Bull and His Harem
James Reveal, Professor Emeritus, Botany University of Maryland
video © 2003 Mike Dreesman
A majestic bull elk of the sub-species Cervus canadensis roosevelti guards his little harem of cows and teaches one competitive young bull a lesson in respect.
Bull Elk Bugle Call
An indicator of a bull elk's vigor and genetic superiority is the loudness and quality of its call, or "bugle." During rut, male competitors challenge one another with their bugling as they court the favors of a herd of cows. When the show is over, though, it's the female of this species who chooses her mate.
Allen McMakin photo
The bull "in velvet" shown below sports a yellow tag on his left ear, to help biologists of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife keep track of his fortunes and fate.
On February 4, 1806, Clark observed:
the Elk are in much better order in the point near the praries [on Point Adams] than they are in the woody country around us or up the Netul in the praries they feed on grass and rushes, considerable quantities of which are yet green and succulent, in the woods country their food is huckleberry bushes, fern, and an evergreen shrub [possibly salal, Gaultheria shallon]; . . . the last constitutes the greater part of their food and grows abundantly through all the timbered country, particularly the hillsides and more broken parts of it.
On March 12 he continued:
The horns of some of the Elk have not yet fallen off and those of others have Grown to a length of six inches. The latter are in the best order, from which it would seem that the pore [thin, seasonally undernourished] Elk retain their horns longer.
He misspoke. Antlers are solid; horns—such as bighorn sheep have—are hollow.
The size of of a bull elk's antlers is an indication of his health and strength, and of his capacity to sire similarly hardy offspring. Antlers also are handy weapons when the need arises to defend one's territory and one's harem of female elk (cows) during the fall rutting (breeding) season.
Antlers, bony growths from large burrs high on the head, are shed each year in March, and re-grown between May and August. During the growth period they are covered with a velvety skin (see photo below) containing blood vessels that carry the necessary nourishment. When the antlers are fully grown the velvet is scraped off by rubbing against young trees, especially red alder, which imparts a rich mahogany stain to the bone that would otherwise be ivory in color. In the video above we see a young bull rinsing away the last remnant of his spent velvet in a river.
An elk's life expectancy ranges from 14 to 26 years. Males mature at two years of age, but do not challenge other bulls until age four or five. The elk "in velvet" pictured above, photographed in early summer, carries four tines, or "points," on each branch of his antlers.