Sleepless in September

September has arrived in the Black Hills. The morning air has gathered up a sharp edge, frost has been knocking on our windows, and leaves want to change. My husband and I know what’s coming next—insomnia.

For much of September, I get shorted on sleep due to bull elk bugling every night until the night before opening day of elk hunting when all bugling ceases and the bulls disappear. During the rut, bull elk are saturated with testosterone as well as with urine. They wet themselves and raise a big stink over a bunch of females but also to distinguish themselves and their territory from others. There’s no mistaking bull elk. They have a distinctive smell—pungent. They also make equally distinctive racket.

The way bull elk communicate sounds a lot like New York City. They make noises similar to a hearing test. In one breath their bellows fluctuate from a deep-throated, raspy-hollow grunt, to a high-pitched echo-ey screech. The grunts remind me of when our son was little and growled into a vacuum extension hose. He was scared of the gravelly tone of his own voice so much that it took his breath away. The vacuum was on.

During September bulls have weeks of nightly bugle-offs. The loudest, most threatening and obnoxious bluffing of bulls vie for females like poker chips. An annual bugle-athon takes place in our valley and listening to them carry on is amazing. Bulls can bugle all night long, night after night, and never lose their voice.

Last year we listened to two bulls flinging hefty insults back and forth from their domains; AKA our hayfield. One was two hundred yards from our house and the other was down the valley. Both were full of bull—all bugle and no head-butting. Every night before bed my husband and I could hear them threatening and belittling each other.

Here’s a translation of what I heard:

Old bull: “Why don’t you go back to Wind Cave and grow some real horns!”

Young bull: “You’re so old you don’t even have any ivory teeth left!”

Old bull: “You think you can get cows with those horns? You’ll always be just a satellite bull, you dink rag horn!”

Young bull: “You couldn’t even bring coyotes in!”

Old bull: “Well, you bugle like a COW!”

Young bull: “I don’t think you even HAVE any cows up there!”

Old bull: “Is that the best you can bugle? All you can do for a cow is babysit!”

Young bull: “You dribble regurgitated grass!”

Old bull: “You’re so full of…yourself!”

I must say though, that listening to those magnificent-sounding bulls was an unforgettable letdown. When people hear two testosterone-soaked males lob threats, insults, and name-calling at each other, spectators expect to see a fight. As much bugling as we listened to, we never even heard the air crack from a single horn-clashing. Furthermore, I was convinced that the bull by the house didn’t even have any cows to defend. If he did, we didn’t hear a chirp out of them. It was nothing more than ballyhoo that I couldn’t drown out with earplugs, fans, the radio, sound machines, or cursing.

All kidding aside, listening to elk bugle has always been entertaining. Just not as entertaining as listening to them bugle into a vacuum hose with the vacuum on would be.

This column was originally published September 12-18, 2010   ©2010 Amy Kirk

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