September 19, 2022
When the weather begins to cool off and we get some morning fog it is a special time in Little Lake Valley because the Tule bull elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) begin their version of spring bird song. It is called bugling, but a bugle is not what it sounds like! The first one I hear brings a thrill; the sound is like no other. This vocalization invokes a mixture of lament and challenge. It echoes all around the valley, as one bull calls out to the other bulls and the cow elk that have congregated. This bull has two messages. To the other bulls he is saying, “I am here, big and strong, ready to fight you,” and at the same time be communicating to the cows, “I am in agony waiting for all of you females to be mine!” This is explaining animal behavior in anthropomorphic terms, but it is the sound of the bugle that most exemplifies the elk rut.
When I research rutting behavior, bugling is described as the most characteristic act of rutting bulls. It is done with the neck extended and the muzzle positioned outward and upward. I have seen bulls doing this before rutting has begun, without making any sound at all, possibly practicing for later. Right now, the calls are heard regularly and sometimes the sound of antlers knocking together is audible. The younger bulls are just practicing with each other, avoiding the larger bulls. These younger bulls are hanging out together away from the life-threatening battles that are happening over the females.
Often, we find completely thrashed willow and ash trees. Antler polishing is one of the things that causes this. The bull rubs up and down on one side and then the other to sharpen the tips of the points used to battle the other bull elk. On the Mitigation Lands, a large bull was seen recently with a 12-foot piece of willow branch woven into his antlers that he was waving around like a giant feather plume. Vegetation hanging off antlers is common with the largest bulls, but that is not the only thing they ornament themselves with when in rut. They also wallow in water and mud and cake themselves with it.
Another rut behavior is called “grimacing,” in which the head is held in the same position when bugling, but the nostrils are widely expanded and the lips are drawn back so that the lower incisors and dental pad are exposed. The bull then moves its head slowly in an arc. This is probably related to scent detection of the cow herd.
One of the most dramatic acts of elk bull rutting is called “thrash urination,” where the bull rakes the ground and low herbage with his antlers while he urinates upon the long hair of his neck and lower chest. Often, they then sleep in the area where they have thrashed and urinated. This likely makes them smell very pungent and could be an attractant to the females. The necks and chest of big bulls look oily or wet from this behavior.
Being out in Little Lake Valley in mid-September to November means hearing the bugles of different bull elk and witnessing some of the drama as they clash antlers and compete for the attention of the cow elk herd. The larger bulls will try to steal away a few cows at a time, especially if the dominant bull is distracted by another intruder. Right now, we have an abundance of bull elk and not enough cow elk for each of them. What will happen this year? Will there be several smaller herds consisting of a few cows and juveniles or will a dominant bull prevail and win the entire cow herd for himself? That is yet to be seen and nature is always surprising us.