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Elk Facts





Born to be Big
At birth, an elk calf weighs about 35 pounds (16 kg) and can gain two pounds (one kg) a day for the first few weeks.
At the start of its first winter, an elk may weigh five times as much as when it was born.
Cow elk can weigh more than 500 pounds (225 kg), stand 4-1/2 feet (1.3 m) at the shoulder, and measure 6-1/2 feet (2 m) from nose to rump.
An average bull weighs 700 pounds (315 kg), stands 5 feet (1.5 m) at the shoulder, and measures more than 8 feet (2.4 m) from nose to rump.
All in the Family
Elk and other members of the deer family belong to a group of animals called ungulates, the Latin word for "hoof." All ungulates have hooves. This large group used to be considered one order, but now "ungulates" refers to two distinct orders, Artiodactyla and Perissodactyla. The number of toes is the most obvious difference between the orders. Artiodactyls (elk, deer, bison, pronghorn, peccary) have an even number of toes. Perissodactyls (horses, elephants) have an odd number of toes.
Elk, moose, caribou, white-tailed deer and mule deer all belong to the order Artiodactyla and to the deer family, Cervidae. The males of these species grow and shed antlers each year. (Female caribou also grow and shed antlers.)
Like other ungulates, members of the deer family are herbivores -- they eat only plants. Their diet may include grasses, forbs (low-growing, short-stemmed plants), shrubs and trees (including limbs and bark).
Members of the deer family must eat and watch for predators at the same time. Elk fulfill these double needs by gathering in herds. In a group, at least one animal is looking up while others are eating. Even the animals that are feeding are constantly twitching and turning their ears to listen for unusual or warning sounds.
About Antlers
Each spring, male deer and elk begin growing antlers from bony bumps on their skulls called pedicles. Increasing daylight elevates the level of the hormone testosterone in the animal's blood, which triggers the growth of antlers. Antlers begin as layer upon layer of cartilage that slowly mineralizes into bone. They are light and easily damaged until they completely mineralize in late summer. A soft covering called velvet helps protect the antlers and carries blood to the growing bone tissue.
If you look closely at a deer or elk antler, you'll see grooves and ridges on it. These mark the paths of veins that carried blood throughout the growing antlers. The blood stops flowing to the antlers in August, the antlers finish hardening, and the velvet falls off or is rubbed off. The hardened antlers are composed of calcium, phosphorous and as much as 50 percent water.
An antler grows faster than any other kind of bone. It can grow up to 1 inch (2.5 cm) a day during the summer. Biologists are studying antlers in the hopes of learning the secrets of rampant cell growth, secrets that may unlock cures to various forms of cancer.

In his second year, a bull elk usually grows slim, unbranched antlers called spikes that are 10-20 inches (25-50 cm) long. By the third year, antlers begin developing tines that branch from the main beam. By the seventh summer, a bull's antlers may have six tines each, weigh as much as 40 pounds (18 kg), and grow to a length and spread of more than four feet (1.2 m). Why would an animal need to carry around a rack of antlers that weighs so much? A large rack identifies a bull that is successful in finding food, lots of food.

A bull must consume huge amounts of nutrients to obtain the energy and minerals needed to grow antlers as well as the energy to carry them around. Large antlers also identify a bull that is able to defend himself against other bulls and against predators. This information is of great interest to female elk (cows) because they will mate with the strongest, most successful males -- usually the bulls with the biggest antlers.

