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Elk Communication

During the fall of 2001 I spent 90 days, and during the fall of 2002 I spent 105 days, researching the behavior and communication of over one hundred and eighty 3-year old or older bulls, and approximately fifty 2- year old bulls, fifty 1-year old bulls, and 200 cows and their calves. I believe I heard most of the calls that an elk can make, some of which I have never heard about before. The information provided here is an adapted from my book Elk Addict's Manual, available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products catalog.


Communication in most animals is developed for interaction between individual animals. There are often different communications between; 1. females and young, 2. females and females, 3. males and females/young, 4. males and males. In horned and antlered animals communication is a combination of sounds (especially calls), body posture or action, and scents. Sounds are used to communicate from both long and short range. Louder calls or sounds are often used when the animals are out of sight of each other, or when they are hurt, upset or challenging another animal. Scents are used primarily for short range communication, often while other animals are present, in the form of scent placed on the animal itself, or left on signposts in it's absence.

Elk use calls for: 1. Alarm/Distress behavior, 2. Agonistic behavior (threat), 3. Submissive behavior, 4. Maternal/Neonatal behavior (cow/calf), 5. Social Contact (between individuals or groups), 6. Advertising (bulls), 7. Mating/Herding (bulls). Scents are used 1. for individual recognition, 2. for tracking, 3. for alarm, 4. to advertise breeding readiness between sexes, 5. by individuals to attract and hold members of the opposite sex for breeding, 6. to serve as priming pheromones between males and females, 7. to provide evidence of the health of the animal leaving the scent, 8. to mark dominance areas. The act of placing scent on its body by the animal is called "self impregnation" and is used for close range communication, while other animals are present. Signpost scents are left behind in high use and dominance areas for communication when the animal is not present. Elk use scents on their bodies, for close range communication. They leave scents behind at beds, trails, wallows and trees, where they may rub their forehead, cheeks and neck.

Long and Short Range Communication

Because of the large use areas of elk (sometimes up to thirty square miles) the strategy of bull elk in attracting females is different than species that use far smaller areas. Long range attracting by bulls is accomplished with a loud drawn out roar, a high pitched bugle, and a series of grunts often referred to as Chuckle. All of these sounds carry far in open terrain. The grunt, bugle and chuckle may be combined into one call I refer to as the "Full Bugle Sequence" which is used as a sign of dominance to other bulls, and to attract the cows. Once the cows are nearby bulls rely on herding, scents and Mating/Herding calls to keep the cows close by and bring them into estrus.



Elk Vocalizations and Communicative Sounds


Alarm, Distress Calls

Elk use a sharp, loud Alarm Bark to warn other elk of possible danger: UHH. An elk using this call may be alarmed because it cannot identify the source of a disturbance. Some elk may try to discover what the disturbance is by looking for it with their chin up and their head in a horizontal position. Once the disturbance is discovered, and thought to be dangerous, the animal may issue a final Alarm Bark and flee. Cows and calves may perform a long, drawn out Distress Mew when injured or trapped: MEEUUUW.

Agonistic Calls

These calls are termed "agonistic" because the animal is agonizing over the fact that another animal is too close, or because it is bothered by the presence of another elk. Both cows and bulls may produce a Hissing sound: ssss and use Tooth-Grinding as they approach an opponent. I've heard bulls perform a sound like a squeegee on wet glass (or a rubber tennis shoe on a wet tile floor) when they get close to a smaller bull: squeek ... squeek, to get them to move; I suspect this is a form of Tooth-Grinding. Bulls often use a Dominance Grunt when they want another bull to move; ugh. Bulls may also use a Loud Inhale/Exhale when they herd cows. When bulls spar or fight they often perform a drawn out mew that sounds like the Submissive Cow Mew mentioned below.

Bulls may perform one to four loud exhales referred to as a Cough when they want another elk to move, or after they have chased a cow. If the animal that the Cough is directed at does not move, the bull may show and grind its teeth, and bite or kick the other animal. Bulls may also use a low rumbling Gurgle when threatening another bull; rrrr, that cannot be heard farther than about forty yards. This call may also sound like the bull is blowing air through pinched nostrils, which it may actually doing, although I am not sure, yet. If the bull that the Gurgle is directed at does not move it may be attacked with the bulls antlers.

