Sound Off

In a previous post, I talked about how smells can connect you to a place and time. Well, sounds are a lot like that too. Have you ever heard a song and immediately you’re transported back decades to the moment you first heard it? Some sounds are so evocative of a certain place, they’re almost a kind of shorthand. The cry of a loon is like that, hearkening to a lonely lake in the woods far north. A coyote’s howl is very much the sound of the southwestern desert. Colorado too has some spectacular sounds that instantly transport you to the Rocky Mountains, and you can only hear them this time of year.

It’s late September and you’re hiking alone in the early morning chill of Rocky Mountain National Park. Suddenly, through the trees, you hear an eerie, high-pitched scream, almost like whale song, only you’re on land and miles from the ocean. What is it? You tense, listening and waiting. Then a huge bull elk steps into the clearing, lifts up his massively antlered head, and out comes that piercing shriek again.

Bull elk in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Bull elk in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The elk (Cervus canadensis), is one of the largest species of deer in the world and is native to much of North America, though it’s no longer extant in most of its former range. Elk are still present in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, however, and from about mid-September to mid-October, they enter their “rut” or mating season. During this time bull elk lose the velvet (soft covering) on the antlers they’ve been growing all spring and summer and may battle it out between each other for control of large groups of cow elk called “harems”. This is also the time you’re likely to hear that piercing shriek or “bugle.” The bugle can be heard for miles. Female elk are attracted to the loudest, most consistently bugling males.

At one time, it was thought that elk use their teeth to produce their bugle. All adult cow and bull elk have enamel molars for chewing their food and two ivory teeth in their top jaw where canines would be in a carnivore. These ivory teeth, are only used for intimidating potential predators or other threats and have no other function. An elk’s bugle is produced in the larynx.

Bighorn sheep in Georgetown, Colorado. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Bighorn sheep in Georgetown, Colorado. Photo by Jamie Simo.

A few months after hearing the elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, you attend the Bighorn Sheep Festival in Georgetown, Colorado. The bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) is native to the Rocky Mountains and is the Colorado state animal. Like elk, bighorn sheep also go through a mating period in the fall, though sheep typically enter their rut later in the season in November.

While getting your spotting scope set up at the Georgetown visitor center, you hear a loud bang like a gun shot. Across the highway and on the mountainside, two rams with big, curling horns are sizing each other up. Just as you set your eye to your scope, the two trot a few paces from each other, turn, rear up on their hind legs, then charge. Another crack echoes out as their 30 pound headgear collide with what some sources estimate is 900 kilograms of force.

With football players and boxers suffering brain damage from impacts of much less violence, how do those rams remain upright? Unlike people, male bighorn sheep have a double-layered skull. In between the two layers are bony struts flanked by an oversized sinus cavity that help absorb the impact of head butts.  Powerful neck muscles also help take some of the force, as does the keratin covering on the horns themselves, which allows a little give when the two sheep collide.

Now, although it’s not yet Thanksgiving, a cold wind has blown through bringing with it snow. Fall is ceding its place to winter. If you close your eyes and open your ears, what will you hear in this quiet season?

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