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Elk Communication; Scents & Vocalizations and Attracting Elk

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This is from my Elk Addict's Manual, parts of it were previously in Petersen's Bowhunting.

This is based on nine years as an elk guide, and three years of research; watching and listening to a herd of between 300 and 700 head of elk, including 300 bulls of all ages scoring between 280 and 450.

"Elk Communication
Communication in most animals is developed for interaction between individual animals. There are often different communications between; 1. females and young, 2. males and females/young, 3. males and males. In horned and antlered animals communication is a combination of sounds (especially vocalizations), body posture or action, and scents. Sounds are used to communicate from both long and short range. Soft sounds and vocalizations are often used when the animals can see each other. Louder calls or sounds are used when the animals are out of sight of each other. Scents are used primarily for short range communication while other animals are present, often in the form of scent placed on the animal itself, or left on signposts when the animal is not there.

Elk use vocalizations 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).

Elk use scents: 1. for individual recognition, 2. for tracking, 3. for alarm, 4. to advertise breeding readiness between sexes, 5. to attract and hold members of the opposite sex for breeding, 6. to serve as priming pheromones between the 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 an animal is called "self impregnation" and is used for close range communication; while other animals are present. Signpost scents (such as rubs, scrapes and wallows) 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 also urinate on their bellies and neck during the rut. All elk leave scents behind at beds, trails, and at wallows and trees where they may rub their forehead, cheeks and neck.

Elk use a number of different body postures and activities to communicate. Like white-tailed deer they use a "head high threat" in which the head is held horizontally. This posture is often used when a dominant bull performs the Threat Rumble as it approaches another bull. Elk also use a "head low threat" in which the neck and head are stretched forward and held horizontally; this posture is often used when one elk chases another.

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 can be heard for hundreds of yards in open terrain. The Roar, Bugle and Chuckle may be combined into one drawn-out call I refer to as the "Full Bugle Sequence" that is used as a sign of dominance to other bulls, and to attract cows during the rut. Once the cows are nearby the bulls rely on scents, herding behavior and mating/herding calls to keep the cows close by and bring them into estrus.

Elk Vocalizations and Communicative Sounds
During the fall of 2001 I spent four to seven hours per day, for 90 days, researching the behavior and communication of over one hundred and eighty 3-year old or older bulls, approximately fifty 1-year old bulls, fifty 2-year old bulls and 200+ cows and their calves. I continued this research in the fall of 2002 and 2003. During that time I believe I heard most of the calls that an elk can make, some of which I had never heard about before.

The differences in the inflection, pitch and duration of these calls may be slight, and they may be hard for most hunters to hear. Cow and calf mews often sound alike, but the volume, pitch and duration of the calls is different. The difference in the meaning between two similar sounding calls is often determined by the body language or action of the elk. While the "you're too close" Agonistic/Threat mews and the "leave me alone" or "I'm doing what you want" Agonistic/Submissive mews sound very similar, an animal performing a "you're too close" call usually stands its ground or advances, while an animal performing a "leave me alone" or a "I'm doing what you want" call is moving away. The Submissive Cow Mew used by a cow to get a bull to leave it alone, and the Agonistic Sparring Mew used by bulls when they are sparring, sound very similar. However, the cows they are generally moving away from a bull; sparring bulls are usually moving toward each other.

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 they are 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. Many of these calls are somewhat aggressive in nature. Both cows and bulls may produce a Hissing sound: ssss and use Tooth-Grinding as they approach an opponent. Tooth-Grinding may have a grating sound, but I've also heard bulls perform Tooth-Grinding when they get close to a smaller bull they want to move; it sounded like a squeegee on wet glass, or a rubber tennis shoe on a wet tile floor: squeek … squeek. Cow elk use the loud Fighting Squeal during dominance fights: ME-EE-EE-EE-EE-UUW or some variation.

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 use a loud explosive Dominance Grunt (UGHH) when they want another bull to move. Bulls may also use a low gurgling or rumbling Threat Rumble (RRRR) when threatening another bull; this call cannot be heard farther than about twenty to forty yards away by humans. If the bull that the Threat Rumble is directed at does not move it may be attacked by the other bull; by using its antlers. Bulls may use a repeated loud Agonistic Mew (mee-eee-eeu) when they spar or fight.

Agonistic/Submissive Calls
While these calls are technically speaking Agonistic in nature, they appear to be more of a submissive call than an aggressive call. Cows trying to avoid a herding bull often use a short Submissive Mew or a series of Submissive Mews: meeuw, or mew-mew-mew-mew. Subordinate bulls use a lower pitched yet similar Submissive Mew when avoiding dominant bulls.

