A bull moose is the largest game animal in North America, standing between 150 to 200 cm at shoulder height and sometimes weighing up to 800 kg.
Moose are dark brown with greyish legs, and at a distance appear black. A pendant of hair-covered skin called a bell hangs from under the throat and is variable in size and shape. There is a distinctive hump over the shoulders of the moose.
The hindquarters are slim and set lower than the front quarters. The tail is short and stubby and seldom seen from a distance.
The bull’s antlers, which may be up to 2 metres wide, have massive, palmate, flat, concave plates fringed with small prongs.
Moose are extremely well adapted for traveling through rough country. Their long legs and great physical power carry them over almost any terrain.
Moose feed on twigs and shrubs during the winter months. Winter forage includes twigs of balsam fir, red-osier dogwood, birch, alder and maple. During summer, this diet is varied with leaves, upland plants and a great quantity of water plants. In winter, particularly in years of deep snows, moose concentrate or “yard” in the willows and shrubs along river valleys or other low areas and sometimes in areas with stands of low balsam fir.
The breeding season, or rut, begins in mid-September and lasts until mid-October. In late May to early June cows give birth to a single calf. Twins are a rarity.
During the rut, hunters try to imitate the nasal bawling of a cow moose and the coughing bellow of a responding bull to draw the moose into shooting range. Moose are not normally a far ranging species and without protection, local populations may be quickly depleted because of easy access by hunters.
Is That a Bull, a Cow, or a Calf?
Identifying moose with reliability requires practice and experience. Carry binoculars; they are an important tool in moose identification.
Usually, you will first see a moose in the bush at a distance. It will appear as a brown-black shape. Be cautious though, since what you think is a moose may be a stump, a building, or even a person. While it is generally true that bulls tend to have dark blackish brown bodies while the cows are lighter in colour, colour is a poor indicator of sex and you will have to look more closely at other features.
Size - If there are several moose in sight at the same time, the size of the animals can give you clues to their age and sex. When two or more large moose are seen together, they are usually adults. One large animal with one or two noticeably smaller moose usually indicates a cow with a single calf or twin calves. Calves are usually five months old in October and are obviously smaller than adults. Sometimes a smaller moose with an adult cow in the fall is a yearling rather than a calf. These moose must be observed more closely using some of the techniques described below before a positive identification can be made.
Head Shapes - A moose calf’s head is much shorter in profile than that of an adult. In addition, most adults tend to have overhanging, bulbous noses. Calves often have smaller, more finely featured noses. Calf ears appear smaller in proportion to the head than do those of adults. Calf faces, viewed head-on, appear more triangular and pointed than do those of adults.
Behaviour - Behaviour can also give you some clues about whether the smaller moose in a group is a calf or a yearling. When a cow with one or two calves is disturbed, the calves will move towards the cow and sometimes touch noses with her before closely following behind her as the cow moves away. Yearlings are much less dependent on the cow and are less likely to move near the cow or trail closely behind.
Body Shape - The body shape of calves is different than that of adults. Adults look more or less rectangular, while calves are almost square. The hump over the calf’s shoulders may appear more pointed than that of an adult. Calf moose appear to have more leg length than body, and their hindquarters appear more slender than those of an adult.
Antlers - The presence of one or both antlers guarantees that the animal is an adult bull, since male calves possess only small bumps where their antlers will start growing next year. Yearling bulls will have only small spikes for antlers that may be difficult to see because they may be hidden behind the ears. Take extra time to examine for small antlers.
Nose Bridge - The nose bridge is the central one-third of the head located between the snout and the forehead. In bulls older than yearlings, there may be a noticeable contrast between the nose bridge, which is often dark brown to blackish in colour, and the lighter brown forehead. A light coloured nose bridge, usually showing little or no contrast with forehead colouration, indicates the likelihood of an adult cow during the fall. This technique is not completely reliable for sexing yearling moose, nor should it be used to sex calves, as there is much variation in facial colouration. The nose bridge should never be used as a single identifying feature, but is useful when combined with other features.
Moose Bells - The size and shape of the moose bell, the hair covered skin hanging under the throat, may give some clues to age and sex. Mature bulls often display a large prominent sack-shaped bell. This type of bell may also have a narrow rope-like section of varying length attached. If you see a large “dewlap” you are probably looking at a mature bull, but if it is smaller it could be either a younger bull, a cow of any age, or even a calf.
Vulva Patch - Female moose usually have a vulva patch, a triangular patch of light brown to whitish hair under the tail and extending towards the anus. This may become more visible as the animal becomes more mature. This feature is rarely seen on male moose. Be careful not to mistake dried grass or vegetation as the vulva patch.