It’s an eerie, plaintive sound, something like a high-pitched screech combined with grunting and clucking.
It can be heard across the forests and meadows of Washington and many other states at only one time of year.
It’s a true call of the wild, the bugling that bull elk do every late summer and fall. They’re competing with other males to be the favorite of females — or dominant male — in the herd.
This is the rut, or mating season, and it is full of animal ritual and drama.
There are two species of elk in Washington, Rocky Mountain elk and Roosevelt elk, named for President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt elk live on the western side of the Cascades, Rocky Mountain elk on the east.
Bull elk can weigh 1,000 pounds, grow antlers up to 4 feet tall and frighten away competitors just with their boisterous bugling.
Bull elk prepare for the rut for months by growing their antlers. They sprout on an elk’s head in late winter or early spring, and grow through the summer. Antlers are covered in a soft tissue called velvet, which provides nourishment.
Eventually, the antlers are fully formed. When that happens, the velvet dries up and falls off, leaving solid calcium and phosphorous bone-like material. Changes also occur in the bull elk’s body. Hormone levels dramatically increase. This is the body chemistry that sends the bull elk off looking for love — and fending off other suitors for the females in the herd. The bulls become aggressive and spar with other males. In addition to bugling, the sounds of heavy grunting and clashing antlers also can be heard in elk territory during the rut.
Sparring is one of the more impressive aspects of the rut. When elk bulls wish to engage in a sparring match, the initiator will carefully approach another bull with its head lowered. The elk will slowly move his antlers side to side, or will nod his head causing the antlers to rock forward. If both elk wish to spar, they will slowly engage their antlers. Sparring is not intended to be a fight, but instead it is a wrestling match in which one animal tries to dominate the other. True combat between bulls is more uncommon than sparring.
The bull who successfully becomes the dominant male will breed with several cows during mating season. Calves are born in late May and early June.
Elk can be seen in the wild in many places around Western Washington: Mount Rainier National Park, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and Willapa National Wildlife. You also can see Roosevelt elk up close at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park. BE AN ELK
Make your own set of elk antlers by tracing your hands, fingers spread wide, onto brown construction paper. Cut out your tracings — these are your elk antlers. Cut two long strips of brown construction paper, and staple or tape them together into one long band. Wrap the band around your head, then carefully remove it, and staple or tape it into a headband. Attach your “antlers” to your headband, one on each side.
DID YOU KNOW?
Roosevelt elk are the largest elk in the world and are the second-largest members of the deer family, behind moose.
Most deer family members such as caribou and black-tailed deer have lower incisors but lack a set of upper incisors. Instead, they have a firm ridge called a dental pad. Elk are the only deer family member to have canine teeth in place of the dental pad. These canine teeth are often referred to as ivories as they are made from an ivory-like material.
LIVING WITH ELK
Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has a wealth of information about elk on its website at wdfw.wa.gov/living/elk.html. The site has easy-to-understand sections on the subspecies of elk in Washington; viewing elk; food and feeding behavior; and living with wildlife. There’s also information on ways to attract elk to a property by providing food sources such as aspen, cottonwood, alder, salal, salmonberry, thimbleberry and a variety of ferns.
THE RUT AT NW TREK
Elk bugling can be heard in the meadows at Northwest Trek each fall. Bighorn sheep will soon be in the rut, too. It’s an opportune time to bring the family and learn about the mating rituals of these animals. For more information, go to nwtrek.org. Those who take the wildlife park’s free-roaming area tram tour still can observe the elk and perhaps hear their call. Here’s a link to an audio file of an elk bugling: nwtrek.org/elk-bugling-tour. READ ALL ABOUT IT
Young readers can learn more about elk and other mountain dwellers by reading “Elk” by JoAnn Macken or “Deer, Moose, Elk and Caribou” by Deborah Hodge.