6 moose behaviours

Why bulls do what they do during mating season€”and how to put it to your advantage

By Mark RaycroftMark Raycroft


Photo by Mark Raycroft

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The prehistoric-sounding call echoed across the early morning mists of the boreal clearing, as the brightening sky created an eerie silhouette of the surrounding firs. Again came the wanton, lonely wail of the cow moose in heat, this time answered by a quieter, guttural gawunk from within the trees. A big bull. Then it was the whisper of evergreen needles on bone as the great beast pushed its way toward the cow, parting young conifers with large, palmate antlers. Standing nearly seven feet at the shoulder with a rack spanning a good five feet, the bull clearly dominated the scene as he entered the clearing. For these two moose, the annual rut was about to reach its logical conclusion.

From late September through to mid-October each fall, moose-mating season is truly one of the most impressive natural events to take place in our forests. It is at this time that the various rituals of the rut—from velvet shedding to the act itself—leave behind their telltale signs. And for hunters who understand what to look for and why, the advantage is theirs when it comes to finding that coveted bull.

1. Velvet shedding

Think of this as the official kickoff to the rut. By late August, a bull’s antlers become hardened bone, having completed their remarkable annual growth cycle. The velvet tissue that covered and nurtured the antlers as they grew has now dried tight to the rack and is no longer functional. It’s time for it to come off. Velvet shedding is usually quick, with even the biggest bulls stripping their racks within a day or two by rubbing and thrashing them on shrubs and evergreen saplings. Once the velvet is gone, the rut is poised to begin.

2. Thrashing

During the pre-rut period—after velvet shedding and before the cows go into heat—bulls roam their home ranges, thrashing or rubbing saplings and shrubbery along the way. At this point, the sound of their paddle-shaped antlers beating against vegetation is thought to signal the bull’s dominance to other males, as well as serve to attract females.

Similar to white-tailed deer urinating in their scrapes, moose deposit their personal scent onto their rubs as an invitation to females that happen to wander past. The smell of an appealing bull may cause a cow to stay in the area and start calling for his attention.

By using a shed antler, you can easily imitate a rut-charged bull moose that’s thrashing a sapling. This type of calling works best during the pre-rut period and during the early stages of the rut when bulls are searching for cows. Start by finding an opening or clearing that a bull has recently visited. Search for fresh tracks or, better yet, keep an eye out for wallow pits and fresh rubs on evergreen saplings (look for trees that are approximately six feet tall, with trunk diameters between one and three inches). A rubbed tree is easily identified: most of the branches will be broken off or bent down, and much of the bark will be gone from about four feet down to roughly a foot off the ground.

Once you’ve located some fresh sign, try rubbing a similar, or even the same, sapling with your antler shed. The sound should be irresistible to any bull within earshot that isn’t already preoccupied with a cow.

3. Sparring

Similar to all other ungulates that shed and grow new antlers each year, male moose will spar with other bulls during the weeks leading up to the rut. This allows each bull to assess its own strength, stamina, antler size and, therefore, ranking of dominance with respect to the other bulls sharing his range. This familiarity with competing males serves to prevent life-threatening fights during the peak of the rut.

A bull moose will make obvious gestures to an opponent before a sparring match. He will sway his head from side to side, clearly displaying his massive antlers, while walking stiffly and slowly toward his opponent in an attempt to intimidate. This gesturing will continue for a minute or two, giving each bull ample time to determine whether he’s confident enough to match his strength and skill against his opponent’s.

To spar, two bulls will approach one another slowly and, with some care, place their antlers together. Once bone-on-bone contact is made, the shoving begins. One step at a time, each bull will push strategically with brute determination. After about a minute, they’ll lift their heads, pause and then continue—and so on—until one of the bulls turns away and ends the bout.

Again, sparring allows bulls to learn about their own physical abilities and limitations, and how to react to one another if they cross paths during the peak of the rut. If one bull was clearly the superior during the shoving match, the lesser bull will always back down if they have a confrontation over a female in the weeks ahead. If they were closely matched in their sparring bouts, however, neither animal will likely back down and an impressive fight will ensue.

Similar to the calling technique used to mimic rubbing or thrashing, it’s also possible to reproduce the sound of two feisty bulls sparring. By taking two antlers and pushing and rubbing them together, you can make it sound like two bulls are jousting for dominance. Don’t use your biggest sheds for this; two smaller ones will do just fine in creating the right sound, and they’ll be much easier to hold. Any nearby large bull that isn’t already busy with a female will likely come charging in to see what the other two males are fighting over—and enforce his own dominant status.

Tip: This is a good time of year to get out and scout for fresh moose sign in the areas you plan to hunt. The bulls will start to range more and begin to rub saplings and shrubbery, as well as dig wallow pits. Fresh sign means there’s a bull working the area, and if cows are present, he’ll likely stick around through the fall.

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