Inside Stomachs
Elk and other members of the deer family eat tough plants such as grass or twigs that most other mammals can't digest. They digest these plants in multi-chambered stomachs, a trait of the suborder Ruminantia. (Cattle, sheep and their wild cousins are also ruminants.) The root of the name comes from "rumen," the first of three or four chambers of a ruminant stomach. These chambers create a system for digesting tough plant fibers and extracting the maximum nutritional value from them.
To understand how this "super stomach" works, imagine a cow elk as she nips off twigs, clips leaves and crops grasses. This constant biting, pulling and clipping sends as much as 15 pounds (7 kg) of tough plant fiber into the elk's stomach each day. The unchewed material slides into the rumen, the first chamber. There bacteria and protozoa begin breaking down the plant material. Then the elk regurgitates her food (the cud) and ruminates (chews cud thoroughly).
When the cud is completely chewed, the elk swallows it again. The food particles pass through the rumen and into the reticulum, the second chamber, for even more digestion. Then the food passes into the omasum, the third chamber, where water is squeezed out and absorbed into the elk's body. Finally, the food passes into the abomasum, the fourth and "true" stomach, where it is broken down to the molecular level so that it can be absorbed by the intestine.
Natives and Elk
Native Americans have hunted elk for thousands of years. They ate the meat and used the rest of the animal as a source of material for everyday items.
Bones and antlers were made into weapons such as bows and clubs, and hides were made into war shields.
Hides were also fashioned into tipi covers, robes and moccasins.
Teeth were used for necklaces and clothing decoration, and hides and bones were used in games.

Wapiti is a Shawnee name that means "white rump." Some biologists used to prefer this name to clearly distinguish North American elk from one of its relatives the moose. In Europe, moose are called elk.

Elk in the Atlas
European-American settlers provided quiet evidence of the former wide range of elk when they named towns and counties after these magnificent animals. A quick check of your atlas will show names such as:
*Elk City, Oklahoma
*Elk Grove, California *Elkhart, Indiana
*Elkton, Virginia
*Elk Rapids, Michigan
Elk have also been immortalized in the names of geographic features such as rivers, lakes, buttes, points and mountains. Examples include:Elk Neck State Park, Maryland Elk Pasture Gap, North Carolina West Elk Mountains, Colorado and rivers named Elk in Alberta, British Columbia, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, West Virginia, Wisconsin


Until late summer, a bull lives peacefully with the other bulls. With the rut, he views them with caution and antagonism. He becomes their rival in a mating game that decides which bulls will breed with the cows.

A rutting bull is one active animal. He bugles a lot. He thrashes about in shrubs and saplings with his antlers to remove their dead, dried-up velvet and to polish them to a shine. Perhaps in preparation for actual battling as well as a way to advertise his fitness, he engages brush, saplings, and shrubs in mock battles. With fury, he uses antlers and hooves to cut a depression in the soil, a wallow, that he urinates and defecates into before he lies in it and rolls about. After rising from a wallow, caked and dripping with an oozy mess of musky smelling mud, his neck swollen with blood and nose running, he squirts urine on his belly, hocks, and neck mane. He is consumed with one aspiration, to win the mating game and breed. Unfortunately, for many a bull, the game, for the most part, was over before it began. The winners are the dominant bulls, the largest, strongest and most behaviorally competent, as indicated by the size of their antlers and massiveness of their bodies.

All bull elk rut. All go through the rut's complex behavioral performance, which is especially interesting, if not downright fascinating, because it goes far beyond the basic act of mating with cows. The rutting activity of bull elk is a sorting out process that determines which of them is dominant, or the best both physically and behaviorally. It is the dominant bulls that do most of the breeding.

To be dominant, a bull must be big and strong, an older bull in his prime, 5-8 years old. A bull's antlers tell much of his story. Bulls in their prime have the largest, most magnificent antlers. Other bulls and cows can measure the physical worth, and to a certain extent, the behavioral worth, of a bull by looking at his antlers.

A bull's worth is not all in his antlers. His body size, strength, and aggressiveness are equally important. Smaller antlered bulls have been observed to defeat larger antlered bulls because of these other factors.

To become large and strong and have a big set of antlers, a bull must survive many years. This requires physiological and behavioral abilities such as the ability to...


  • convert food into tissue, including antlers,


  • find food and shelter in the winter,


  • physically withstand the rigors of winter, including disease,


  • survive confrontations with other bulls, and


  • avoid and to fight off predators.

