The Call of the Wild (Why Wapiti Whistle)

Perhaps the two most haunting and memorable sounds you will ever hear in nature are the lonely call of a loon, and the eerie bugle of an elk, also known as the wapiti.

Late September in the Rocky the elk begin their mating period known as the “rut”.

Abraham, a nine-year old, dominant, 6-point bull elk, has been following his harem of about twenty cows, since late August.  He will continue to do so into early winter.

Just a few short months before, he was hanging out with the guys, wandering through the mountains and the higher elevations in the Park.

Now, here in Upper Beaver Meadows, standing 5 feet tall at the shoulder, and weighing over 1,000 lbs., he urgently paces back and forth, challenging rival bulls by bellowing and paralleling their every move.

Bugling can be heard for miles over the parkland valleys and meadows.

It has recently been discovered that male elk have signature characteristics in their calls that are entirely different from any other bull elk.  Each male puts his emphasis in a different section of his call, setting his voice apart from all the other elk.  Bugling helps males display their strength and prowess.

Being able to hit the high highs and the low lows with a lot of power seems to be a determining factor in the success of establishing an impressive harem of interested females.  The older, larger bulls have greater vocalization abilities than their younger competitors.  Only the largest bulls, the six-pointers can hit the highest highs and the lowest lows of their distinctive call.  The louder the bugle, and the more often the calls, the greater the draw.

Abraham has been training now for years for the top spot among his competitors.  Nostrils flaring, head forward, scent of elk urine emanating from his fur, he continues to protect and intimidate potential intruders by bugling and whistling, while the cows and their calves lazily graze nearby, seemingly calm and unconcerned.

It appears he has some competition, as a younger rival approaches from the south.  They begin to pace, shrewdly assessing each other’s arsenal of weapons – their antlers, size and weight, and strength and ability to do combat.  They also flaunt their vocal abilities, each trying to intimidate the other.

Were this male to continue to challenge Abraham, refusing to back down and walk away, they would engage in locking antlers pushing one another back and forth, possibly sustaining serious injuries.  Fortunately, more often than not, bulls prefer to have more bark than bite, since fighting can cause life-threatening injury and deplete much-needed energy.

Now, as the younger bull approaches, Abraham faces him head on, lowers his head and menacingly thrusts his antlers toward his challenger.  The rival turns at a 90 degree angle and skitters off just out of reach, then stops and looks back at the larger bull.  To be sure this younger male understands who the harem master is here, Abraham lowers his head and belts out a low, very hoarse and mighty warning, “You are NOT welcome here!”  The young bull attempts to counter with a less-than-impressive bugle.  It becomes evident that he cannot compete with the older, larger vocalist.  Abraham lowers his head again and the young competitor dejectedly wanders off, deciding to seek out a less intimidating opponent.

It looks like Abraham has won this battle of the bands, and insured the security and ownership of his harem once again… at least for today.



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