2018-04-14 / Outdoors

ELK WATCHER'S JOURNAL

Springtime in Pa. elk range

It’s springtime once again on the Pennsylvania elk range.

The cows are roughly seven months pregnant and will be splitting off from the larger herds into small groups of four to six.

They’ll move into valleys where the green grass and tender new shoots on the bushes offer nutritious minerals necessary for the develop­ment of strong bones in the calves they are carrying. They will be giving birth sometime in mid- to late-May.

The belly of the cow will begin to sag noticeably two weeks before the calf is born. From the back, she will appears awkward with a torso as large and round as a 55-gallon drum.

As the time of birth approaches, the yearlings (last year’s calves) that have followed along with their moth­ers in large groups all winter will be kicked out of the nest, so to speak.

Just before labor, the cow wanders off from the small group to isolate herself. If a yearling follows her, he may get a sharp-hoof reminder from the hormonally influenced mother to get lost.

It may sound cruel, but it is nature’s way, for the protection of the newborn. When calves are born, their most important protection from predators is to remain motionless and flat on the ground in what is referred to as the “hider” position.

The presence of playful year­lings could draw unnecessary at­tention to the area, and reveal the location of a calf to a nearby bear, bobcat or coyote. So the one-year- olds become banished orphans un­til they reconnect with the group several weeks later, when the new calves are strong and agile new playmates.

It’s not that newborns can’t run. They are born with particu­larly long legs, weigh close to 40 pounds, stand within 20 minutes and nurse within an hour. Within a week, they can outrun a grown man.

There is a vocalization that the mother teaches her offspring. It is a loud cry followed by a soft echo. The calf instinctively answers. The communication is uniquely their own. They practice it over and over.

When the mother calls, the calf is summoned to stand, usually to feed, or to come to her side if danger is near. When a calf calls the mother, it is either hungry or frightened.

The best times to get a glimpse of a cow elk nursing a newborn are at daybreak and just before sundown. But for the most part, tourists on the elk range may not see a newborn elk calf until it is more than a month old and mobile. It is then that mothers and newborns band together in nursery groups and are often rejoined by yearlings.

Around the time a cow gives birth, and more so in the weeks that follow, her appearance trans­forms. Her shaggy winter coat is shed, revealing new, short copper- colored summer pelage.

Perhaps, with not-so-harsh winters here in Pennsylvania, excellent mast crops and adequate habitat all year long, nutritional needs are adequately met. Even lactating cows appear sleek and healthy as racehorses by mid- to late-June.

Elk are stunning creatures. When a lone cow stands silently in a lush meadow of flowering clover, the scene is one of sublime tranquility and beauty. It’s like a glimpse of heaven.

When it’s time to take a mo­ment of respite from the busy pace and stressors of daily life, to savor the sweet beauty of springtime, you don’t have to take a trip to Yellowstone. The opportunity for elk viewing is right here in our back yard.

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