Elk, although large animals can make some eerie high-pitched sounds. The noises made by these animals vary greatly, depending on their age, sex, reproductive status, season, and habitat.
Elk vocalize through bugles, chuckles, mews, barks, whistles, grunts, rasps, and low growls. Bugles announce presence and establish dominance, while chuckles convey agitation.
In this article, we look at the different sounds they make and the reasons why.
Characteristics Of Elk
Elk (Cervus canadensis), also known as wapiti, are a species of large deer native to North America and Asia. They have distinctive dark brown fur and long antlers that can reach up to 5 feet in length.
The anatomy of an elk makes them well-adapted for life in mountainous terrain; they possess strong muscles in their legs which allow them to move quickly over rough ground.
Elk behavior is quite unique. They form herds during winter but spend most of the year alone or with one other elk.
Their diet consists primarily of grasses, leaves, and bark throughout the year. Elk populations have been decreasing due to hunting, and habitat destruction, along with competition from introduced animal species such as wild boar and sheep.
Types Of Calls
Elk are known for their distinct vocalizations, which can range from a loud bugle to a low grunt. Elk use different calls to communicate with members of the same group or species in order to establish and maintain social bonds.
- Bugling: The bugle is the most famous elk call and is often associated with the rut. It’s a loud, high-pitched, and haunting call that can carry for long distances. Bulls (male elk) bugle to announce their presence and attract females. Bugling also helps establish dominance among competing males. Bugles are loud and can reach 90 decibels.
- Chuckles: Elk may emit a series of chuckling or grunting sounds, especially when they are agitated or communicating with other elk in close proximity. These chuckles can be used to warn of potential danger.
- Mews: Mewing is a softer and more melodious call that elk use during the rut. It’s often produced by both cows (female elk) and calves (young elk) and can signify interest or mild distress.
- Barks: Elk may bark as an alarm call to alert the herd of potential threats. It’s a sharp, short sound meant to grab the attention of other elk.
- Whistles: Whistling is a softer call, often made by calves or cows to communicate with each other or to call their calves.
- Grunts: Elk can produce grunting sounds, which are often part of their communication during the rut or when they are in close proximity to other elk.
- Rasps: Bulls may make raspy sounds, especially when they are agitated or trying to establish dominance.
- Low Growls: Bulls may emit low growling sounds, particularly when they are challenging other males or showing aggression.
Why Do Elks Vocalize?
Different types of calls are used for various reasons. Elk communicate to share information about their behavior and environment. These sounds can be alarm calls when elks sense danger or socializing calls when they gather together in groups.
The most common type of vocalization is an alarm call which alerts other elk in the area that there might be potential danger present.
This could include loud bugling noises made by bulls during mating season as well as snorts, barks, and even whistles made by cows if they feel threatened by predators such as wolves or bears.
In a recent study in the Journal Of Mammalogy, it has been found that elk have different dialects when they bugle according to where they live.
The pitch of these sounds can vary depending on how close the threat is perceived to be and it may also serve to alert other animals nearby so they can take appropriate action.
Socializing calls occur more often between members of the same herd and typically involve softer grunts or low-pitched bellows. These calls help maintain group cohesion and allow elk to keep track of one another while grazing or traveling long distances across open terrain.
Female elk have been observed making higher-pitched chirps or squeaks when interacting with calves, serving as communication and forming a bond with their young ones.
Vocalizations are an important part of elk behavior, enabling them to interact with each other and identify threats from afar without having to rely solely on physical contact or visual cues.
The seasonal variation in elk vocalizations is linked to their mating and breeding behaviors. During the rutting season, usually occurring between September and October, male elks engage in a variety of loud calls known as bugling. These calls are used to attract females and establish dominance over other males within the herd. Bugling can be heard up to two miles away.
During the breeding period, bulls will use various tones at different pitches to alert cows that they are ready for courtship. Cows then respond with a series of chirps signaling their acceptance or rejection of advances.
Elk also communicate with a number of other sounds such as grunts, mews, bawls, woofs, bellows, and squeals depending upon the situation or time of year.
During springtime migrations, elk herds produce low-pitched croaks which help keep members together. This sound serves as a beacon for other elk who have become separated due to obstacles like thickets or gullies along the way.
In addition, calves may bleat out high-pitched cries when distressed or hungry so mothers can locate them quickly while searching for food.
Importance Of Elk Communication
Elk communication is an important part of their behavior, allowing them to interact with each other and express emotion.
The iconic bugling calls of bull elk during the rut not only announce their presence but also establish dominance hierarchies, attracting potential mates while deterring rival males.
Elk communication extends beyond the rut, with a repertoire of sounds including grunts, whistles, and barks that help convey everything from mild distress to urgent alarm.
In the vast landscapes where they live, where visual cues may be limited, their vocalizations enable elk to coordinate their movements within herds, warn of impending dangers, and nurture social bonds.
References And Further Reading
Elk: Behavior, Ecology, Conservation by Erwin A. Bauer and Peggy Bauer
Journal Of Mammalogy – Dialects in North American elk bugle calls: comparisons between source and translocated elk populations
Journal Of Mammalogy – Elk Calls
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.