The Endearing, Improbable Moose
Text by Liz McKenzie and Photos by Richard Nelson
The Endearing, Improbable Moose
"They made me think of great frightened rabbits, with their
long ears and half inquisitive, half-frightened looks; the true denizens of the forest."
– Henry David Thoreau, 1864
If ever there was a creature with a confusing mix of body parts, the moose is it.
Some parts seem too big—the outsized nose and huge ears, a bulked-up torso and massive rack. Other parts seem too small—long, slender, racehorse legs holding everything up and a ridiculously stubby tail that's not even good for swatting the prolific summer insects.
Some parts work extremely well, like ears that rotate 360 degrees, giving moose excellent focused hearing. Big lips and teeth only on the lower jaw (no upper incisors) allow moose to strip whole branches of their leaves in one swipe.
And then there's the mysterious "dewlap," a long bell of fur-covered skin hanging off the neck. No one really knows its purpose, except perhaps to make a bull more alluring to the cows.
Yet even with all the mismatched and mysterious parts, moose are one of the most successful browsers on the planet—back from overhunting in North America to a population that's double what it was fifty years ago. Moose have returned to some of their former areas and have also spread into new territory.
Henry David Thoreau called the moose "God's own horses"—because of their overall shape but mainly their hulking size. Alaska's moose are the world's largest: prime bulls weigh 1,000 to 1,600 pounds, standing 6 feet at the shoulders. A healthy female weighs between 800 and 1,200 pounds.
The long legs on a moose are actually an advantage for traveling in tussocky muskegs and saturated bogs, wading in boreal ponds and lakes, and moving through powdery winter snow. But it's hard times for moose when very deep snow piles up or when the snow is crusted with ice. Unable to move far, moose can starve or become easy prey for predators.
Moose are found in forested areas of the northern United States, Russia, Europe and Canada. In Alaska, moose are widespread from the North Slope to Southeast, with total population estimates from 175,000 to 200,000. They are an extremely important source of food for subsistence hunters throughout the state. A prime bull can provide 750 pounds of meat.
In Alaska, moose are also found in urban areas like Anchorage and Fairbanks. In smaller towns too they can be seen feasting on gardens, walking down sidewalks, raking their antlers on prized shrubbery and giving birth to calves in peoples backyards.
A Year in the Life
For moose that survive the winter, spring brings an outburst of richness and freedom. Stark winter browse becomes a distant memory and calves are born among the freshly unfolding leaves.
Forests and riverbanks, ponds and meadows are lush with buds, flowers, and green shoots. This is a time of highly nutritious new growth and to a moose—after eating dry branches and bark all winter—the choices must seem quite delicious.
It's no coincidence that calf births coincide with this season of warmth and abundance.
A pregnant moose—possibly still with last year's calf in tow—finds a secluded spot to give birth. Newborn calves are easy prey for wolves, black bears and grizzly bears. A mother moose needs a place where she can nurse her calf and find browse close by, so she can keep constant vigil while she feeds.
A moose cow with her tiny calf is both touchingly gentle and fiercely protective. She'll charge wolves and bears and deliver deadly, slicing kicks if necessary. Native people and others with backwoods experience also know it's wise to keep plenty of distance from a mother moose and her calf.
Back in the sixties, the famed biologist Adolph Murie spotted a "medium-sized" grizzly in Denali National Park, then saw a cow moose approaching the bear:
Her ears were cocked forward; I guessed she was bent on intercepting the bear, and I was right because a little later I saw the bear making a dodging, scrambling effort to escape, the angry cow galloping close upon his heels and about to strike him with every jump. The bear made a sharp turn as he disappeared from my view and the cow followed…I did not see the bear again, but the cow returned, trotting briskly down a ridge to the road and into the tall willow brush…A short time after disappearing into the spruces, she reappeared on the open tundra, walking slowly, followed by a tiny calf still unsteady on its feet.
In some areas of Alaska where food is plentiful, moose often give birth to twins; but in poor habitat twins are rare.
