Sunday, March 2, 2014

Coyotes: Decoding Their Yips, Barks, and Howls

coyote_howlAs the sunset colors fade from purple to black an eerie sound breaks the forest calm. It is not the long, low, slow howling of wolves that can be heard further north, but the group yip-howl of coyotes: short howls that often rise and fall in pitch, punctuated with staccato yips, yaps, and barks.

When people hear coyote howls, they often mistakenly assume that they’re hearing a large pack of animals, all raising their voices at once. But this is an auditory illusion called the “beau geste” effect. Because of the variety of sounds produced by each coyote, and the way sound is distorted as it passes through the environment, two of these tricksters can sound like seven or eight animals.

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.

I spent seven years studying coyote vocal communication during my dissertation research at the University of California. While eastern coyotes are a larger and distinct subspecies from the western coyotes that I worked with, the basic findings of my research and the work done by others applies to all coyotes. Coyotes have sometimes been called “song dogs,” and their long distance songs come in two basic types.

The first, the group yip-howl, is thought to have the dual purpose of promoting bonding within the family group while also serving as a territorial display. In other words, the coyotes are saying “we’re a happy family, and we own this turf so you better keep out.” In a sense, the group howls create an auditory fence around a territory, supplementing the physical scent marks left by the group.

Coyotes will also howl and bark separately. This second type of song is virtually always an indication of disturbance or agitation, and in my experience, the higher the proportion of howls, the more agitated the coyote is. Coyotes will howl and bark at neighbors who intrude on their territory, and at dogs, people, and other large animals that they perceive as a potential threat.

My research documented that coyote barks and howls are individually specific. Much like we can tell people apart by their voices, there is enough information in coyote vocalizations for me (OK, my computer if you want to get technical) to tell individuals apart. If, as I suspect, coyotes can distinguish each other by their song, it would not be analogous to the animals constantly shouting their own names; it would be more akin to our ability to recognize Marlon Brando because of the distinctive timbre and cadence of his voice. Characteristics including dominant pitch, duration, how quickly howls rise and fall in pitch, and tendency to “warble” while howling all distinguish one coyote from another.

For howls, this individual distinctiveness does not fade with distance. I was able to record and identify individual coyotes over a distance of greater than one mile. Given their keen hearing, it is likely coyotes can discern individual howls at much greater distances —three miles or more on a calm night.
Barks, on the other hand, degrade quickly over distance, with the higher frequencies fading first. This makes it theoretically possible for coyotes familiar with an individual (say, a mate or family group member) to determine roughly how far away that individual is, based on the proportion of high frequencies in the barks.

Imagine a scenario where a lone coyote is patrolling the territory boundary and comes across an intruder. He starts barking and howling, and his mate and beta children come running to the right place because his howls indicate how agitated he is, and his barks allow his family to pinpoint the direction and distance to his location. Although I was not able to prove that coyotes can do these tasks, the information needed is present in their calls and there are strong evolutionary advantages to learning how to use it.

We still have much to learn about coyote vocal communication. Even after years of studying coyote calls, I was barely able to scratch the surface.

You can listen to the wide range of coyote sounds at Soundboard.

Brian Mitchell is an adjunct professor at the University of Vermont. Now that he has kids, that grad school schedule of getting up at 2 AM for field work sounds pretty relaxing. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation:

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21 Responses

  1. Running George says:

    This large predator faces what I feel is an unwarranted hunting season replete with dogs, radios and hunters patrolling roads carrying rifles. I am not anti-hunting, but this is not hunting or a sport… it is s persecution. I live where there are plenty of deer and the coyote could strengthen the deer population. The state has given in to the so called “sportsmen” that portray the coyote as a nuisance and a danger to farm animals which they almost never bother.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 16 Thumb down 13

    • M. E. says:

      “And a danger to farm animals which they almost never bother.”

      I cannot agree with you on this. I live on a farm raising alpacas, and aside from the cougar, the coyotes are hands down the biggest threat to our herd. Two years ago I woke up to find that overnight two coyotes had broken into one of our pens and killed one of our cria(baby alpacas). At first I thought they were young wolves, and when I went outside to chase them off, lo and behold, they were adult coyotes dragging the body of one very expensive baby away. Three of the dams who were due later that year lost their pregnancies. The coyotes around our farm are very… What’s the word I’m looking for? Domesticated? Desensitized? Desensitized, that’s it, to humans. They don’t care if we’re around, they’ll walk right past us and pretend we’re not there. We’ve got a cougar, two black bears, and a pack of wolves living behind our place. The wolves only kill the deer, and the cougar hangs back and attacks the horses and cows. The coyotes give us trouble every year. In my area, coyotes are as common as cockroaches.

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  2. Jan says:

    How true! I live in another state with far too many deer but pressure by deer hunters among others, has produced a coyote hunting season. The state game biologist said that research shows coyote hunting will not reduce their numbers.

