TRANSLATING THE SONG DOG: WHAT COYOTES ARE SAYING WHEN THEY HOWL
Coyotes are famous for their wide repertoire of sounds, from yips and barks to howls and huffs. Learn more about the meaning behind these vocalizations.
by Jaymi Heimbuch
The scientific name for the coyote is Canis latrans, which translates to “barking dog,” a perfect name for this species which has been called the most vocal of North America's mammals.
Less formally, the coyote is known as the song dog, and one listen to a group howl by a pack of coyotes makes it clear why. Rather than the simple but soul-haunting sound of a wolf's howl, the coyote's howl can be made up of high-pitched howls, barks, and yips that make it clear the coyote has a whole lot of lyrics in a single song. But what exactly do those lyrics say?
The coyote has a range of vocalizations depending on social context and message. In 1978, Philip N. Lehner published his research of coyote communication and what the various vocalizations mean, which has been included in Coyotes: Biology, Behavior, and Management.
“The vocal repertoire of the adult coyote contains eleven vocalizations, several of which are also given by pups. These vocalizations grade into one another such that their separation into eleven types is somewhat arbitrary based on their different sounds, behavior context, and physical characteristics.”
In other words, the coyote language is complex and depends on the social situation, the coyote's body language in addition to the sounds, the intensity of the vocalization, and other factors. This makes sense considering that when one digs a little into hunting forums, some coyote hunters are convinced they know more than eleven calls for coyotes. Indeed, there are likely more vocalizations when one looks at subtleties.
If you have paid close attention the vocalizations of domestic dogs, especially those more talkative breeds, you'll likely find it easy to decode coyote sounds. There is a lot of overlap in the sounds dogs, coyotes and other canid species make – from a startled huff to a whine of greeting, from an antagonistic growl to a bark of alarm. But coyotes take the language of canids to another level with their extensive list of sounds, especially the yips, howls, and of course their choral group howls.
Though Lehner notes that it's a bit arbitrary to categorize coyote sounds, we can at least begin to understand them by breaking them down into the types of sounds they make along with their purpose. So he created the following 11 categories, which can also be considered sign-posts on a gradient of meaning and intensity.
Types of Coyote Vocalizations
– This vocalization holds no mystery. A growl is used as a threat, specifically for something within close range.
– This is the expulsion of air through the nose and mouth, and is also used as a high-intensity threat in close proximity. Huffs are used, for instance, when there's bickering over carrion.
– This vocalization is made as both a low-intensity threat and as an alarm. It's a sound made when a coyote is startled and unsure of exactly what is happening, but knows it is not comfortable with whatever it is.
– The bark is a long-distance threat or alert of low to medium intensity.
– This is when the coyote gets serious about a threat. The bark-howl is used as a long-distance high-intensity threat or alarm. It starts with a bark and blends into a howl.
What is interesting about the bark and the bark-howl is that research suggests that the varying intensity and frequency of barks could contain different information. More recent research by Brian R. Mitchell has shown that coyotes likely identify individuals by their barks and bark-howls.
“By analyzing spectrograms of howls and barks,” writes Mitchell, “I was able to determine that both of these vocalizations do indeed contain individually specific information. Because of the tremendous advantage of being able to determine individual identities, I presume that coyotes use the information in barks to identify individuals they are familiar with.”
“Another interesting aspect of coyote barks and howls,” he continues, “is that howls stably convey information for distances of at least one kilometer. Barks, on the other hand, rapidly attenuated and did not appear suitable for transmitting information. Barks likely serve other purposes, such as attracting information and providing information that listeners could use to estimate distance to the barking animal.”
Barks and bark-howls, then, can serve in saying, “I'm here, and here's how I'm feeling” and allow listening coyotes to recognize if those individuals are family or strangers. Mitchell underscores that a coyote recognizing an individual by their howl isn't about the howling coyote shouting his own name again and again; rather it is akin to how we can recognize a family member or friend by the sound of their voice no matter what they're saying, because of their unique pitch, timbre, cadence and even accent.
– This sound is used to express submission and is usually given by a subordinate coyote to a more dominant coyote.
– The yelp takes the whine up a notch and represents high-intensity submission. However, it can also be a response to being startled. As is the case with several other of these vocalizations, this categorization shows that coyote communication is more of a gradient. Lehner writes, “A yi-e-e-e often precedes or follows the yelp portion and resembles a high-frequency bark [and] appears on a sonogram like a short howl chopped into segments.”
– This is the “greeting song” of coyotes, and is used during high-intensity greeting displays. The vocalization modulates in frequency and amplitude as a coyote's motivation shifts, Lehner notes, and so can fluctuate from a whine to a growl.
9. Lone Howl
– The lone howl is just what you probably already know it to be: a howl by a single coyote, which is often started with a series of barks that reseracher R. M. Mengel called “herald barks.” As mentioned above, coyotes can distinguish individuals based on their unique howl, and the purpose of the howl is to announce one's location to others in their social group. Often, the lone howl gets an answer, and the coyotes can find each other to meet up.
10. Group Howl
– A group howl is sent up when two or more coyotes come together after being apart, or it could be given as a response to the howls of distant coyotes. It is, according to Lehner, essentially two or more coyotes giving their own lone howls either successively or simultaneously, as a way of giving out location information to any listeners.
11. Group Yip-Howl
– This is what coyotes are really known for. The group yip-howl is sent up when coyotes reunite, or just before they separate to go off hunting individually. As more coyotes join in, the more intense the vocalizations become, increasing in frequency and amplitude. Lehner notes that the group yip-howl includes sounds that researcher H. McCarley called screams, gargles and laughs. In other words, the many variations of coyote vocalizations show up in this chorus.