At birth, moose calves weigh about 28 pounds and stand just over three feet tall. And like many newborn mammals, they're spindle-legged and wobbly. The mothers lick their newborns and tenderly nuzzle them into position to suckle. The little ones are unbelievably cute—rusty brown color, long wagging ears, and eyes rimmed with dark fur as if they'd been smudged with mascara.
Calves grow rapidly on the rich milk, gaining about 2 pounds every day. They will nurse exclusively for the first four weeks, then add browse into their diet while continuing to nurse.
A cow teaches her calves to swim within their first week of life, as well as to heed her warning calls and to stay close by.
Bull moose have no part in raising the young. They're scattered at this time of year, munching nutritious buds and leaves, wading into ponds and lakes for underwater plants, and sprouting the early nubs of antlers.
Moose are eating machines in the summer. And with their wide ranging tastes, the summer table is set: buds, flowers, grasses, mosses, lichens, bushes, tree bark, leaves, needles, twigs, mushrooms, pond lilies and other aquatic plants. The green shoots and leaves of willow, birch, and aspen are special favorites.
Listen to the sounds of moose snapping off leaves and chewing:
Moose are most at home in dense willows, especially the big thickets along twisting rivers throughout the North.
In areas of rich browse, a moose doesn't need to cover a lot of ground. It moves slowly, deliberately, stripping leaves off branches, munching wildflowers and grasses, wading into shallow ponds and ducking under to suck up aquatic plants.
The moose's height is an advantage—it can reach high up into the shrubs and trees to reach all the goodies there. On the other hand, it may have to spread its legs like a giraffe or even kneel down to eat small ground-hugging plants.
Like all ruminants (such as deer, goats, and cows) moose digestion is a four-stage process: first they swallow lightly chewed food, which collects in the first chamber of their stomach. Resting in the underbrush later, the moose brings up its food for rechewing, often known as "chewing its cud." This finely ground food goes down again and passes through several digestive chambers. Afterward, the waste is eliminated as a cluster of oval pellets that northerners often call "moose nuggets".
In the height of summer, a moose can eat 50 pounds of food every day. The calves also eat constantly and gain as much as 4 pounds per day.
For a moose, the summer days are dominated by eating, ruminating, and resting. Temperatures in the northern forest often reach 70 or 80 degrees F., and moose don't like heat. So on sultry days they often linger in ponds, sometimes submerged up to their necks, or they move to open windy places. These are good ways to escape predators and avoid the swarms of mosquitos, black flies, and other biting insects.
Moose are not only excellent swimmers, they can also dive! It's not unusual to see a moose plunge its head underwater, possibly its entire body, staying down for about 30 seconds to feed on underwater plants.
Unfortunately for yearlings, summer is an unhappy time when moose moms boot them out. These older calves will try to regain the cow's attention and may follow her for months before finding their own territory, often someplace nearby.
But the cow needs to focus all her attention on nursing and protecting this year's gangly, vulnerable little calf. As summer passes, she also keeps busy feeding to get herself fattened up for the intense activity of fall mating and the long, tough winter beyond. By summer's end, the fast-growing calves weigh close to 300 pounds.
Prime bull moose grow enormous antlers during these warm months, and by August the fuzzy brown velvet starts peeling off. The broad spatulate antlers look messy, festooned with dangling bloody rags of velvet. This process must feel irritating to the bulls, who spend much of their time thrashing their racks against trees and bushes to rub the old stuff off.
In late September and early October, most of the cows and bulls migrate to traditional mating areas. The bull's racks are now enormous—as much as six feet across and weighing up to 80 pounds—and they look like natural sculptures made from solid, dark brown bone. One of the most remarkable things about bull moose is their ability to grow a new set of antlers every summer, shed them in winter, and then start again the next spring. Not surprisingly, biologist John Ozoga describes antlers as "one of the fastest growing structures in the animal kingdom."
