All About Elk Reproduction, Mating, and Calves

Elk are truly majestic members of the deer family that are commonly found throughout Asia and North America.  These large, omnivorous, hooved mammals tend to live in herds for most of the year, but how does this behavior change during mating season?

Elk tend to break up into smaller herds based upon who they are mating with.  Males will go from living alone or with other males, to creating small groups of female elk that they intend to breed with.

Let’s take a closer look at the life cycle and behavior of elk, from birth all the way to maturity. 

When Is Elk Rutting Season

The mating season, or rut, always begins in the fall. It usually starts out around the middle of September.

How Long Does The Rut Last

It lasts about four weeks into mid-October, though some years elk can be heard bugling as early as August and as late as November.

During this month a single mature bull can impregnate as many as 40 cows.  It’s fair to say that mating becomes the elk’s full-time job during the fall.

What Spurs The Rut?

The rut is sparked by the moon and the changing of the seasons. The amount of light that passes through the eyes of cow elk causes their bodies to go through a process known as estrus.  

This usually takes place just after the autumnal equinox because there are equal hours of light and dark during this period. Generally, the younger cows in a herd start rutting later than the older ones.

Does The Weather Affect Elk’s Mating Habits?

Yes, weather can greatly affect the etiquette and mating habits of elk. They are very hardy creatures that are used to living in harsh climates, but extreme weather will affect their behavior.

Hot weather causes elk to be less active during the day, as they are trying to stay cool and expend less energy.  Elk will typically congregate in cooler areas during hot weather, this means higher elevation areas, areas with water, and areas with thick overhead cover. They tend to be more active during the night when it is cooler out.

Cold weather generally has the opposite effect on elk’s mating habits. Elk have evolved to thrive in cold temperatures, their thick skin and fur were designed to hold in heat. When it’s cold out, elk are much more active during the day. You can expect to have much more mating activity, including bugling, during cold temperatures.

This is only true to an extent though. When temperatures dip well below freezing elk tend to go into survival mode. They will focus on nothing else other than finding food sources that will help them survive subzero temperatures.  They are constantly on the move and spend little to no time relaxing.

Rain doesn’t seem to phase elk unless it is downpouring. Heavy rains have an effect on elk that is similar to that of hot weather. Elk will tend to bed down in heavy cover to avoid the elements, at least until the rain subsides.

Snowy conditions are similar to rainy days when it comes to an elk’s behavior. Light snow storms don’t seem to affect their daily rituals, but heavy storms accompanied by wind will also shut down the rut and have the elk in search of cover.

How Do Elk Find A Mate?

Cow elk decide on a mate based on their appearance, smell, and how they sound.  They use these criteria to determine which potential candidates will be able to produce strong and healthy offspring.

Cow elk use their sight to assess how large, strong, and aggressive a potential mate is. Bull elk will fight using their antlers to impress the local females. Bulls will also rake their antlers across trees and through bushes in order to display dominance to any cows that may be watching.

Smell is also an important factor that goes into selecting mates. Bull elk will urinate on themselves in order to attract females within the area. This act is akin to humans wearing cologne or perfume to gain the attention of potential mates.

Do Elk Have A Mating Call?

Yes, they do, and it is quite a distinct sound that is also known as a bugle.  A bull elk’s bugle starts out as a high-pitched whine or squeal and slowly evolves into a deep bellowing declaration that the bull is looking for a mate.

Will Elk Fight For Their Mate?

Yes, and this is quite a spectacular performance to behold.

Bull elk will frequently fight other prospective bulls in order to secure a mate or harem. Sometimes even three or four bulls can be witnessed throwing down in front of a harem. This is one of the main ways that bull elk assert their dominance over others. The cow elk want to secure a mate that is strong and can protect themselves.

Why Do Bull Elk Pee On Themselves?

Bull elk pee on themselves during the rut in order to attract females and hopefully deter other males. They scent themselves in order to let nearby cow elk that they are in search of a mate.

This is why hunters utilize the urine of their prey, to attract other members of the same species.

Where Do Elk Go To Mate?

Elk can usually be found in high elevation areas when the fall is warmer than usual.  If the weather is unusually cold, elk can be found in lower elevation areas around forests and other cover that will shield them from the elements.

What Do Elk Eat?

Elk congregate in areas that have an abundance of what they like to eat, this includes:

  • Grasses
  • Tree bark
  • Forbes
  • Tree sprouts

These massive feeders can eat up to 20 pounds of vegetation every day! Can you imagine how many blades of grass would make up 20 pounds? Me neither!

