The Fall Season of Love

By Jennie K. Willis, PhD as published in the Coloradoan in September of 2012

It’s that time of year… love is in the air! What? Think I’m kidding? No way, just ask the elk. Shorter days  and cooler nights mean the time for elk to find a mate is here! High open meadows hold a nightly display of behaviors that is fascinating and entertaining to watch. Male elk will be trying to gain the favor of females through several interesting behaviors:

  • Bugling- This high pitched noise carries through the evening air announcing a male’s location for females to find him and other males to find and challenge him.
  • Smelling “pretty”- A mix of mud and urine creates an enticing perfume for females.
  • Challenging other males- Sometimes males will clash antlers, paw at the ground but often they will just stand tall until one male gives up and walks away.
  • Herding females- Females have a choice of which males herd they join.  And they change their minds frequently!  Males must be constantly on alert to keep the females interested in staying.

As an observer, you can judge the success of a male for yourself. Males who are contenders for females usually are large with 6 or 7 tines on their antlers. The number of tines doesn’t correlate exactly to their years, although the yearling males do have only a single spike for an antler. These younger males may be allowed to stay in a herd of females that contains their mother since they don’t represent a threat. Competitive males don’t eat during this season which lasts 6 weeks, which means they go into winter at a nutritional loss. The more females in their herd, the more energy it costs them. The competition gets more intense towards the end of this season when a final decision for a mate gets made by the females.

So if you are looking for some family entertainment, consider wildlife watching this weekend. Unlike many times of the year where you may go looking but never see the animals you are hoping to, they are not hiding now! Good places to go are Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. The last two hours of daylight are usually the most interesting. As the soap opera unfolds before you, consider a few safety tips:

  • Watch from your vehicle if possible. Most elk are used to parked vehicles and will behave naturally. You are also in the safest vantage point.
  • If you get out of your vehicle, stay close to your car and don’t approach the elk. With hormones high, you don’t want to be close if they decide your behavior is threatening.
  • Be quiet. Not only will you be able to hear the bugling and the snorting, but you won’t be disturbing the scene unfolding.

This magical fall scene is one of my family’s favorites. There are several more weeks left in the season.  My kids think it’s exciting to see so many big animals up close and personal. Happy (and safe) wildlife watching!

Dr. Jennie Willis teaches classes in animal behavior at Colorado State University and regularly consults with owners about their pet’s problem behaviors.  For more information about consultation, seminars and classes please visit

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