Communication in the Tule Elk Herd

Cow Tule elk with spring born calf 
One of our large groups of cow elk and calves

Side view of a large mature bull elk with nine points on his antlers

Group of cow elk with their calves
Big bull elk looking out for his herd
Another herd with its “protector” bull elk

The bugling has begun and finally the Tule elk in Little Lake Valley are back out in the open. A few months have passed without many sightings of the elk. Only occasional glimpses of young bulls were spotted, and the main herd of cows and calves were well hidden in the large stand of Tules on the north end of the valley. Cows and their calves hunker down in the Tules especially during the calving season April through June and then again during the intense heat of the summer months.

One early September morning, when I had gone out before 8 am to avoid the heat, I heard my first elk ‘bugle.’ This high throaty whistle rose out of a grassy field across Outlet creek like an eerie cry to the sky. Shortly after that I heard a responding ‘bugle’ off in the distance. I wondered what exactly was being communicated. Is the bull saying, “I am here, and I am ready to take you other bull elk on,” or is it calling to a cow elk, “where are you?” It felt other-worldly in the quiet of that foggy morning.

Reading in the classic text The Tule Elk by Dale R. McCullough, he states that elk have a variety of ways they communicate and that they have an extremely sensitive sense of hearing.

This I witnessed yesterday while out in one of our areas called the Cox 80. Some colleagues of mine had told me there were some elk in this field and I had wanted to get some photos since it had been so long since I had seen any elk up close. As I walked out into the area, I saw that there was a small herd of 7 cows and 4 calves. One of the tactics I am working on with my photography is trying to be invisible to whatever I am trying to take a picture of, so as not to disturb their behavior. Outlet Creek was right behind me so I skirted along the tree line, moving slowly and as quietly as I could. One of the cow elk caught sight of me, so I moved behind a clump of willows and sat down waiting a few minutes before standing up to peer around the trees. They had all risen to their feet and were staring in my direction intently. At this point the cow who had noticed me began to move to the south, making a barking sound while looking in my direction. This sound is described in McCullough’s book as an alarm bark, “an explosive call given when an unidentified movement is seen, and occasionally when an unknown sound is heard.” He says that the same animal repeats the call as all the herd watches in the general direction in which the alarmed animal is staring. This is what happened repeatedly as I tried to become “one with the trees” around me. She moved determinedly away to the south making that loud barking sound while staring at me. The rest of the cows and calves seemed to be reluctant to go with her but her repeated barks seemed to encourage them. When they were a distance away, I caught sight of a large bull coming out of a central clump of trees with one cow elk and her calf. They moved to join the departing herd with the bull bugling. He was seemingly calling them back, yet they just kept moving south. McCullough says that the bark that the cow makes is used if the threat is something not seen or known. Since I was now hiding in the trees, they could not get a good look at me. I froze and let the herd calm down before making any move to take photos. The bull reached his group of cows and began to corral them into going the other way. They basically refused, continuing to move to the south. At that point I realized I had better just go back to my car and leave them in peace! Once I stood to walk towards my hidden car, all movement ceased. The herd just stood there watching my retreat until I had passed out of sight. As I took a quick look behind me I could see the herd, with the bull, moving peacefully back to the north end of the small valley.

I have heard the elk make two other sounds. One is a location call, the nasal whine that the mother elk gives as she is approaching her calf. Her calf then returns the call though at a much higher pitch. The other vocalization I have heard is the loud grunt of a surprised bull. Besides these sounds McCullough says they have many other ways of communicating including grinding their teeth, stamping their feet, belly noise, and guttural sounds. Most animals have complex ways to communicate and I am constantly surprised at how meaningful each communication can be. The bark is saying not only there is something over there unknown and we need to move away from it, but it could also be describing how dangerous the unknown thing is by how loud or insistent the bark is. Each bugle is full of information too. All this needs more intensive study and observation for us to learn the intricacies of the Tule elk way of communication. One thing that is clear for me today is that the cow elk told the others I was there, and they put each other on high alert and informed the bull elk he needed to come back to the herd. What a wonderful lesson in animal behavior and communication.