Bugles to Barks – Elk Sounds and What They Mean

I had my first experience with elk along the Buffalo River in the Ozarks. There a large elk herd migrates through the Boxley Valley. During the day there are lookouts to see the herds traveling or the bulls fighting in the rut.

But what really left an impression on me were the elk at night. Driving through the valley, we came upon the herd in the dark. They were grazing in a field bookended by the mountains skylighted on either side, and you could see their eyes twinkling but nothing else.

Then the bull bugled. It started as a low bellow and crescendoed in a high-pitched trumpet that echoed back and forth between the mountains.

When it comes to sounds, few animals can compete with the majesty of the elk. Whether you want to learn the elk language so you can call them on the hunt, or you just want to get more acquainted with the beauty of elk calls, it’s a complex and nuanced topic. Take the time to familiarize yourself with all the different sounds, which elk make them and why. It’s a rewarding subject.

A trophy-class Bull Elk, a majestic sound maker…

What kinds of sound does an elk make?

Elk are highly vocal animals. They use sounds to communicate and express emotions, from joy to fear. Different sounds mean different things, and they can be gender and age specific. For example, grown bull elk make the famous bugle while cows and calves communicate with high-pitched mews.

Using the right call means speaking the language of the elk. It means using the right sound to attract the right elk.

What’s the difference between elk and deer?

Elk are a species in the deer family along with animals like moose and reindeer. When Americans think of deer, though, they usually imagine the common white tails plentiful in the eastern US or possibly the mule deer of the Rocky Mountains.

Since they’re from the same family, elk are similar to deer in many ways. They breed in the fall rut, and the males regrow their antlers every year. The calves are born in spring.  

However, there’s plenty that makes elk unique. For example, they’re much larger than white tail or mule deer. Bulls average around 730 lbs while white tail bucks only reach about 300. In fact, they are one of the largest land animals in North America, second only to the moose.

In the eastern US, elk are largely outcompeted by their smaller cousins and are therefore a rarer sight. However, out west elk congregate in massive migratory herds of thousands of animals.

Of course, elk also make different sounds than other deer species. Hunting them can be rewarding for their size and beauty, but you have get to know them as well as the others first.

What sound does an elk make it’s when scared or nervous?

Bark

Elk bark to warn the rest of their herd of danger. It sounds similar to dog bark. You don’t want to hear it. It means you’ve been spotted or heard or smelled, and the elk will most likely leave the area.

This elk cow barks to warn her herd of danger

Mew

Elk calves and mothers mew to each other to communicate and bond. It’s a high pitched sound that sounds similar to a mewing kitten, just a lot louder.

Although not the only time you’ll hear mews, when a calf is afraid or separated from its mother, it will probably start mewing loudly and frequently to call for her. Even unrelated cows might come running in response to their maternal instincts. As a result mews make great calls if you’re looking to hunt cows, especially when there are calves around.

Three lost calves mew to find their mother

What sounds does an elk make when it’s angry?

Bugle

The bugle is easily the most famous elk call and one of the defining characteristics of the species. The sound starts as a low-pitched growl that rises to a high-pitched scream. It’s been adapted to wide open mountainous spaces that the elk inhabit, and on quiet nights you can hear the unmistakable bugle from miles around.

Bull elk bugle year round, but it’s most common during the rut when they’re displaying their dominance. The bugles state their presence for other bulls in the area. If a dominant bull hears a bugle in his territory, he’ll come to challenge the intruder. This makes the call useful for trophy hunters looking for big racks.

Listen at 2:15 to hear a beautiful elk bugle up close

Chuckle

A chuckle is a series of low-pitched sounds following a bull’s bugle. Bugles and chuckles communicate the size and dominance of the bull to his rivals in the area as well as choosy cows looking to mate. A long, full bugle followed by a complete chuckle reflects a large, powerful male.

If you add chuckles to the end of your bugles, you may risk scaring away smaller bulls intimidated by the virile call. Other large bulls, however, will be prompted to come drive the threat from their territory.

A stealthcam captures a large bull elk finishing off a bugle with a chuckle

Glunk

Glunks are deep drum-like sounds made by bulls. They serve the same purposes as bugles but are less conspicuous. They do travel long distances, however, thanks to their deep pitch.

Like bugles, glunks challenge any other bulls in the area and are common when their testosterone starts raging during the rut. Besides contests of dominance between bulls, they also attract cows. A good collection of bugles and glunks during the rut is one of the best ways to get elk to come close.

Other elk sounds

Cow Chirps

When cows are in herds together, they communicate with short calls. Basically, it’s their way of talking to each other. Cow talk sounds a lot like the mews of the calves but a bit lower pitched due to their larger bodies. Up close it almost sounds like a kazoo. From a distance, though, you could mistake a herd talking for a herd of sheep.

Here you can listen to cow elk chirping to each other in a herd

Estrus Scream

During the rut cow elk in heat also call for the bulls. It’s similar to their usual call but much louder and high pitched. The call lets the dominant bull know she’s ready to mate. As you can expect, this drives bull elk crazy. It’s a great call to have in your arsenal if you’re hunting big bulls.

This cow in estrus calls for a bull and even bugles

What sounds does an elk calf make?

Mew

Elk calves make panicked mews when they’re lost or in danger, but that’s not the only time. They also mew when they’re happy or playful or just to let their mothers know they’re nearby. Along with cow chirps, calf mews will make up the bulk of the chatter in a herd.

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