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  3. Harold says:

    Great article! Perhaps someone could clear something up for me. While XC skiing this year out in the Tug Hill Plateau area we came across two dead deer carcasses that seemingly were left out on the ice by someone in a truck. The only tracks around we’re those of the wildly agitated crows that we’re flying around. I surmised that possibly these deer were left as bait for coyotes who would be coming along at nightfall. Interestingly enough several hours later as we were returning to the general area at the end of our ski we heard a number of gun shots. Was I correct that these deer were left to lure in the coyotes for the kill? If so that’s a pretty shabby way to hunt coyotes. I’ve heard the points about protecting farm and domestic animals but it seems to me there’s more thn enough deer in them woods where the skittish coyotes don’t need to be coming too close to civilization. Any thoughts?

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  4. Harley says:

    Coyotes although not classifed as an invasive species are just that. They are depleting big and small game pulations that help to feed families and need to be eradicated from N.Y.’s fields and forests by any approach that is effective.

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    • Sandra Weber Sandra Weber says:

      Just wondering how you define an “invasive species?” Are pet dogs an “invasive species?” Are barn cats an “invasive species?” Are humans an “invasive species?”

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    • dave says:

      There is no evidence that “game” populations are depleted in the Adirondacks… let alone that coyotes are the reason.

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    • Paul says:

      How do coyotes taste?

      Coyotes can and do kill deer that is true. They have studied it extensively at the ESF field station in Newcomb. If there were fewer coyotes there probably would be more deer. But I think this is still considered a “local” issue. Overall in the Adirondacks deer populations have risen even while coyotes have come into the region.

      The best eradication method for coyotes would be to reintroduce wolves. I don’t think you would find too many hunters that would support that. I don’t.

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      • Bill says:

        Here is a coyote recipe: Put the coyote meat in a large pot with a rock. Boil for four hours. Eat the rock.

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  5. Brad says:

    Like many here, my experiences in the ADKs have been enrichened by hearing (and seeing) the Coyote’s barks, yips, howls and singing… and the occasional one that sounds much, much deeper (?!)

    Don’t understand the hatred folks have against them…shooting, baiting, poisoning, trapping.

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    • Paul says:

      Having lived out west and seen the damage that they can do to some people’s livelihood I can understand the dynamic.

      I once had rats living in my house stealing my food etc.

      Coyotes are seen a vermin by some just like what I thought of those rats. Like coyotes rats are smart and they are not so bad looking but once you have them in your house it is a whole different ball game.

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  6. Charlie S says:

    I love the sounds coyotes make whenever I’m camping in the Adirondack woods,or when I’m in a rural part of the state and their yips and bays and howls can be heard from great distances over the landscape. I don’t trust them though and I sure as heck wouldn’t want to meet up with a pack,or even two or three of them,in the woods.

    Harley is right when he says they are depleting big and small game.My brother in Schoharie County says he don’t see near as many turkey anymore on his land,nor rabbits or other small game,which he attributes to coyotes. He heard a deer screaming one night late.He said it was the most horrible sound.He knew it was coyotes.Sure enough he went up into his corn field the next morning and there he found what few remains were left of a deer with coyote tracks all around in bloody snow.

    I have seen two deer that were supposedly attacked in a local cemetery close to where I live.Their rectal areas were bored out and that was it,no other part of the animal was touched.The poor deer must have gone into shock.We surmised it was coyotes that did this.I mean what else could it have been? Has anybody ever heard of this before?

    Coyotes are opportunistic animals and are known to attack humans and have killed at least one person that I am aware of.I know someone who lives in the Adirondacks who says he had a coyote follow him out of the woods one day some years back.Ever since then he carries a gun when he goes into the woods.

    Invasive species? At one time coyotes were found only in the western states so that maybe they could be called invasives here in New York.But then…at one time this whole country was populated by Indians and along came the white man who invaded their turf and have wreaked their havoc ever since. Mute swans are an invasive species too,so says the DEC whose desire it is to exterminate them because they bully other ducks and destroy vegetation.By that definition us Americans are an invasive species as we do a lot of bullying ourselves and we sure as heck do a ton of destroying too. Matter of fact we do more damage than all animals combined.

    The coyote is a beautiful animal.And smart!Twice I have seen them look both ways and wait for cars to pass on roads here in New York State.Once near Indian Lake, another time near Troy.Only once I came upon one dead in the road,which is not a common sight.

    With all of that said it would be a lonelier world for me if I were never again to hear the sounds of coyotes in the night or early morning hours while I am out in the woods somewhere absorbing the solitude which,by the way, is ever so rapidly disappearing in too many places.

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    • Paul says:

      It is actually quite fun and somewhat rare to see coyotes up close in the wild. Charlie you don’t have anything to fear in fact seeing one is treat and it won’t give you much time to look at it before it runs off – fast.

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  7. Paul says:

    “the poor deer must have gone into shock.We surmised it was coyotes that did this.I mean what else could it have been? Has anybody ever heard of this before?”

