Wild Notes

(L to R) Polly, Ben, and Jerry performing a group-yip howlPolly, Ben, and Jerry (L to R) performing a group-yip howl

To some people, the sound of coyotes howling is chilling, but I’ve always loved it. It’s a sound that resonates with something primitive and wild in my soul.

There are some common myths about coyote howls—that they howl at the moon, or when they’re beginning a hunt, or when they sense prey. But coyotes do none of those things. They howl as much under a new moon as a full one, and often do it during the day. While wolves frequently howl before a hunt, coyotes don’t; the small animals that form the bulk of their diet don’t require the pack cohesion and cooperation that this pre-hunt howl seems to foster. And coyotes remain silent when hunting, lest they warn prey of their approach.

So why do they howl? During the months I followed Jerry, Ben, Faye, and Polly, the pack I wrote about a few weeks ago, I saw and heard them howl many times. Curious about this behavior, I read about the subject in scientific papers, and tried to correlate this information with my own observations. I found that the howls could be divided into three categories: what biologists call a group-yip howl, a contact howl, and a bark-howl.

The group-yip howl is thought to be a territorial advertisement, as coyotes perform it more often near the boundaries of their range. It’s a brief, cacophonous blend of howls and yips that can make three coyotes sound like ten. It’s deceptive nature has an adaptive purpose: if a group can sound larger then they are, neighboring packs are less likely to attack them.

I sometimes saw Ben, Jerry, and Faye, the core of the pack, patrol the borders of their range. Nearing these boundaries they would mark—i.e., pee—frequently, and look and listen intently in the direction of the neighboring territory. They had the air of teenagers looking for trouble. Sometimes they would break into a group-yip howl, then stand quietly, listening. A couple of times I heard a distant response, a group-yip howl from a neighboring pack.

I also saw them break into group-yip howls when pack members rejoined each other after a long separation. This seemed to be one of those pack-solidarity things, a bonding moment.

Even though coyotes aren’t cooperative hunters, pack cohesion is a serious matter. A coyote without a territory will probably die. They must work together to defend their turf, which means fighting other coyotes if necessary. The more coyotes in the pack, the better their ability to defend their range. But packs typically remain small—two to four members—because a large pack creates too much internal competition, and because the larger the group, the larger the territory they must defend to ensure an adequate food supply. There’s a point of diminishing returns.

Years before I met Jerry, Ben, Faye, and Polly, I spent some time with another pack of just two coyotes—a mated pair. One afternoon I watched them engage in a running battle with another pack, a battle they seemed to lose, as their territory soon shifted to a different part of Yosemite Valley. In fact it may have been Ben, Jerry, and Faye who drove them out, but that was before I learned to recognize them.

I once watched Jerry, Ben, Faye, and Polly harass a stranger, a lone coyote I didn’t recognize. This coyote, a female, was probably a young animal searching for a territory of its own. It may have been hoping that Jerry, Ben, Faye, and Polly would accept her into their group, but they didn’t seem interested, and harassed her mercilessly until she left their range. Coyotes have been known to kill strangers. Their territory has a limited food supply, and they can’t afford to be generous to outsiders.

Jerry (left) and Ben howling, trying to get an answer from FayeAnother common howl, undocumented by researchers, is what I call a “contact howl.” A coyote stands, sits, or lies down, howls for a few seconds, then waits and listens. Then it howls again, and waits, and listens. The intent became clear after I watched this behavior a few times. Each time the howling session would end when the coyote got a response from another pack member. They would then trot toward each other, and sometimes let out a group-yip howl when they rejoined. Clearly this was a way of locating fellow pack members. Ben and Jerry would often do this when trying to find each other. Sometimes they joined together in a contact-howling session, hoping to get a response from Faye, but she usually seemed indifferent to the males and rarely answered.

Faye bark-howling while Jerry watches for a potential threatThe rarest type of howl is the bark-howl—a long series of barks, occasionally interspersed with short howls. I once watched Faye do this for 30 minutes while Ben and Jerry looked on. They all acted nervous, staring the whole time in one direction. My guess was that the bark-howl is a response to a perceived threat, something that they consider dangerous. Since coyotes have few natural predators, they were probably reacting to the scent of a bear or mountain lion—more likely a mountain lion, since they can easily outrun a bear, and bears are common in Yosemite Valley while this behavior was not.

Whenever I hear coyotes now, whether at home in Mariposa, in Yosemite Valley, or in the desert, I can still distinguish these three types of howls. A group-yip howl is almost always echoed by a more distant pack, sometimes two or three, each group letting the others know that yes, we’re still here, in great numbers, so don’t mess with us.

But these days I try not to analyze coyote howls too much. I’d rather just listen to this wild and primitive sound—the sound of wilderness.

Ben performing a contact howl, hoping for a response from Jerry or FayeBen performing a contact howl, hoping for a response from Jerry or Faye

 

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