Cow elk trying to avoid a herding bull often use along drawn out, or series of short, Submissive Cow Mews; meeuw ... or mew-mew-mew-mew. Subordinate bulls use a lower pitched Submissive Bull Mew when avoiding dominant bulls. Cow elk use the loud Fighting Squeal during dominance fights: ME-EE-EE-EE-EE-UUW.

Maternal/Neonatal Calls

Cows and calves use a variety of mews to communicate to each other. Cows use a high-pitched nasal Maternal Mew to call their calves to come and nurse: ee-uw-uw-eu or ee-ee-ee-eu. Calves use the high-pitched Calf Mew or Chirp when trying to locate the cow; mew or eeu. Calves use a Loud Calf Mew when requiring urgent care: MEUUW. They use a soft Nursing Whine that rises and falls in pitch while suckling: ee-uw-ee-uw-ee-uw. Cows often respond to these calls with a Cow Mew; meew. Calves use a higher pitched Calf Contact Mew when they are looking for their mothers. Many of these cow/calf calls are of one short to medium note; but I have heard drawn out mews, and as many as four Calf Mews strung together. Most Mews are about .1 of a second in length, with two mews in .3 of a second.

Social Contact Calls and Sounds

The Knuckle-cracking of the front legs of elk produces a click which elk use to keep contact with each other, and to distinguish the sounds of elk from other animal as they travel and feed. It sounds like the Knuckle-Cracking of caribou. Cow elk and calves use a loud Contact Mew when searching for or trying to maintain contact with other animals of the herd: MEW or MEW - MEW. I have heard bulls use a short, one note Grunt when they were looking for elk they could hear but not see; ugh.

Advertising Calls

Because bulls don't associate with cows prior to the rut, and due to their large home ranges, bull elk bugle to express dominance and attract cows. When a bull bugles it is telling any other bull within hearing, "Here I am, stay away." At the same time it is telling the cows, "Here I am. I am strong, ready to prove it by fighting, and ready to breed." Bulls have their own pitch and cadence, that remains similar year after year after they reach maturity. However, individual bulls don't always sound the same. Cows may become accustomed to a particular bull's voice if they were part of its herd in previous years.

The Bugle is a loud scream, which is variable in pitch, with higher sounds often coming from younger smaller bulls, and deeper sounds from older larger bulls. The "Full Bugle Sequence" performed by an adult bull (3.5+ years), begins with a Roar that usually gains in volume: rrrRRR. The Roar is often followed by a high-pitched Bugle (which may rise two to three notes): eeeEEE, followed by a series of grunts called a Chuckle, which may sound like the braying of a donkey. The Chuckle often ends on a lower note than it started, because the bull runs out of air: UH-UH-UH-uh. The Full Bugle Sequence sounds like: rrrRRR-eeeEEE-UH-UH-UH-UH-uh. A Bugle or a Bugle-Chuckle usually lasts .3-.4 of a second, and may occur as often as twice a minute; a Full Bugle Sequence may last up to .6 of a second I've also bulls perform a low-intensity (not as loud) from of the Roar that I refer to as a Growl. It may be performed when the bull is lying down or standing up.

Yearling bulls rarely bugle, when they do it is often a high flute like sound. Two year old bulls may perform a crude, short Bugle without the Roar or Chuckle. I have hear them perform the chuckle, but i have not hear them perform a Roar. I've heard bulls between the ages of 3 and 10 years old perform the Full Bugle Sequence, only the Roar, only the Bugle, only the Chuckle, or any combination of the three calls. However, when the calls are performed in combination, the Roar always preceded the Bulge, and the Bugle always preceded the Chuckle. Some bulls are very melodious, while others sound like a woman screaming, or as if they are being strangled. I've heard cows bugle in a higher pitch than bulls.

