Birds and Bison

Certain species of birds ride on the backs of Bison and feed on the insects they find in the Bison’s fur; European Starlings are among those birds.

European Starling landing on a Bison's back

European Starling landing on a Bison’s back – Nikon D200, handheld, f8, 1/1000, ISO 400, -1.0 EV, Nikkor 18-200mm VR at 130mm, natural light

This image not only shows a European Starling about to land on the back of the feeding Bison, it also shows another bird flying past the Bison’s leg. The Bison was too close for me to use my Nikkor 200-400mm VR lens so I quickly grabbed my backup D200 with my 18-200mm VR attached.

Flock of European Starling with a BisonFlock of European Starlings with a Bison – Nikon D200, handheld, f8, 1/1250, ISO 400, -1.0 EV, Nikkor 18-200mm VR at 120mm, natural light

It isn’t unusual to see European Starlings or Brown-headed Cowbirds riding on the backs of Bison while on Antelope Island State Park, at times there might be 20+ birds on a single Bison’s back. Usually I see that from a distance so yesterday I was glad that the Bison and birds were closer to me than normal.

European Starling with a Bison and its tongue stuck outEuropean Starlings with a Bison and its tongue stuck out – Nikon D200, handheld, f8, 1/1250, ISO 400, -1.0 EV, Nikkor 18-200mm VR at 120mm, natural light

The Bison do not seem to mind the hitch hikers on their backs,  I am not sure they even notice the birds. The winter coat of this Bison is beginning to matt up on its back and shoulders, soon that fur will be shed and used by many of the birds on the island to line their nests. Loggerhead Shrikes seem to use the fur often as nesting material.

The top of a Bison’s tongue is a grayish color as shown in the photo above.

Bison licking its nose with European Starlings on its backBison licking its nose with European Starlings on its back – Nikon D200, handheld, f8, 1/1000, ISO 400, -1.0 EV, Nikkor 18-200mm VR at 130mm, natural light

The underside of a Bison’s tongue is dark brown on the edges and a light bubble gum pink in the center as shown here.

This Bison and the others nearby were easily approachable while staying within the confines of a vehicle and I prefer it that way. I can stay safe.

The other day I saw a photographer out walking through a grassy area of the park to get closer to some grazing Bison. He was strolling through an area where he should not have been, that side of the park has signs that state clearly to “Stay on the Trails” and he was putting himself at risk trying to get closer to these wild, unpredictable animals. Before I left the area though I saw one of the Park Rangers slow down next to his vehicle as the guy slowly made his way back to it. I bet he was educated very quickly about the dangers of what he had been doing and got told to stay on the trails.


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About Mia McPherson

I am a nature lover, wildlife watcher and a bird photographer. I first become serious about bird photography when I moved to Florida in 2004 and it wasn’t long before I was hooked (addicted is more like it). My move to the Salt Lake area of Utah was a great opportunity to continue observing their behavior and to pursue my passion for photographing birds.


  1. I never knew birds would ride on the back of bison’s, wonderful story and images to go along.

    • Jim, quite a few birds do hitch a ride on Bison, even the Black-billed Magpies do. I think they get fat and happy off the bugs in the fur of the Bison. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Mia, these are magnificent beasts, well captured, wildlife, action shots – not only mammals but birds at the same time!

  3. These are marvelous photographs! I love the manner in which you capture animal behavior. How lucky you were to get to close to this big bison … thank goodness in a vehicle!

  4. My parents were in town from the Boise area a couple weekends ago. My mom grew up in Moab and Orem, but had never been to Antelope Island. My dad had lived in Utah for a few years too, but he had never been to the island before either. It was fun to take them out there and introduce them to the birds and wildlife of Antelope Island. By they way, my folks love to read your blog and see your amazing photography too.

    • Robert, I’m hoping to be near Boise area myself next month to photograph in the Owyhee area and to visit the Peregrine Fund Headquarters. I can imagine how much fun it was to take your parents to the Island. The first time I went there it took my breath away! My mom is visiting this September and I can’t wait to see her face when she is on Antelope Island. I’m glad your folks like reading my blog and seeing my images!

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