By Jenny Neyman
Along with the return of salmon to area rivers and the parade of motor homes down the Sterling Highway, the appearance of newborn moose calves is the third sure harbinger of the arrival of the summer season on the Kenai Peninsula. Calves started showing up last week, as they tend to do in a four-week period around mid-May to early June, though some give birth later if they bred later.
An average moose calf weighs about 40 pounds when born, and twins typically weigh a few pounds less than single cows. Calves can stand and take tottering steps on their wobbly legs a few hours after birth. But unlike caribou calves, which must be able to move soon after birth to keep up with their roaming herd, moose cows and calves tend to stay fairly stationary after calving, which is easier for cows to protect their young.
Calves begin nursing soon, almost immediately, after birth. They can start eating vegetation within a few days, but mom’s milk remains their main source of sustenance for about their first month.
Moose calves have a tough go of it, as they are a prime source of prey for bears, wolves and other predators. And humans can be a cause of stress, and even death, this time of year. There are a few things people can do to make help make sure they aren’t an inadvertent contributing cause of calf mortality.
- Keep your distance. Few things rank higher on the cute meter than newborn animals, and moose calves are a particularly endearing sight — with ears, eyes and legs out of proportion to their downy bodies. But view them from a respectable distance. Getting too close could cause calves and cows stress, or could even cause them to flee — potentially across a road or away from the relative safety of the calving spot the cow has chosen. Also, if cows and calves are already moving, don’t block their path, with yourself or your vehicle.
- Don’t assume a calf is lost or orphaned just because you see it alone. The cow might be unseen nearby, and could reunite with its calf even after a seemingly long absence of a day or more. Interfering with a calf might only interfere with its mother rejoining it. Even if a calf is alone, the harsh reality of nature is that calves have their place in the wild food chain. Calf survivability is important for the health of the moose population, but reality is that the majority will not survive the summer.
- Be safe driving. That’s a good rule any time of year, and it remains true in calving season. Always drive with lights on and be extra vigilant at twilight and in the evening. Watch not only the road but the sides of the road, as moose can be difficult to spot when standing camouflaged against vegetation, and can choose to cross a road with no apparent reason or warning.
- Restrain your pets. Newborn moose calves aren’t able to defend themselves and are particularly susceptible to injury and death from other animals. Moose cows are particularly protective of their new young and will be more aggressive than usual this time of year, meaning even a merely curious dog could get stomped if it gets too close.
- Reduce attractants. Moose are meant to eat natural browse — the young trees that are sprouting as we speak. But they sample garbage, pet food, garden growth and other items inadvertently provided by humanity. Don’t let them. Non-natural foods can be difficult for moose to digest, causing sickness and even death. All the rules for reducing bear attractants around a home hold true for moose, as well.