Mating/Herding Calls and Sounds

Bulls often use a two-note Glug (Glunk) when they are herding cows, and when they perform the Flehmen sniff as they inhale urine through their nose to check for estrous cows. It sounds like the animal is actually gulping water: glug glug. The Glug is not loud, but I have heard it as far as 200 yards away in open areas. It is probably performed as a herding call for cows, and is also used to alert other bulls that a dominant bull is with a cow. Bulls often breathe heavily when they herd cows or chase bulls; I've heard this Loud Inhale/Exhale as far away as thirty yards away in open areas. I've also heard bulls use a loud explosive exhale, or Cough, just before or after they chased another elk, often while they were herding cows. Cows may use a series of Submissive Cow Mews in the presence of aggressive bulls, or while they are being herded by a bull. After watching several cows get bred I have heard no Cow Estrus Call. In fact, I don't believe there is a call used specifical to announce that a cow is ready to breed.


There is much more information on elk communication and how to call elk in my book Elk Addict's Manual, available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products catalog. I also carry a complete line of elk calls and bugles in the Haydel's section of the catalog. 


Elk Scents

Bull Scent: Rubs, Scrapes, Wallows and Self-Impregnation

Elk use scents (pheromones and hormones) to express dominance, breeding readiness and as a priming source to help synchronize breeding readiness between the sexes. Bull elk use scents as short-range communication by self impregnating, putting scent on themselves and by leaving scent on rubs and in wallows. Scent left on rubs from Apocrine glands on the skin near the antlers and in the velvet itself may tell other bulls in the area that a dominant bull is using the area, and which bull it is.

Most of the scents associated with bull elk are the scents left on the bull after it scrapes or wallows. Dry Scrapes are often formed when the bull arises from its bed. Upon rising, the bull may "horn" or dig up the ground with its antlers; it may also paw the ground. Wallows are formed when a bull makes a scrape in a wet area, often in a marsh, pond, spring, or creek bottom. While making a scrape or wallow the bull's stomach may flutter up and down (palpitation), and the bull may urinate on its legs, belly and neck. It also urinates on the ground. Some experts claim there is a gland or glands just in front of the penal shaft, where the bull frequently urinates on itself. This area is called the "rut spot" and if there are glands there they may serve the same purpose as the tarsal glands of white-tailed deer, whereby the animal uses the scent from this area as a recognition scent.

After the bull has created a rub or wallow it may lie down and roll on the ground, getting urine-laced water or mud on it's body, neck, head and antlers. This often leaves the body of the elk darker than normal. This dark colored body is thought to be used by dominant bulls to intimidate subdominant bulls. Because the bull frequently rubs its antlers in the dirt, the formerly light-colored antlers are coated with dirt, which turns them brown. I've often seen cows smell, lick and chew on the antlers of a bull. Bulls may Roar, Bugle or Grunt while scraping and wallowing. The urine-testosterone scent on the bull's body may help cows identify individual bulls, and help keep the cows near the bull during the rut. The scent may also induce cows to come into estrus in preparation for breeding.

Bulls may also thrash nearby bushes and the outer limbs of trees before or after scraping or wallowing, leaving forehead scent on the vegetation. A spruce tree with small broken limbs around the perimeter of the tree is a sign that a bull may have been sparring with the tree. The scent left at rubs, scrapes and wallows tells other bulls there is another bull using the area, and which bull it is.

Cow Scents

Cow elk have their own individual recognition scent, which is a combination of urine and scent from modified sweat glands on the underside of the tail. Cows also have glands on their rumps, near the anus, which may contribute to their individual scent. When they are in estrus cows also give off the smell of estrogen.

Other Scents

Unlike White-tailed deer, elk do not have interdigital glands between their hooves, but the dribbling of urine while they walk may serve as a tracking scent. Elk do have large metatarsal glands that may be used to express alarm like deer. I've noticed that the area below the metatarsal gland is stained darker than the rest of the leg on most bulls. Elk also have a large pre-orbital gland that opens when the bull bugles. This gland may have its own scent used for dominance, and to attract cows. It may also be left on trees and brush during rubbing and thrashing. There may also be a cheek gland, used to deposit scent when elk chew the bark on aspens and rub their head and neck on trees.


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T.R. Michels, Trinity Mountain Outdoors, PO Box 284, Wanamingo, MN 55983
Phone: 507-824-3296 E-mail:
Website: TRMichels.com


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