Maternal/Neonatal Calls
Cows and calves use a variety of mews to communicate with each other. Cows use a loud, high-pitched nasal Maternal Mew to call their calves to come and nurse: EE-UW-UW-EU or EE-EE-EE-EU. The calves may respond to the cow with a high-pitched Calf Mew or Chirp; MEW or EEU. Calves use a loud high-pitched Loud Calf Mew when they are looking for the cow or when they require 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 medium loud Cow Mew: meew. 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 produce a click that elk use to keep contact with each other, and to distinguish the sounds of elk from other animals as they move and feed; it sounds like the Knuckle-Cracking of caribou. Cow elk and calves use a loud Contact Mew when they are searching for or trying to maintain contact with other animals of the herd: MEW or MEW - MEW. The Loud Calf Mew used by calves when they are young changes into the Contact Call as the calves grow older. I have heard bulls use a medium-loud, short, one note Grunt when they were looking for elk they could hear but not see; UGH.

Advertising Calls
Because bull elk may not associate with the cows prior to the rut, and due to their large home ranges, bull elk use the loud calls to express dominance and attract the cows. When a bull uses a roar, a bugle or a chuckle 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." Each bull has its own individual 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, and return to that bull in the following 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, 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): eee-EEE, 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 began on, because the bull runs out of air: UH-UH-UH-uh. The Full Bugle Sequence sounds like: rrrRRR-eee-EEE-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.

Yearling bulls may rarely bugle, when they do it is often a high flute-like sound; 2 year old bulls may perform a crude, short Bugle without the Roar or Chuckle. 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. But, when the calls are used in combination the Roar is used before the Bugle and/or the Chuckle, and the Bugle is used before the Chuckle; resulting in the Roar, the Bugle, the Chuckle, the Roar-Bugle, the Roar-Chuckle, the Bugle-Chuckle and the Roar-Bugle-Chuckle. Some bulls are very melodious, while others sound like a woman screaming, or as if they were being strangled. Cows rarely bugle, but I have heard them bugle in a higher pitch than the bulls.

Mating/Herding Calls and Sounds
Bulls often use a two-note Glug when they are herding cows, and when they perform the Flehmen sniff as they inhale urine to check cows for signs of estrus. 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 used as a close range call for herding, and to alert other bulls that a dominant bull is with a cow. In this respect it is similar to the Click and the Tending Grunt used by a white-tailed deer buck.

Bull elk often breath heavily when they herd cows or chase bulls; I've heard this Loud Inhale/Exhale as far away as thirty yards 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 Mews in the presence of aggressive bulls, or while they are being herded by a bull.

While many elk experts and call manufacturers claim there is an "Estrus Cow Call" there does not appear to be one. There is probably no need for a cow elk to perform an "estrous cow call" because the bull determines whether or not the cows are in estrous by walking through the herd on a regular basis, and sniffing individual cows or their beds, throughout the day. I never heard any one of the 20 calls I saw get bred use any call within 20 minutes of being bred. As with white-tailed deer, I suspect the call many elk hunters, elk experts and elk call manufacturers refer to as an "Estrus Cow Call" is actually a Social Contact Call."

As with my turkey call post I again I tried to post the chart of the pitch, duration and tone of the calls (which is often the key to calling correctly), nut it didn't turn out right. If you need it e-mail me at [email protected] and I'll send you a Word file of the chart.

I hope this helps you guys this fall. I watn to see pictures of your kills.

God bless and good hunting,

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Discussion Starter · #2 ·
Anyone care to comment, or have questions?

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
I got to discussing a lot of this stuff with a buddy of mine. All the information is great and you can learn a ton about elk.

Now I am not quite sure the purpose of this post, i.e. to be a better elk hunter, or just general information. My thoughts are sometimes we make this a little to complicated then it needs to be. With talking to my buddy, he just keeps it simple. The elk are doing 1 of 3 things. Feeding, bedding, or breeding. When you are calling to them they are doing 1 of 3 things, coming, going, or staying. Obviously it is important not to give an alarm bark when you trying to coax in a bull. I guess what I am getting at is I think for new people sometimes this can be a paralsis of analysis thing in the field.
But, not everyone is a newcomer. The purpose is to give information that MAY prove helpful, or possibly help some people just understand elk behavior better.

Hunting related articles don't always have to be about how to "kill' something. Some of them, at least, should be informative and relate to the enjoymentof the hunt, or possibly the understanding of the animals.

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·

If you need anything on other species, deer, moose, turkey (its already on this board) ducks or geese, let me know. I'm here to help - if I can.

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