Mammals of Pennsylvania and New Jersey



Elk (North American)

Background Information

Elk are a member of the deer family. They are also known by the name the Native Americans gave them -- wapiti. During colonial days, they could be found roaming through much of our country. However, over-hunting reduced the herds to near extinction. In recent years, elk have been brought back to western Pennsylvania and other eastern states. Because they have done so well in the wild, there is a very limited hunting season on them.

Physical Features

Elk have dark brown fur on their legs, neck, and head. They have yellowish-tan color markings on their rumps.

Male elk, known as bulls, average around 700 pounds. They stand 5 feet tall at their shoulders. The mature bull has rounded antlers that can spread out to be more than 5 feet wide. They can have more than 12 points on their antlers.

Antlers grow during the summer and are shed during the winter. The skin on the outside of the antler is known as velvet. Bulls shed their velvet in the fall and winter, then, lose their antlers. The antlers grow back each year.

Female elk, known as cows, are smaller. They average around 600 pounds and stand 4 to 5 feet high at their shoulders.


Like deer, elk do not build a home or nest. They graze in open meadows near forests in northwestern Pennsylvania. Bulls graze on grass over a larger territory than cows. Mothers do not wander as much because they need to protect their calves.

Life Cycle

Elk breed in late summer and early fall. Most elk start to breed at 3 years of age. Bulls “fight” for a herd of cows. Few injuries are caused by bulls interlocking their antlers. A bull’s herd ranges in size from 12 to 60 cows in September.

Female elk usually have only 1 calf at a time. It takes 250 days, or over 8 months, for a calf to develop. When ready, females look for quiet, private places to give birth.

Calves are born in May and June and weigh around 30 pounds. For 6 months, they have light brown fur with white spots. Calves hide in tall grasses getting up only to nurse. To protect the calf, the mother elk stays away from her calf, approaching only to feed it.

Elk live between 18 to 22 years. Besides humans, black bears and coyotes are natural enemies of elk. These animals prey upon the weak elk and young calves.


Elk eat mainly at sunrise and sunset. Elk browse and graze on grasses in the summer. During other seasons, elk food consists of berries, twigs, needles from pine trees, and leaves and bark from hardwood trees and shrubs. Surprisingly, one of their favorite winter food is acorns. Being plant eaters, elk are herbivores.


  © Dr. Randall Pellow, 2005