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.