    This sounds like the work of domestic dogs. It was obviously done by some animal that was well fed. Like a cat a dog will kill a deer even if they are not hungry they can’t help it, it’s an instinct. This is why dogs should always be under some control of their handlers at all times.

    Charlie, was the carcass buried in any way maybe even with leaves? In that case you might think coyotes that were stashing it for later. What about tracks?

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  8. Charlie S says:

    Seeing one is a treat Paul,but I would not want to happen upon a pack of them.

    Domestic dogs tearing away just at the rectal area? This deer was big Paul.And I don’t recall looking for tracks,though I do remember the deer was dragged ten or fifteen feet away from a plot of burials towards the woods.This animal was found just feet away from the woods,which by the way aren’t there anymore as the trees were torn down to add on to a housing development.One less woods for Charlie to find a haven in.

    I cannot imagine coyotes burying their prey Paul.

    I took photos of this event before the deer was hauled away in a scoop with a front-loader,including the damage done to the deer.That may sound morbid,but I thought it was so odd,this kind of bodily damage to a deer,that I wanted to have proof of it.

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    • Paul says:

      Charlie, I have come upon several instances where coyotes have tried to bury their prey. Dead deer. I goggled it to make sure. It sounds like it is not uncommon. Not surprising since a common size coyote 25-50 pounds working in pairs isn’t going to eat a 200 pound deer (moose if they are lucky) they might find or kill in one sitting. It isn’t like they dig a hole they just try and cover it over with leaves and debris.

      I think that dogs chasing and killing deer (a very common occurrence) is the most likely thing based on what you describe.

      In fact here are some pictures of it (WARNING a little graphic).

      You will see that they have produced the exact type of wound (biting right at the rectum) that you describe.

      Like the guy points out a biologist told him that the deer are rarely eaten by the dogs. Coyotes will not wander far from a dead deer they are eating. In fact they will eat it all including the hide and the bones.

      Also, with the exception of a pair of coyotes with their pups packs are quite rare. I did see 4 coyotes together once and again they were terrified of me and I only caught a glimpse of them. Usually you will see them as ones or twos.

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  9. Wally Elton Wally says:

    Wildlife discussions so often are dominated by one or both of two extremes: failure to recognize that humans are predators and failure to recognize the rightful existence of any predator other than humans. I guess either of these comes from people who really don’t like nature as it is.

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  10. Mike says:

    I live in the Village of Lake Placid not i the woods. How many people on here posting love their pets? Dogs? Cats? Ect…..Most of us….well in the past 2 months we have had one these beautiful innocent my a$$ coyotes attack and grab 2 dogs that i know of?? This is while the owner was letting his dogs out for their nightly bathroom time! This is while one was on a leash…not a runner….and the other a few days later was off a leash urinating!! This coyote has been seen 30-40 times in a mo ths span within a 10 block radius! This coyote has been xhased away x10 by people yelling …..chasing him in their trucks and me in my car and truck! So for all the bleeders out there ….believe it Yes they Can and Will be a problem in the near future…so accept it…acknowledge it…..before it’s YOUR dog cat kid ect….that’s reality guys and gals!

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  11. terresa says:

    In Washington State we have coyotes that lay in our golf courses, not one bit afraid of the golfers, carts or anything. they brazenly walk across the street, I backed out of my driveway Sunday,clear,sunny 4pm with the neighbor mowing his lawn and there was a coyote standing in the middle of the street. It simply looked at me then casually trotted off. they steal our dogs, cats, any small animal. dont think your going to have chickens and fresh eggs, rabbits, anything. beware

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  12. Marisa Muratori says:

    I have heard the coyote sounds described in this article …they are intimidating. On Lake George last fall…with nobody around (if you can imagine that!) …I listened to the coyotes carrying on in this way on both sides of the lake…I was glad to be on an island and not in those woods. The idea that coyotes pose an over bearing threat to pets and livestock is too patent an argument. My sister’s dog was killed this fall by an illegally placed trap on her property. Her chickens were killed by neighboring domestic dogs. Are trappers bad? Are dogs bad? How about the fact that people abandon their domestic cats, which then become feral and multiply, killing lots of song birds and other creatures to survive. Often coyotes show to control the feral cat population. To vilify the coyote, I think, is unfair.
    Thank you for the good article.

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  13. Mariska says:

    Coyotes are NOT depleting wildlife, that is the HUMANS. Where I live there used to be plenty of woods for all the animals, however the past 10 years HUMANS keep developing therefore pushing all the wildlife into small pockets. Coyotes used to have a WAY larger hunting territory, but it has dwindled down to very little land, so of course they’re going to eat a large portion of the wildlife in that area and be accused of depleting it! It’s pretty ironic actually. And yeah coyotes love to eat chickens and other farm animals, but electrical fence will stop them. As far as cats and dogs, bring them inside at night if you live near coyotes, don’t hate the food chain, you’re just being a hypocrite. I’ve lost more than a couple cats to them, but I know it’s because they’ve lost their hunting territory to people, who are in fact the NUMBER ONE invasive species.

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