The determination of which bulls are dominant is important for the vigor of the species

  • Gathering In & Herding A Harem

    A dominant bull gathers in a harem, to which he claims all breeding rights. He will not give up that right without a fight. The work of gathering is reduced by the existence of herds of cows. It is sometimes made easier by the existence of the harems of other bulls. Besides fighting a harem bull and taking away all of his cows, a bull is not above sneaking cows away from another bull. Bulls are opportunistic; if a cow can be gotten, she will be.

    The gathering in of a harem is not the end of a bull's herding effort. He must constantly work to keep his cows together. Cows of a harem must be herded in order to keep them together, otherwise they will readily stray. Bulls are quite aggressive in keeping their cows together and moving them to where they want. They commonly move their cows by threat and push/shove. A bull will cut off a wandering cow just as a cowboy on horseback would cut off a steer by quickly quartering around the straying animal and bringing it back to the herd. A bull will use his antlers, which are quite sharp, to prod a wandering cow and direct her back to the herd. Sometimes a bull will gore a cow that's not behaving correctly. A bull must keep his cows together if mating is going to be efficient. However, it should be recognized that a cow stays in the harem by her own volition. If she chose, she could bolt from the herd and associate with another bull.

    Please note that not all antlerless elk in a herd are cows. Some of them are calves, male and female, that are staying with their mothers and are really too young to be a significant part of the breeding ritual.


  • Breeding & the Harem

    Since estrus lasts for only a short time, a bull must constantly be checking each cow to see if she is in estrus. When she is, he must mate with her as soon as possible.

  • Harem Defense


    A harem master must watch constantly to prevent other bulls from taking his cows. Lurking around the fringes of a harem are other bulls, young and old, that are without cows. They are driven by their sexual excitement to breed and are looking for any opportunity to sneak off with some cows or to challenge the harem master for all of his cows. Bulls compete for breeding rights. They are the winnings of the mating game. Bulls with harems must be prepared to defend them against challengers.

    The first action that a bull does in defending his harem is to show off his size, especially the size of his antlers bugle (Bugling is something that all rutting bulls do, but it is most useful to the sultan of a harem.) , and posture. This may be enough to frighten off younger, smaller bulls. However, if a challenger continues, the old bull may charge at him with antlers held high. If the challenger still does not give up, the bulls may thrash the ground with their antlers, bugle, and rush at each other. This is ritual fighting, which uses less energy than actual fighting and does not risk injury. If neither gives in, a sparring match may occur in which they lock antlers, brace their legs, shove, heave, and twist their necks. The latter is used to put an opponent off balance. Most sparring matches are short in duration, with one of the combatants quitting, disengaging his antlers, and fleeing the area. The victor returns to the herd and after some bugling, thrashing of vegetation, and scent marking may lie down.

    Sparring rarely results in injuries, but if serious pushing and shoving takes place the vigor of the encounter can result in broken antlers. And if one of the rivals stumbles, the other may disengage his antlers and gore him. Even if a sparring bull quits and flees he may be chased by his rival and gored. Goring may result in deadly infections.

    There is also outright battle in which the bulls circle one another and then separate moving to 30-40 feet apart. This is followed by their charging toward one another with a resounding clash of antlers as the two animals collide. Consider the impact of two 800 pound bulls hitting antler to antler. Once witnessed, it will never be forgotten. Serious injuries may result such as broken antlers, broken necks, deep puncture wounds, and severe gashes.

    Although antlers are designed to allow combatants to easily disengage, sometimes they become entangled in such a way that separation is impossible and the rivals die.

Energy , the rut takes a lot of energy. During the summer, bulls spend their time feeding in preaparation for the energy needs of the rut and winter. Summer feeding is especially important since bulls eat little during the run which lasts 4-6 weeks. A mature bull may lose 20% of his body weight during the rut.

"The true hunter, the true lover of wilderness, loves all parts of the wilderness, just as the true lover of nature loves all seasons. There is no season of the year when the country is not more attractive than the city; and there is no portion of the wilderness, where game is found, in which it is not a keen pleasure to hunt."

Theodore Roosevelt

308 432 4314

Ron Scherbarth

1338 table rd

Chadron, NE  69337

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