You’re standing at the edge of a mountain clearing, bow or rifle in hand. Suddenly, you hear a loud and eerie bugle sound echoing through the trees. It’s so haunting and powerful that it sends shivers down your spine. When you hear that unforgettable sound, it may mean you’re closing in on an 800-pound bull elk and his harem.
I always feel a thrill at that sound, and we hunters are lucky that elk are some of the most vocal animals in nature. Their sheer size and distinctive sounds are the essence of what makes an elk an elk. They’re especially loud during the breeding season, but elk are also one of the few animals that you can hear all year round.
I’m a lifelong hunter and have worked hard to decipher the meanings behind every sound elk make. As hunters, our ability to decode those noises can make the difference between filling our tag or merely taking a sweaty hike through the woods. For more success on your next rifle or bow hunt, learn how to make sense of the elk vocabulary, from bugles and grunts to mews and chuckles.
The elk rutting season is typically September through mid-October. Those are the weeks that bull elk come out of hiding and become obsessed with mating. The cows are also feeling the heat, and soon all of them are distracted and occasionally oblivious to humans in their midst… the exact time you’ve been waiting for.
Lend an ear and let’s explore all those elk sounds and how decoding them can help put a big trophy elk in your crosshairs.
Shout Out: Thanks to Elk-Hunting-Tips.net for letting us embed some of their high-quality elk recordings in this post! Visit their site for expert advice on elk hunting and to improve your chances of “close encounters of the herd kind.”
Bull Elk Sounds
Male elk vocalize in very different ways from cows or calves, with the most well-known sound being the distinctive bull elk “bugle.” They do, however, make other calls throughout the year but we’ll focus on just the sounds that can be critical to a successful hunt.
When a bull elk bugles, it’s his way of showing off to his cows and warning off any nearby bulls. It’s hard to describe what a bugle sounds like unless you’ve heard one before, but many people are surprised to learn that such a high-pitched noise can come from such large animals.
Bulls will primarily bugle during the September to mid-October rut. As a hunter, you can use the bugle of a bull to get a bead on his location and track the direction he’s taking. Bulls love to bugle, and if they have a hot cow or a rival bull in their territory, they will bugle frequently.
Chuckles often occur at the end of a bugle, but can also be done independently. A chuckle is when a bull lets out a few short, sharp sounds in a row which can sound a bit like he’s laughing, hence the name. Chuckles are closely tied to bugles and are primarily heard during the rut.
Larger, more dominant bulls use chuckles the most. If a hunter listens carefully for chuckles at the end of a bugle, there’s a very good chance it’s coming from a mature, trophy-grade bull.
Glunks, like bugles and chuckles, are typically only heard during the rut. Bulls make these deep, drum-like sounds in their throats, in quick succession. Glunks serve many of the same purposes as bugles, although their primary purpose is to communicate with groups of cows.
If you hear a bull glunking, there’s a good chance his cows are in the neighborhood. If you make a cow call, the bull might be looking for cows and therefore head your way. Glunk calling isn’t as popular as bugling, but using both can up your game.
Cow Elk Sounds
Hunters also need to pay attention to cows as they have their own unique sounds. When cows vocalize, you’ll gain insights into their behavior and location, which means a bull elk won’t be too far away.
One of the best cow sounds a hunter can hear is the estrus call. It signals that a cow is ready to breed and is trying to attract a bull. If you hear a cow making this sound, there’s probably a dominant bull headed her way.
An estrus call is high-pitched and lasts for several seconds. It’s a very loud and whiney and can be heard from long distances. If you imitate this sound with your elk calls, it can be highly effective at calling bulls to your location for a shot.
Mews are some of the most commonly heard vocalizations from cow elk. These are soft, high-pitched noises used by cows to communicate with their calves, especially when they become separated. Mews are used as tracking signals in order to reunite cows and calves.
Elk calves make panicked mews when they’re lost or in danger, but they also mew when they’re playing, or just to let their mothers know they’re nearby. Along with cow chirps, calf mews will make up the bulk of noises you’ll hear from an elk herd throughout the year.
Barks are the sound that you do NOT want to hear while elk hunting. This is the sound that cows make to alert other elk to imminent danger. It’s similar to a dog bark, but higher in pitch. If a cow hears or smells something out of place, she’ll begin barking and the herd will most likely leave the area.
Cow barks are bad news for hunters. Hearing one usually means a cow has detected you and the animals vanish into the underbrush. Yes, you should definitely practice your elk calls, but just make sure to avoid any kind of barking sounds. If you accidentally use one in the field, you risk spooking the elk into invisibility.
Chirp (Bulls and Cows)
All elk chirp, and they do it frequently. Chirps are short, high-pitched calls similar to mews but slightly lower-pitched. Cows will chirp to each other, to calves, and to bulls throughout the year, when in close proximity.
Elk that chirp are letting other elk know where they are and what they’re doing. It’s the elk way of staying in touch. If you hear a group of cows chirping, it’s a good sign they’re relaxed and unaware of your presence.
Elk Calf Sounds
Elk calves make mews and chirps similar to cows, but lower in volume and higher in pitch. Calves haven’t yet mastered all the elk sounds, so mewing or chirping is an all-purpose sound they can use when playing together.
I’ve also seen calves chirping and barking at each other when playing, which can have an unfortunate downside: When separated from their mothers, calves typically let out loud mews right away. These sounds can quickly attract predators, as it indicates the calf is lost and unprotected.
Mimic Elk Language With Calls
If you’ve ever been elk hunting, you know how essential calling can be to drawing an animal within shooting range.
Before you ever attempt an elk call, you must first understand what each type of call call means to elk. After that, you need to learn how to use your calls calls properly to sound like the real deal.
There are two primary types of elk calls — bugle calls and cow calls. The bugle call is a long tube with a diaphragm inside that when used correctly, can make you sound like a bull elk. Bugle calls are also great for chirps and mews.
The main challenge with bugle calls is mastering the amount of air pressure required to blow them properly. Once you master the air pressure, focus on the cadence of the call.
The second type of elk call is the cow call. These calls are relatively easy to use and are excellent for attracting nearby bulls. Keep track of how often you use each call and how to use them in conjunction with each other. Experiment with different types of cow calls to see which ones work best in different situations.
If you’d like to dive in deep to the world of elk calling, we check out Paul Medel’s ElkNut Outdoor Productions YouTube channel. He’s one of the best elk callers in the world, and his videos can teach you a lot.
Listen First, Then Call
Hearing all those different elk sounds out in the woods is a very special feeling. Elk are very vocal critters and communicate with each other in ways that humans can recognize. Listening to them ‘talk’ to each other is an experience that keeps many of us coming back to the mountains every year. It somehow feels like a privilege to hear them interact.
From loud bugles to soft mews, elk exchange a wide variety of messages, and understanding their noises is like cracking a code. And if you’re a hunter, cracking that code significantly increases your chances of a successful hunt.
Learn elk language and practice your calls. It takes patience and a lot of listening, but it’s well worth the effort. With each new call you learn, you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for these amazing animals as well as add a new tool to your elk hunting arsenal.
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Last Updated on April 30, 2023
Steven Lines lives in Arizona with his wife and their two children. When he’s not spending time with his family, you can usually find him in the mountains with the deer and elk.