Every year, as the days become shorter and the crisp chill of autumn first tinges the air, elk in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem begin a timeless ritual of courtship and mating known as the rut. Like teenagers with their hormones gone haywire, male elk suddenly start raising a ruckus. They pace, they posture and occasionally they get into some pretty nasty fights, all in an effort to impress and protect the bevy of lovely lady-elks they've lured into their harems. But really, it all begins with the bugling.
Sounding something like a cross between a wheeze, a grunt and a shriek, the sound of the male elk's mating call is designed to carry over acres of open meadows and the grassy expanses of lowland valleys. This bugling warns other males to stay away and draws females, which the bull collects and herds into a harem. During this period, the dominant male will rarely stop to rest or eat. Instead, he remains vigilant, constantly rounding up the ladies who wander off, protecting them from predators and from the advances of other gents.
Occasionally another male will try to make a serious move, and then the fireworks really begin. The two bulls will often walk or trot in parallel paths, sizing one another up. If the intrusive male decides not to back down, a fight, usually a charge followed by a vicious bout of antler wrestling, will ensue, and this can sometimes lead to serious injury or even death.
Males in the prime of their lives, from about four to nine years old, typically have the largest harems and the most success in the rut, while older males and young bulls are often sidelined. Without a harem of their own, they are doomed to watch and wait, hoping for the opportunity to steal the attention of an occasional wandering cow.
For the female, the mating period is short and decidedly less exciting. During the few brief days of her estrus, the male will try to mate with her repeatedly. If the coupling is successful, she will bear a calf or two the following summer and the cycle begins again.
If you're in the Yellowstone area this fall, listen for the sounds of bugling in the fields around Grand Teton, in the National Elk Refuge, or in the valleys of Yellowstone itself. Be careful, though; bull elk are notorious aggressive during the rut and can seriously injure a hiker who gets too close. If Yellowstone is not on your agenda, take a peek at this video
to experience the sound of the bugle for yourself.
Photo: Geoff McKim/Flickr