Photo: Angela Bohlke.

Elk Rutting Season is Here

Oct 06, 2022 by Jana Hemphill
The leaves are changing, the days are getting crisper, and pumpkins are for sale at the farmer’s market. That’s right, it’s officially elk rutting season. Wait, what?!? Learn more about the elk mating season.

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The leaves are changing, the days are getting crisper, and pumpkins are for sale at the farmer’s market. That’s right, it’s officially elk rutting season. Wait, what?!? Yes, the beginning of fall and all that we humans love about this season is also the start of the elk mating season, also known as the rut. And the elk rut is quite the experience. What makes elk mating season so special?

Music to my ears: bugling. The most noticeable part of the elk rut (to humans, at least) is the elk bugle. If you’ve ever heard the haunting, odd sound of an elk bugle, you know what I’m talking about. Bulls, or male elk, will make a high-pitched whistle that usually ends in grunts. Not only is this a way for the bull to say ‘watch out, I’m powerful’ to other eligible males, it’s also a form of communication to the female elk, or cows. The cows actually pay attention to the bugles for clues on the size of the bull. Older, larger bulls typically bugle more loudly than their younger rivals. Check out this video to hear an elk bugling in the night at a Land Trust protected area (I’d say he sounds like an older, larger bull!):

Elk groupies: the harem. Throughout the year, bulls typically stick together while the cows and their calves form their own groups. In the fall, however, the dynamics shift. Older bulls will form a harem of cows, who have their calves with them, while adolescent males form “bachelor” groups. Harems can be groups of as little as 3-4 or as large as around 25. And the bulls will protect their harems from marauding bulls who are looking for mates. In fact, bulls can lose up to 20% of their body weight during the rut, as he is focused on defending his harem and doesn’t have as much time to focus on eating. Watch this video to see a bull with his harem:

Elk antlers + challenges. As you can imagine, bulls are highly aggressive during the rut. Bulls will rub trees, shrubs, and even the ground with their antlers as a form of intimidating other males. And once another male heads towards a bull’s harem, all bets are off. Often, it will just result in the younger, weaker bull trotting off from the harem. If the bulls are similarly matched, however, then the two bulls may charge at each other, heads down. They will lock antlers and fight until the stronger bull moves the weaker bull away from the harem. It is uncommon for these challenges to result in death, but they can end in damage to the elk’s antlers, cuts, and gouges. Check out this video to see an elk running off a bachelor from his harem, with a bit of elk bugling at the tail end of the clip:

Short + sweet. The elk rut typically lasts about a month. Once a cow comes into estrus (“heat”), they have less than 24 hours to mate. Then, their cycle begins again and bulls will have to wait 20 days before they can try to successfully mate again. No wonder they’re guarding their harem so closely!

Watching the rut safely. If you come across a herd of elk during the rut, be sure to watch from a distance! It’s a great idea to use binoculars and zoom lenses. You’re also more likely to see elk during dawn and dusk, so be careful when driving during those hours. And don’t worry, if you’re out camping and hear a haunting cry while sitting around the campfire, it’s likely a bull elk showing off and not a demon that has come to get you :)




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