The racks are magnificent, if odd—they come straight out to the side of the bulls' heads and they're flattened or palmated—like upturned hands that gleam in the rain and catch the snow, as if on purpose.
There is great posturing, roaring, and clashing of antlers among the bulls to establish mating rights with the cows. During this two to three week period—called the rut—the bulls fast.
The early twentieth century naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton describes the contests between bull moose:
"Hearing a sound from a fellow male, he challenges with a deep, long grunt or a sharp bellow, approaches rapidly, slashing the brush to impress his rival, circling about to try the wind from the stranger or (if there be no wind) repeating his various callings and beatings of the brushwood. It is rare to find a moose horn without the dent of battle. In these combats the weaker generally saves himself by flight: it only occasionally happens that one of the warriors is killed; and occasionally, again, the battle is doubly fatal through the locking of antlers."
Once a bull has established himself as the one who gets to mate with the cows in the area, he will urinate and then roll in the strong smelling urine-soaked leaves. A cow rolls in it too, getting the bulls' scent on her. She will also defend this "wallow" from other cows.
The lead-up to mating is protracted and showy—clashing antlers, strutting, chasing, bellowing—but the actual time for love is brief. A bit of closeness when the bull rests his head on the cow's back and a short coupling of mere seconds. The bull will mate with several females over the next two to three weeks.
That's it for family responsibilities for the bulls who live a solitary life, except when they congregate during the rut or sometimes gather during the winter in places away from predators or deep snow.
Winter is a challenging time for moose. For all their bulk and bravado and imperviousness to cold, they are most vulnerable in this season of fierce winds, blizzards, accumulating snow, and scarcity of food.
Moose have a very difficult time moving around during winters of heavy or crusted snow. Mostly confined to their own networks of trails and winter "yards", they sometimes struggle to find enough food. And wolves can often stay on top of deep snow, while the moose can't run away or fully defend itself. Unlike caribou who have wide snowshoe-like hooves, the bulky moose sink down into the powder or break through crusted snow.
A biologist named Joseph Dixon described bloody trails left by moose in Denali National Park when crusted snow cut through the skin on their legs. The stressed animals also become aggressively defensive, and one ranger had a close call when he encountered a moose plowing through the deep, difficult snow. "The moose, feeling cornered, evidently considered the man's approach an attack; he charged at the ranger, who was on snowshoes, and the man was barely able to escape."
Moose lay down in hidden areas during storms and at times are nearly covered with snow. They may congregate in river valleys with sprawling willow thickets or on ridges swept clear of snow by strong winds.
For a mother with a calf, survival is even more challenging. She has to protect her young, find enough food for them both, and she may be pregnant as well.
While moose can survive on accessible food such as dormant twigs, branches and bark and by pawing down to foods buried under the snow, there is far less to eat than during summer's abundance. At the same time, they burn much more energy getting to food and maintaining their body temperature. To compensate, their metabolism actually slows down in winter, so they need less food to survive. They also draw on fat accumulated during the previous summer, which partly explains why moose generally lose weight over the cold months.
Because travel is difficult in winter, moose often come onto highways and railroad tracks to move around. They also have a taste for de-icing salt. And this is where unfortunately many, many moose are killed each year. In Alaska and other northern states, as well as Canada, there are also human casualties when moose and cars collide on the highways.
But, for moose that make it through the winter, lengthening days and higher sun melt the snow, green buds open in the thickets and tender shoots turn the warming land into a vast, nutritious salad. Once again, moose are free to wander through the lush and prodigious bounty of spring.
"When a moose appears…its presence is a reminder that, despite the incursions of civilization, something big, something almost prehistoric in appearance, something that has never learned to flee human threat still lurks at the periphery of human vision. Seen at dawn in a boreal swamp, a black shape half-shrouded in rising mist, the silent, unmoving moose is like a phantom escaped from dreams and briefly occupying human consciousness. It stands alone and enigmatically. It looks across the intervening distance, an omen of sorts, then slowly, quietly returns to the tangle of the nearby woods."
- Daniel Wood, Moose