5 Intriguing Behaviors of Rutting Elk (Videos)

The elk mating season (the rut) takes place every fall, prompted by shorter day lengths. Males (bulls) breed with a number of females (cows) during this time, and exhibit a few fascinating behaviors. I was disappointed to miss the rut this year, but it peaked my curiosity. What elk behaviors did you observe? Here are a few interesting examples.

Tule elk at Point Reyes National Seashore by Pat Ulrich.

Tule elk at Point Reyes National Seashore by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Pat Ulrich.

1. Vocalizing

The breathtaking vocalizations of bulls during the rut are known as bugles. A bull may bugle to show off for cows, assert dominance, warn others to stay away from his harem (group of cows sharing a mate), or challenge a bull to a fight. The other vocalizations of elk (chirps, barks, grunts) are also worth a listen.

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2. Fighting

A major part of bull elk behavior during the fall rut is fighting. As hormones rage, bulls engage in battles for dominance, and the ladies. The sound of their antlers crashing together is truly incredible.

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Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park this November. Photo by Kaila Drayton.

Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park this November. Photo by Kaila Drayton.

3. Vegetation on Antlers

As I researched the rut, I came across several photos of elk with vegetation hanging off their antlers. I was intrigued. Is it because they get their antlers stuck in bushes? As it turns out, the elk actually dig their antlers through bushes and shrubs get this look, on purpose! It’s a way to assert their dominance. Though, it looks a little silly to me.

Bull elk in Rocky Mountain National Park by Vaughn Cottman.

Bull elk in Rocky Mountain National Park by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Vaughn Cottman.

4. Wallowing in Mud

I found out that bulls not only wallow in mud, but in doing so coat themselves with urine “perfume” to attract cows. I’ve been told this (obviously) makes them smell pretty bad during this time. Whatever works, I suppose!

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5. Raking Trees

Elk will rub their antlers against trees, shrubs and the ground to impress cows or show dominance. Prior to the rut, this behavior is exhibited as bulls shed the drying velvet from their antlers.

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BONUS: Shedding Antlers

I found this video and had to share, even though elk drop their antlers in the spring, not during the rut. Each year bulls grow a larger set than the previous year.

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Deer Rut

Though the elk rut is over for the year, the deer rut is taking place across much of the country. Though deer aren’t as vocal as elk, males can be quite aggressive with each other. In some towns, including Missoula where deer are common, you don’t want to approach a rutting buck as they can be quite aggressive. 

Wild Lands for Wildlife

Most elk populations in the United States live on federally managed lands (national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests, etc.). Check out the work NWF’s Northern Rockies and Pacific Regional Center is doing to protect wild lands for elk and other wildlife.

I’d like to thank Kit Fischer for adding his expertise to this post.

Elk at Rocky Mountain National Park this November. Photo by Kaila Drayton.

Elk at Rocky Mountain National Park this November. Photo by Kaila Drayton.

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