OK, maybe there’s not much dancing involved in the annual elk rut, but there sure is plenty of the other kind of boogying. And there’s bugling, too.

It’s a sound one might liken to a squealing pig, your car’s screeching brakes (that you should really get fixed, by the way) or perhaps the screams in a horror movie right after you shout “Don’t open that door!”

While bull elk can bugle at any time of year, the shrill noise is typically associated with fall breeding season, also known as the rut. The season usually lasts from mid-September to mid-October, and the peak usually occurs in late September in the Jackson Hole area, according to Eric Cole, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Elk Refuge.

“Bugling is basically a way for bull elk to advertise their presence to other bulls and, to a lesser extent, attract females,” he said.

Trying to come up with accurate onomatopoeia for an elk bugle is a fruitless task. Even describing the sound is difficult. Bugles often start with a low growl followed by the main, iconic screech. While a higher pitched voice doesn’t usually scream “masculinity” for humans, parts of the bugle may suggest superiority to other elk.

Elk rut

A bull elk keeps his harem together while grazing at the foot of the Teton Range last week in Grand Teton National Park.

“The main part of the bugle sounds pretty similar, no matter what elk is doing it,” Cole said. “But then there’s kind of a chuckle component after the main bugle, which is a little bit quieter, and some people speculate that longer chuckle that occurs after the main part of the bugle suggests that bull is more dominant than others.”

Each bull elk competes to breed with more females and sire more offspring than the next guy. While bugling itself isn’t a competition, it can play a role in preventing or starting skirmishes for the right to breed with a group of females, called a harem.

“In general, animals are trying to achieve what they want to achieve with as little cost as possible,” Cole said. “They’re trying to either defend the females that are in their harem from other bulls or to challenge a bull with an existing harem so it can take their females. … If they can get away with a successful display that scares other bulls enough that they don’t have to have a physical challenge, then that’s kind of the ideal situation.”

But, in some cases, when bulls are equally matched they resort to antler-to-antler combat for the hooves of the lady elk, Cole said.

As the rut comes to a close the bull elk will work to recover from the intense mating season and prepare for winter.

Bull elk

A bull elk rests in a meadow in Yellowstone National Park earlier this month. The rut season can be exhausting for bulls, which become obsessed with gathering as many cows as possible into their harems and defending them from potential competitors.

“There’s still some breeding that’s occurring, but the dominant bulls have usually exhausted themselves,” Cole said. “They’re looking to leave the female groups if they haven’t done so already, and look for a place to rebuild their nutritional reserves, and they’ll often do that in the company of other bulls.”

Elk are most active from dusk to dawn and can be heard bugling in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks from the roadside. (Just search for the parade of vehicles pulled off at a turnout with their hazard lights on.) But you’d have a good chance of hearing them anywhere you’ve seen elk in the late summer and early fall — including just off the Teton Village Road.

As the National Park Service cautions, keep at least 25 yards away. Don’t tease elk with fake bugles and don’t try to mimic bugling, even away from elk, unless you’re prepared to be humiliated or you’ve spent extensive time practicing alone in your room.

Contact Danielle at djohnson@jhnewsandguide.com or 732-5901.

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