to clear away the snow that covers the food supply.  Bison can eat grass buried under snowdrifts 4 feet deep!  When water is difficult to find, they eat snow.  Their thick coats and heavy layers of fat protect them from the cold temperatures.  During blizzards, bison huddle together for warmth.  Bulls often take shelter in trees, but the other group often tries to resist the wind in the open where they are more likely to find nourishing grass.


 As the temperature starts to warm, the bison move off their winter range.  Now  their heavy layers of fat have been depleted, and the search for new grass keeps the bison on the move.  The thick coats are no longer needed, so the bison shed (molt)their heavy hair (pelage).  Tattered patches of hair often cling to the bison.  
The cows are still separate from the bulls.  The pregnant bison tend to separate themselves a small distance from the cow/calf group.  After approximately 275 days of gestation, the cows bear their calves.  The calves are born without humps and  weigh about 50 pounds.  Their coats are the color of cinnamon  and will darken with age.


The bulls and the cows finally join together as a herd during the summer.  The mating season, known as the rut,begins and lasts until early fall.  The calves are really growing.  Dark horns break the skin and their coloring darkens. The baby hair falls out and molting occurs as the darker hair pushes from beneath.  The hump is starting to develop. The adults rub against any available object and wallow on the ground to rid themselves of their molting pelage, and to scratch themselves when insects make them itch.  When telegraph lines first crossed the prairies, many were knocked down by bison rubbing and scratching.


At this time, the bison are building fat for the winter.  They graze much more, spending less time on the scratching, napping, and rolling that is popular in the summer.  They are also in the process of growing pelage for the cold weather.  Because they are in prime condition, this is often considered the best time for hunting.  By November, the bulls have left the herd.  The calves are looking more like adult bison with their coloring and shape.  Their hair is also thickening into a long,  shaggy appearance.  Calves at this age weigh about 400 pounds.   Bison in the wild live 12-15 years, but hardy animals may live  30 years or more.  

What is a Ruminant?


Eating - One Job, Four Stomachs!

Bison eat and digest their food in a very unique way.  They like to eat prairie grasses, and they have special teeth on their lower jaw that helps them clip off the grass.  Bison eat grass by wrapping their tongue around it and pinching it off between their tongues and lower teeth.  They swallow their food practically whole.  Bison are ruminants.  Ruminants have stomachs made up of four compartments which help them digest food.  

  1.  When eaten, food is first stored in the rumen, the first compartment of the stomach. Some food goes directly to the second compartment which is the reticulum. 
  2. Eventually, all the food goes to the second compartment, the reticulum.  Here stomach juices and bacteria begin to break food down and form it into cud.  When the bison are resting, muscles in the reticulum push the cud back up into bison's mouth.  There the cud is chewed and mixed with more saliva.
  3. Then the cud is swallowed again to be further digested. It passes through the rumen, the reticulum, and into the omasum, which is the third compartment of the bison's stomach.  The cud is further digested there.
  4. The final stop is the abomasum, the last of the compartments.  Here, cud is combined with stomach juices before passing into the intestines.


Why does it take four stomachs?  The grasses, forbs (weeds), and browse (woody plants), are very tough and hard to break down.  The bison's ability to use many different plant foods makes it a survivor when food (forage) is scarce. 

Texas Bison Timeline

Journey Through Time


Create a "long" time line.


The students will be able to sequence events. 
The students will be able to apply measurement to chronological time.


Bison  traveled over the land bridge during the Illinoisan Glacial Age from Asia to North America.  Since their arrival, they have had a major impact on American history.  Famous European explorers noted the bison as they explored the land.  Two of these explorers included Hernando Cortez and Alvar Munez Cabeza de Vaca.  Cortez saw a bison in Montezuma's menagerie.  In contrast, Cabeza de Vaca is said to be the first white man to see bison in the wild. 

Bison were essential to the Native American way of life.  They utilized every part of the bison for something.  In addition to relatively large quantities of meat, these animals provided hides to make clothing and shelter.  The bison were also interconnected to Native American religion, folklore, and art.

As time progressed, the bison were faced many difficult times.  Disease reduced the number of bison and wiped out the middle herd dividing the bison into a northern and southern herd.

Hide hunters set out to make their fortunes killing bison for their hides leaving the remainder of the bison to rot wasting  meat and other useful parts.  Once the bison were depleted, a trade in bones for china and other products developed. 

The bison were practically eliminated but fortunately a few individuals saw the bison were in danger.  Charles & Mary  Goodnight captured and raised  bison calves on their ranch.  Later some parks and reservations were set up to provide the bison with a safe area to roam.  Finally the last of the wild bison in the Texas Panhandle were moved to Caprock Canyons State Park. 


  • Paper
  • Pencils
  • Markers or crayons
  • Tape
  • Measuring Tape


  1. After reading the students the information, have them create a time line. They may work in pairs or as individuals.
  2. Cut the date/event squares into squares.  Allow each pair/person to select a specific event in bison history and have them illustrate the event on a single sheet of paper.  Make sure the year is on the paper.
  3. Review with students that events are placed in order from past to present.  Allow the students to place the events in order.
  4. Place and tape the ordered events on the wall creating a "long" time line.
  5. Travel as a class through time stopping at each point along the way.  Have the students act as conductors.  Each pair should tell about their  event in history and present their illustration of the event to the other students and teacher of the class.