Elk mainly eat grasses year-round, as long as they can find them. During the winter months when grasses are harder to find they will supplement their diet with tree bark. In the spring they can be found munching on flowers and baby trees, especially aspens. Protect your garden in the spring and summer months from these voracious eaters!

Are Elk Monogamous?

Elk are far from being considered monogamous creatures. Bull elk will try to procreate with as many cows as possible in an attempt to further their species and create as many healthy offspring as possible.

Large groups of cow elk can be seen with a single bull elk. Bulls will fight over individual cows as well as entire groups. They use fighting as a method to establish dominance and display how aggressive and healthy they are.

What Is An Elk Harem?

A harem is a group of calves and cow elk. They usually form around the mating season and will be accompanied by one or two mature bulls. These harams can consist of anywhere from 20 to 40 female elk. Harems are usually associated with the biggest and healthiest bulls, as they are able to attract the attention of more mates than young or old bulls.

How Many Bull Elk Are In A Herd?

Outside of the rut, bull elk usually live alone. These solitary creatures can sometimes be found with other bull elk, known as bachelor groups. These groups usually consist of sexually mature bulls, as calves stay with their mothers until maturity.

How Do Elk Mate?

Bull elk show off their prowess to attract a mate by utilizing the sight, scent, and hearing of female elk. They can collect a number of cow elk in their harem when they are in their prime, usually between the ages of 5 and 11.

Do Elk Make A Sound When Mating?

Yes, this sound is known as a bugle. Sound is quite possibly the most noticeable factor that goes into mating. During the rut, it is very common to hear bull elk bugling. This is done to attract cow elk as well as warn other bulls to stay away from their harem and to display dominance. 

Can Elk Get Hurt During Mating?

Yes, and this is a frequent occurrence. Bull elk will fight to protect their harem from other prospective bulls that are looking to mate. Bull elk can frequently be seen with broken antlers and puncture wounds during the rut.

How To Tell If A Cow Elk Is Pregnant

Using the naked eye to determine if a cow is pregnant can be tough. In captivity, elk breeders can use blood tests, but determining this by sight is not always reliable.  Pregnant elk will have much larger stomachs than other cow elk, but this could also appear the same to bulls with more fat.

Knowing what time of year that elk mate is helpful in determining this. If a cow elk seems larger than normal during the winter and early spring then there is a good chance she is pregnant.  

Pregnant cows tend to behave differently as well. When they are reaching the end of their gestation period they will “bag up”, meaning they will leave the herd to bed down and prepare to give birth.  Spotting a solo cow elk in early spring generally indicates that the elk is pregnant and close to giving birth.

How Long Does An Elk Pregnancy Last?

Elk have a 245-day gestation period, which is only slightly shorter than that of humans. After this period they will find somewhere safe and quiet to bed down and give birth. During these nine months, the prospective mother will eat more in order to provide nutrients for the baby elk inside of her.

What Is A Baby Elk Called?

A baby elk is known as a calf, or calves if there is more than one. Female elk are referred to as cows throughout their life cycle. Male elk are known as spikes during their first year until they can produce a full set of antlers at maturity.

What Time Of The Year Do Elk Give Birth?

Elk generally give birth in late spring or early summer. This generally falls between May and June since the rut happens in September or October. Calves are born scentless and usually with spots on their fur, which act as camouflage from predators during the spring and summer when vegetation is growing the tallest.

Where Do Mother Elk Give Birth?

Pregnant cow elk give birth in solitude. They will leave the herd behind to find a quiet and safe place to birth their calf. They will rejoin the herd a couple of months later, usually when the calf has weaned off of its mother’s milk.

Can Cow Elk Have Multiple Calves?

Yes, but it is rare. Elk generally only give birth to one calf at a time. This phenomenon is known as twinning and isn’t favorable for the mother or her calves.  Twin elk tend to be born smaller than their singly birthed counterparts.  

This is because the mother has to eat much more in order to sustain herself and the two calves, which can be tough during the winter when vegetation is hard to find.   

Do Bull Elk Stay With Their Children?

Bull elk do not stay with their calves after birth. Calves spend time maturing with their mother while bull elk return to living alone or with other bulls. Most bull elk have dispersed to a new region within 3 years of being born.

How Long Do Calves Nurse?

Calves tend to nurse for two to five months after they are born. They are inseparable from their mothers during this time, and it is very uncommon to see a newborn calf without a cow elk present.

Seeing a young calf with spots that are not in the presence of its mother usually indicates that something has happened to the cow elk.

When Are Calves Ready To Leave Their Mom?