According to Lehner, the group yip-howl probably strengthens social bonds, may help to synchronize mood, and may also reaffirm social status within the pack. He also notes that the group yip-howl “may be most important in announcing territorial occupancy and preventing visual contact between groups of coyotes.”
The chorus tells any nearby coyote packs about whose turf this is, and thus keeps other coyotes away. It also reveals (or hides) how many coyotes are in the area and may help regulate coyote density through reproductive rate. Research has shown that female coyotes will produce larger litters when there is little competition, and smaller litters when there is a high density of coyotes in the habitat. This is one of the secrets to the coyote's success at spreading across the continent in the last century.
[Note: This is also why indiscriminate killing of coyotes to decrease their density doesn't work as a management strategy. Coyotes repopulate an area quickly and easily when competition is eliminated, with the population rebounding or even expanding in a very short time. Perhaps a more effective, cost-cutting and non-lethal strategy for reducing the number of coyotes in an area could potentially be playing recorded group yip-howls to make resident coyotes think there is more competition for resources. This is something several researchers have expressed interest in exploring, specifically in order to reduce conflicts with ranchers. If we can discover more about what specific messages are embedded in certain howls or barks, ranchers might one day be able to play specific recordings to keep coyotes away from livestock as well as minimize the number of coyotes living in an area.]
Mitchell writes, “Group yip-howls are produced by a mated and territorial pair of ‘alpha' coyotes, with the male howling while the female intersperses her yips, barks, and short howls. ‘Beta' coyotes (the children of the alpha pair from previous years) and current year pups may join in if they are nearby, or respond with howls of their own. And once one group of coyotes starts howling, chances are that any other alpha pairs nearby will respond in kind, with chorus after chorus of group yip-howls rippling across the miles.”
In Talking to Coyotes with the Song Dog, a pamphlet about using a coyote caller, Major L. Boddicker, Ph.D. brings up a personal experience with such a chain reaction. After sending up what he calls a “Joy of Life Call” which is a group yip-howl, “It sounded like every coyote in the USA responded in the musical see-saw coyote chant which went on and on for 3-5 minutes. I later called a friend in Steamboat Springs, Colorado (150 miles away) to check for the time when the coyotes started to sing there. Given the time it took sound to travel and coyotes to react, I very likely started the chorus.” Whether or not the chorus traveled that far, it is indeed possible to start a chain of coyotes sending up group yip-howls.
Boddicker discusses Lehner's list of vocalizations in his pamphlet, and brings in two more vocalizations that he or experienced coyote callers have heard. He notes that these my fall into the umbrella categories identified by Lehner, but are distinct enough to point out anyway. They are:
– This sound is used as part of more complex sounds such as the group howl or group yip-howls.
– This is when a howl tapers up and ends abruptly, rather than tapering down in a typical howl, which gives the howl a sound like the coyote is asking a question. Boddicker notes that this happens when coyotes howl for an unusual reason such as for a lost family member.
How Many Coyotes Are Howling?
“When people hear coyote howls, they often mistakenly assume that they’re hearing a large pack of animals, all raising their voices at once,” writes Mitchell. “But this is an auditory illusion called the ‘beau geste' effect.”
Coyotes howl both to reunite and to keep trespassers at bay. It may be in their favor that if they howl, they sound like a bigger pack than they really are. They accomplish complicated and confusing howls by a smart strategy of using wavering howls and changing their pitch rapidly. This, combined with the howls bouncing off objects in the environment such as rocks, trees, or the far side of a valley may make it hard for a listener to know if they are hearing one coyote or several howling simultaneously.
When two or three coyotes howl together, they can sound like a pack of six or ten or more, which perhaps makes them seem much more formidable to any nearby competitors or predators.
Coyotes May Have Local Accents
We know that coyotes vary in size and build depending on their location, as the difference between western and eastern coyotes clearly demonstrates. Does their location also mean they have accents? We know that other species with complex communication such as whales have different accents, so it makes sense that coyotes may also have regional accents. And does that affect how they might interpret or respond to strangers?
Sara Waller, associate professor of philosophy at Montana State University in Bozeman, told the Billings Gazette, “We know that dogs have ‘accents' just as people do — we can reliably tell the difference between British dog barks and American dog barks. When we have enough recordings to really compare Eastern and Western coyotes, we may find that like dogs, and people, they have regionally based differences in the way they communicate with each other. This would show that coyote vocalizations are impacted by social and environmental factors just as human speech is.”
What Can Coyotes Teach Us About Language?
There is still so much to learn about what coyotes are saying through their complex and varied vocalizations. The more we learn about the way coyotes communicate as social predators, the more we can learn about not just their species, but our own as well.
Coyotes can sense things we humans can't, and Waller questions, “How does that impact the way they think? They are social, communicative predators, and so are very like humans in many ways. If we could figure out what some of these vocalizations mean, it would give us insight into how our own language works, and how human minds differ from those of other social predators.”
Examples of Coyote Vocalizations
In the video below, coyotes send up a group yip-howl. Note that the howls do not begin with a bark, like the previous video. As Lehner notes, the group yip-howl starts usually with the dominant individual of the pack. That seems to happen here as the coyote in the video joins in after another coyote begins the howl:
The video below is a coyote group yip-howl, likely started with reunion of group members, and includes yips, whines and other vocalizations on the coyote-sounds spectrum as the members interact. There is so much great behavior and body language captured in this video, showing the group dynamics of submissive members with more dominant members of the pack:
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