"Bison" or Buffalo"?

Is it a bison or buffalo?BisonTX.jpg

Because bison in America resembled the buffalo of the old world, explorers also called them buffalo.  Actually, the word buffalo is believed to have been used by English settlers.  This term was said to have been a modification of the name "les boeufs" which French explorers gave to oxen or cattle.  Spanish explorers referred to bison as cattle, "vacas de tierra"  or cows of the country. 

The term evolved, and soon many variations such as "buffler,"   "boeffle,"  and "buffilo"  were used.  Although the terms buffalo and bison are now used synonymously, the scientific name for the "buffalo" found in America is bison. 

Bison Taxonomy
Order:     Artiodactyla
Class:      Ruminata
Family:     Bovidae


There are three main types of bison in the world.  These are:  the plains bison, the woods bison, and the European wisent bison. 

Common NameGenusSpeciesSubspecies
Plains Bison Bison bison bison
Woods Bison Bison bison athabascau
Wisent Bison Bison bison bonasus

The Texas State Bison Herd are plains bison which are also referred to as bison bison.  These mammals have long beards, and the horns are often covered by their  shaggy hair.  There is a sharp distinction in the texture and color of the pelage.

The wood bison or Bison bison athabascae is larger and darker than the plains bison.  It has a longer neck and a more abrupt change in the contour from the shoulders to the back.  The hair is longer and lower on the forehead of the wood bison.  This type of bison was also referred to as the mountain bison and is found in the northern part of  America and Canada. 

 The Bison bison athbascae are larger than the bison bison.  This follows Burgman's Rule which states the farther north one goes, the larger the animals tend to be.  Animals in the south tend to be smaller because they do not need the additional surface area to absorb heat. There is another type of bison which is known as bison bonasus.  These animals are found in Europe.  Most of these bison live on preserves in Russia or Poland.  These animals appear more like an ox.  They have smaller heads that are carried higher than American bison.  Its body and legs are longer.  The pelage is less shaggy, and the tail is longer.  Overall, the body  has less imposing forequarters and larger hindquarters.

The "true" buffalo are often  referred to as those in Asia or Africa.  They belong to a different family than the American bison.  The physical differences are more evident.  These buffalo do not have a large hump and have a more slick appearance.

Student Challenge!

Many times, people have names for animals that are different from their "real" or scientific names.  Have students list some of these, along with their various names.  (Example: mountain lion or puma)

Bison Sites

Bison Sites of Texas


Learn to use a Texas state map by locating bison-related sites.


The students will be able to locate bison-related sites on a map.
The students will be able to identify important bison-related sites.


Bison have had a profound effect on the history of Texas.  There are numerous sites within the state of Texas that are bison related.  Some of the sites are preserves that provide a safe place for the bison to live.  Other sites are important to the historical and natural history background of the bison.  Some sites may relate to Native Americans that utilized the bison or to the hide hunters who hunted them. 


  1. Pencil or pen
  2. A Texas state map for every four students.


1.  Explain to students how to use the grid to locate sites on the state map.  Use a simple diagram on the chalkboard to show how to find coordinates. 
2.  Put the students in groups of four to do the map activity.  Give each group one map and have the students take turns being the locating sites, marking the map, and verifying the locations.
3.  As an extension, have students write a letter to some of the sites to ask for more information about bison history in the area. 


Were the students able to locate the sites within the state of Texas?


    • Trading Post-  An establishment  (much like a general store) distanced from towns.  Supplies were provided to the hunters and their hides were bought.
    • Hunting Camps- Most often located away from the trading post and hide towns.  The hunters built temporary housing that resembled tipi structures. 
    • Hide Town-  These towns were located where there was direct access to the railroads.  Within the town, commercial businesses engaged in bison related trade.

Analyze a Picture


Photos and drawings are important in preserving history.  Historians spend much time looking at photographs in great detail, looking for clues to the true story of the picture.

Note: Gather several  photos. Have descriptions of the photos.  Students really enjoy this simple activity.


The students will be able to infer at least three conclusions from the picture.
The students will be able to write their own story based on observations about the picture.


    1. Copy a picture for each student or distribute one picture to a group of students.
    2. Have students study the picture. Have them think about the following questions: When do you think the photo was taken? Where do you think the photo was taken? Who do you think the people are and what do they do?
    3. After asking probing questions, have the students write or tell their own stories about the photo. Ask them to use their imagination to embellish their stories.
    4. Have students share their stories with the class. Did everyone draw the same conclusions?
    5. Share the actual facts about the photo.


    Were the students able to infer at least three conclusions from the picture?
    Did their story fit the photo?


    Have students draw a scene and trade drawings with another student. Have each students write about the other's drawing.
    Ask students to write about what they would be doing in a photo that they would want to preserve in history.
    Have students think about how historians might be "fooled" by a picture, and how theories about a picture could be verified.