Though calves have usually weaned off of their mothers by six months, they will continue to live with their mother until the following spring when the next calf is born. This is nature’s way of forcing the adolescent animal to mature and go out on its own to procreate and perpetuate the species. It is rare to see an elk with its mother once it has developed antlers.

When Do Calves Grow Antlers?

Male calves will not produce antlers during their first year. Once they have reached their second year, young bulls, or spikes, will start growing their first set of antlers in the spring, usually around April.

These new antlers will appear fuzzy and velvety until they have rubbed this layer off on trees and other elk prior to the year’s rut. Once the spike has rubbed all of the velvet off of his antlers, it is a sign of maturity and that he is ready to find a mate.

Oddly enough, this velvet is sold as a nutritional supplement in some countries and is said to promote kidney health, the immune system, energy, and reproductive health in humans. Some feed these supplements to their pets because they are high in compounds that promote joint health, especially in older dogs.

How Old Do Calves Have To Be To Mate?

This age differs between female and male elk. Cow elk can reproduce after just one year, while bulls don’t reach sexual maturity until two years. Bulls younger than 5 or older than 11 usually mate with fewer cows than bulls who are in their prime.

Bulls in their prime can commonly be found with large harems, while the young and old bulls tend to have only one or a couple of mates. That being said, these old and young bulls are crucial to the proliferation of the species. Elk can mate up to 12 times in a single day, so even if a bull only has one cow the chances of conception are high.

Distinguishing A Bull From A Cow Elk

Elk are very large creatures, especially when compared to other antlered animals like deer. Cow elk can get almost as large as bull elk, but most of the time they do not grow antlers. If an elk has antlers you can be 99% sure that it’s a bull, but there are exceptions to this rule.

Can Cow Elk Grow Antlers?

It is very rare, but yes. This is caused by a hormonal imbalance, and the same thing also happens with whitetail deer. Female deer with antlers are usually able to reproduce, but this is not yet known to be true with elk.

How Big Are Cow And Bull Elk?

Though both sexes of elk are considerably larger than deer, they can still vary quite a bit within their own species. The average weight of a bull elk is around 800 pounds, while that of a cow elk is only 450 pounds.

Cow elk are also slightly shorter than bulls, at an average shoulder height of 4.5 feet instead of 5. Cow elk can be confused with adolescent bulls/spikes that don’t have antlers because they are close to the same size.

Do Cows And Bulls Have Different Fur?

The color of an elk’s fur, or pelage, will vary throughout the season. During the summer it is closer to a light copper than in the winter when it more closely resembles tan. During the winter months, bulls tend to have a slightly lighter color than cows.

Can Elk Breed With Other Species?

Yes, elk can breed with other species, but only with those who share the same genus, Cervus. There has been plenty of controversy over the years about which species elk can interbreed with.

Can Elk Breed With Moose, Caribou, Or Reindeer?

Elk share the same family as these species, Cervidae, but they have different genera so they cannot produce offspring. A reindeer is the same thing as a Caribou, just another name that is used in Europe, and they are from the Rangifer genus. Moose on the other hand are from the Alces genus.

There has been much controversy over elk and moose or caribou mating, but this has been attributed to similar physical traits between these species. Fossils have been found of an ancient animal known as a “stag moose” which bore antlers that looked like a cross between those of a moose and an elk.

Can Elk Breed With Livestock?

No, and this is for the same reason that they cannot breed with moose and caribou.  They are too different genetically to produce offspring. This holds true for most species throughout the world, so if you see a dairy cow with antlers in the wild you may want to purchase some new glasses.

What Kind Of Elk Hybrids Exist In The Wild?

Just because an animal can breed with another of a different species doesn’t mean they will.  Geographical isolation is a good indicator of this. Interbreeding in the wild is much less common than in captivity.

Can Elk Mate With Red Deer?

Red deer and elk are very similar genetically, which allows them to interbreed.  However, they are not found in many of the same places which makes the likelihood of an elk hybrid in the wild unlikely at best.

Red deer are common in Europe, northern Africa, New Zealand, Australia, South America, and even Iran. The elk’s distribution consists mainly of North America and eastern Asia. Unless a hybrid escapes from captivity, it is unlikely that interbreeding will happen.  

Elk and red deer have many differences in their physical traits and lengths of their life cycles. Elk gestate for an extra 20 days than red deer. Average bull elk weigh 300-400 pounds more than a stag red deer. Stag red deer are even a little smaller than cow elk, which would make mating an even trickier practice.

They have different calls as well. An elk’s bugle sounds very different from the red deer’s roar, which would affect their ability to attract a mate during the rut. A cow elk is unlikely to prefer the mating call of a red deer over a bull elk.