Every fall, right as the aspens are at their peak, the elk of Estes Park start to mate. It's called bugling season because the big male elks "bugle" to warn other males away from their harem. To me, a bugling male going full out sounds very much like a humpback whale.
Hundreds of people come to see the elk, especially the big bulls, when they are in rut. Sometimes it just doesn't feel "right" to watch these animals during this season - like we as humans are invading paparazzi! It can make you blush.
Adult elk usually stay in single-sex groups for most of the year. During the mating period known as the rut, mature bulls compete for the attentions of the cows and will try to defend females in their harem. Rival bulls challenge opponents by bellowing and by paralleling each other, walking back and forth. This allows potential combatants to assess the others antlers, body size and fighting prowess. If neither bull backs down, they engage in antler wrestling, and bulls sometimes sustain serious injuries. Bulls also dig holes in the ground, in which they urinate and roll their body. The urine soaks into their hair and gives them a distinct smell which attracts cows.
Dominant bulls follow groups of cows during the rut, from August into early winter. A bull will defend his harem of 20 cows or more from competing bulls and predators. Only mature bulls have large harems and breeding success peaks at about eight years of age. Bulls between two to four years and over 11 years of age rarely have harems, and spend most of the rut on the periphery of larger harems. Young and old bulls that do acquire a harem hold it later in the breeding season than do bulls in their prime. A bull with a harem rarely feeds and he may lose up to 20 percent of his body weight. Bulls that enter the rut in poor condition are less likely to make it through to the peak conception period or have the strength to survive the rigors of the oncoming winter.
Bulls have a loud vocalization consisting of screams known as bugling, which can be heard for miles. Bugling is often associated with an adaptation to open environments such as parklands, meadows, and savannas, where sound can travel great distances. Females are attracted to the males that bugle more often and have the loudest call. Bugling is most common early and late in the day and is one of the most distinctive sounds in nature, akin to the howl of the gray wolf.The elk are not in danger or extinction and are thriving in Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding area. There are probably around 3,000 in the Estes Park area alone. I've been stopped at a traffic light and watched two bulls fighting right outside my car window. The sound of antler on antler can be heard for blocks, just like their bugles.
It's easy to see how the alpha bull loses 20% of his body weight during the rut. He is constantly moving, preventing females from wandering off, plus he's scoping out the competition.
While the bulls are bugling, the babies are braying for their mommas to feed them.
Europeans love to come to America and see the national parks in Utah, like Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park. I recommend adding Rocky Mountain National Park to the itinerary if you want to see the North American wild at it's finest.