There are plenty of ways of talking to a Maine moose, and most of those methods will at least pique a lovesick bull’s attention.
You can put your hands to the sides of your mouth and grunt. You can buy an electronic gadget and push various buttons. You can use an empty coffee can fitted with a dampened rawhide lace.
Or, if you’re looking for a more traditional call, you can call Butch Phillips and talk to him about the birchbark calls he makes in his Milford workshop.
Phillips, a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation, said he has made hundreds of the calls, some of which are bare-bones, undecorated megaphones that sell for $100, others functional works of art with ornate Wabanaki designs that have sold at auction for as much as $3,200.
“The calling of moose is ancient. And if you read any of Henry David Thoreau and some of the others that took the Indian guides [into the woods], you know, they used the birchbark moose call,” Phillips said. “Probably the calling may be a little bit different, but basically, it’s the same method.”
One important point: The calls that Phillips crafts don’t make any sound on their own. The hunter, or moose-caller, uses his or her own voice for that. But in the hands of a skilled voice caller, the result is breathtaking.
“Some people think that the call is like a trumpet that makes a noise,” Phillips said. “But you know, you make it yourself, and this just amplifies it and makes it mellow. And so we can be broadcasting a long way.”
Phillips, now a rugged and youthful-looking 80 years old, said he began tinkering with moose calls 40 years ago, when the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act allowed the Penobscots and other tribes to write their own fish and game laws. Among those rules was one that allowed tribal households to take one moose per year. Since then, he said he’s shot at least one moose a year, sometimes taking more if he’s helping provide meat for tribal families without a hunter.
And with all that moose hunting going on, Phillips and his sons would often fashion spur-of-the-moment calling devices.
“We’d go in the woods and pull the bark off a tree, [roll it into a cone shape], use it and throw it away,” Phillips said.
Then people started asking him to make moose calls for them, and Phillips got to work perfecting his craft, and developing methods of lacing up each end of the call to help them keep their shape.
Four decades later, he’s still making the popular calls, as well as other traditional crafts like miniature canoes, wall hangings, and waste-paper baskets.
He makes only slight concessions to advancing age.
“I still cruise the woods — very deliberately, not like I used to,” Phillips said. “And I still climb the ladders and get my own bark.”
Phillips prefers “winter bark” that he harvests when it’s cold out, because it’s thicker — 5/32 of an inch is ideal — and still pliable when he douses it with warm water. That allows him to bend it into the proper shape. All of the bark comes from white birch trees, and contrary to a popular misconception, he said carefully taking bark off a tree doesn’t damage it.
Phillips demonstrated how a skilled caller can simulate the haunting bellow of a cow moose looking for a mate, and said that by tilting the call toward the ground or in any direction, a caller can add variety and nuance to the calling routine that makes it sound more realistic.
Phillips said people looking for a call they can actually hunt with — and that includes smacking the call against trees to simulate the sound of antlers rubbing against branches — needn’t buy a top-of-the-line museum piece.
“You don’t use a $500 call right out in the woods, and start banging it on a tree,” Phillips said, pointing out that sometimes, hunters are their own worst enemies when it comes to damaging the calls. “I don’t know how many that I’ve replaced when guys backed over ’em with their four-wheeler or the pickup.”
The bad news: You’re not going to find an online catalog of Phillips’s work, and he’s not available on Facebook or other social media. The good news: If you’re interested in talking about purchasing a call or another traditional Penobscot piece of art, you can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just don’t be surprised when you get that moose call in your hands, you decide it’s so beautiful that you’re reluctant to use it.