Why do Coyotes Howl?

Coyotes, like dogs, make many noises. They yip, bark, whine, growl, and howl. But, why? What do these sounds mean? Do they have any significance? Just as much as our tone and volume of voice carry meaning, so do these different coyote sounds.

Rally the Troops

After hunting, coyote packs can get separated. They often will travel distances of several miles to get their dinner, and they don’t exactly have GPS. Consequently, a locator call is needed to help the pack members find one another. This call is what is most often heard by humans at night when they say the coyotes are, “howling at the moon.” The moon may or may not be full when these coyotes are howling despite the mental image this paints for us thanks to many popular cartoons. But, one things is for sure, a coyote reunion is coming, and there will be plenty of yipping and eating to be done soon.

Keep off my Land

The other main howl coyotes will do is a warning howl. This long, stern howl warns other packs to keep on their side of the territorial lines the packs have established. Coyote packs are family oriented and very territorial. The areas they claim are marked with urine and protected by the alphas. Any animals that threaten this area or the pack will hear this warning howl, and if it advances will scuffle with the alphas of the pack. Something like a warning shot, these howls can be heard across long distances and get the message across, loud and clear.

Barking

Mixed in with howls are often yips and barks. These complex harmonies often make one or two coyotes sound like many and instill fear in prey animals and humans alike. While some howls warn others to stay away, mixed with a few barks they can also warn pack members of danger. These barks are meant to somewhat intimidate what is intimidating the coyote while simultaneously warning his friends of the threat.

Yips

Not all coyote communication is as aggressive sounding as a howl or bark. Yips mixed in with howling likely indicates the reuniting of pack members. Like seeing old friends or family members that you haven’t seen in a while, coyotes are happy when they are reunited and yip to express this excitement.

Whines and Whimpers

Bonding between coyotes, especially females, usually involves some vocalization such as whining and whimpering. These sounds offer feelings of respect, mutual interests, and companionship. Much like when women say “aww” when listening to their friends and families talk about the new events in their lives, these sounds express interest in and care for one another. These expressions foster bonds that last lifetimes and strengthen packs.

Growling

While on the topic of relationship building, the assertion of dominance is one practice in coyote culture that certainly is not quiet. Growling, snarling, and scrapping often take place when one coyote assumes dominance over another. These relationships must be established in order to create order amongst packs and establish leadership and breeding order. Growling is much like talking smack during a brawl on a play ground or in a bar in our human world. It says, “hey tough guy, if you think you’re big enough to handle me, why don’t you come over here and prove it.”

Chatty Cathies

All communication truly boils down to relationship building. Whether it be friend or foe, communication determines the relationship and fosters that bond. Coyotes are no different. They are quite talkative critters. From howling to whimpering, every noise has a meaning in the coyote world. Some are greetings, others are warnings, but, all establish some sort of relationship with other coyotes.

Coyotes Howl

Do Coyotes Howl at the Moon

Coyotes have long been a mystifying creature of the night.   For hundreds of years people feared these animals, assuming that they were fearless and aggressive hunters that would attack at any given moment.  One of the longest running myths about them is why they howl at night, and do coyotes howl at the moon?  Standing outside on a late fall evening you can probably hear the piercing sound of the first howl ring out through the dark clear night as if the coyote were just yards away. As soon as the first howl sounds out, there will most likely be a responding howl heard within minutes, but from another coyote.  Soon their howls and yips will blend together in a mixture of coyote song, sung loud for all to hear.  But are they howling at the moon?

Why Howl?

Why HowlCoyotes are members of the Canidae family.  Other members of the family include jackals, dogs, and the most notorious howlers – wolves.  Howling is among a variety of vocal communication that is used by these canids to communicate everything from warning other coyotes to stay away, calling or attracting a mate, and even locating other members of their pack.  Domesticated dogs can even be known to howl or make other similar sounds.  Alaskan malamutes and huskies are the most well-known for displaying this behavior, which makes sense since they are the most closely related to wolves.  Beagles and other hounds also do this, especially when in hunting situations.

There are two most common reasons that you hear coyotes howl.  One is that they are using this vocalization to advertise their home range or territory.  Coyotes use other methods such as scent markings like urinating on their boundary and leaving scat for their competitors to find, but howling signals to other coyotes much further and lets them know that the territory is taken.  The other reason a coyote howls is to locate a member of their pack.  Coyote howls are much like human voices in that they are unique and recognizable by their family, or pack.

Singing to the Moon?

Singing to the MoonMoonlight can affect coyote behavior for a few reasons.  One of the explanations for why a coyote will howl at night when the moon is full or more visible has more to do with their regular habits than a cosmic connection to the moon above earth.  There are three main coyote habits- hunting for food, protecting their territory, and finding a mate.

When the moon is fuller on a clear night, coyotes have the advantage of seeing better and further in the dark.  If the coyote happens to live in the forest regions, this provides an excellent opportunity that he will take advantage of to hunt for food into the night.  In these regions, particularly in the Northeast where coyotes are larger, they will hunt together as a pack to take down larger prey such as deer that are also using the moonlight as a light source.  When hunting in packs, coyotes will howl to signal to the other members where they are and when they are ready to attack.

This explanation also explains why coyotes howl at night in other regions.  When the moon is bright in plains and desert regions, the coyote has enough light to scavenge his territory for food sources and an opportunity to hunt in cooler conditions.  While the coyote is out hunting his territory, he will howl to other potential intruder coyotes that are looking for a moonlight meal that they are not welcome.

Coyote Sounds

Coyote SoundsFor such a small animal, they typically weigh 30-45 pounds – much smaller than a gray wolf, coyote howls are very loud and can be heard from miles away.  Coyotes must be able to call out and be heard for a very long ways away since their territory can range several miles, depending on region and how dense the coyote population is.  They also make other sounds such as a bark or yip, which can also be heard at night as they howl.  Although it might sound like a very large pack of coyotes are taking part in the night time howl ritual, it can in fact be only two or three coyotes.  All of their vocalizations combine to sound like a larger pack, which works in their favor to threaten off any predators or un welcome coyote visitors.

While moonlight can definitely cause a spike in night time coyote activity and sound, coyotes are not singing to the moon like the legends state.