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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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

29 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.

    • 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.

  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.

  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?

  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.

    • 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?”

    • dave says:

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

    • 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.

      • 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.

  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.

    • 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.

  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.

    • 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.

  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?

  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.

    • 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.

  9. 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.

  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!

  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

  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.

  13. Jimmy says:

    I stumbled upon your website after trying to discern what the howling and barking of the coyotes I heard last night were all about.. And I’ve come to the conclusion that your scenario in your second to last paragraph are precisely what I was hearing. My townhome backs to a greenbelt with known coyotes living in it, and the other day, my dog had urinated on his frisbee, so I threw his frisbee over the (short) fence, into the greenbelt. The first howl I heard must’ve been the coyote patrolling his territory, signaling the rest of his pack to investigate what he found! They had to have been just at the fence, but it was dark and 4:30 in the morning. Anyways, that’s my corroborating story to go with your theory.

  14. Kathleen says:

    Hello! I’m hoping you can help me figure out a coyote encounter I had last night. I live in Georgia, and built a home in a very isolated area 7 years ago. My family has peacefully coexisted with the large coyote population that surrounds us, and have been cautious, but never afraid. We hear them and see their scat all around us, but have never worried about them. But, last night, I had an absolutely terrifying experience with a group of them while walking my dog at dusk. I know, stupid move. But, I got home later than usual and thought I could beat the darkness.

    Anyway, while my dog and I were walking, I kept hearing something in the woods, but assumed it was armadillos and continued walking. About a 1/2 mile down the road from my house, the sounds got louder and closer, and I realized that whatever it was coming toward us. My black Lab raised the hair on her back and charged into the woods. She chased the animal away and came back to my side. Again, I assumed it was an armadillo, and continued walking. We’d walked just 15 to 20 yards further when I heard what sounded like a sheep bleat twice from the woods just next to the road. It was very close to me. At the same moment, my dogs hair stood up again, so I turned and headed home. As we did, I heard the rustling of several animals coming right at us from the woods. I yelled at them to stay back and tried to look big as I backed away, but they continued to move closer. My dog charged into the woods again and this time I heard multiple animals rustling in the leaves as she barked and chased them back. I started running and calling for her to come. I know you’re not supposed to run, but we were more than a half mile from our house, and miles from any others houses, we were outnumbered, and I was terrified. When my dog came back to me, I went back to walking and yelling at what I now realized were coyotes. I could hear them stalking us from the woods, but kept walking and yelling.
    When I got close to my driveway, I looked behind me to see that 3 coyotes were on the road and following us. One was very large and was walking confidently in our direction. The others were kind of skulking around in the background. When I looked at them, the big one barked at me. It sounded like a dog bark, not a yip or a howl. Immediately, the woods all around me erupted in howling and yipping. I know it was probably just a few coyotes, but it sounded like hundreds of them were around us. Both my dog and I took off running the 1/4 mile up the driveway toward the house.
    My dog left my side several times to charge the coyotes and I assume they backed off for a few seconds each time, but I wasn’t looking anywhere but straight ahead. The yapping was getting closer as we ran, coming from behind us and from a field right next to our house. It seemed like they were surrounding us and were vocalizing as they did. I’ve never heard of coyotes doing this, and haven’t been able to find any stories like this online, which is why I’m contacting you. Once my dog and I got inside, the coyotes continued howling and yipping outside of the house for a few minutes and then stopped.
    I’m hoping you can help me understand what was happening. I assume the bleating sheep sound was a deer and that we may have interrupted a kill, but we retreated, and they kept coming at us. Also, they had been stalking us for a while before we got anywhere near the area where I heard the bleating. My dog had been walking right by my side until the moment that they started approaching us from the woods and she charged in to scare them back. So, I don’t think it was a case of her “starting it”.
    I’m curious about the way they stayed completely silent until that one big, bold coyote came up behind us and barked. It seemed like that just set everything in motion and suddenly it was “on”. Was that an aggressive move toward my dog to entice her to fight, or a signal to the pack to move in? It obviously caused a group of them to get aggressive in scaring us away, or launching an attack, or whatever they were doing.
    It was easily the most terrifying experience of my life and I’m trying to sort it out. I have walked my dogs down that road every day for seven years. We’ve had occasions where the coyotes have sounded off to warn us that we were crossing into their territory and we’ve just retreated without any problems. But, I’ve never experienced anything like what happened last night. They didn’t warn us of the territory breach (it’s the same stretch of road we walk every day, but they do leave scat on it every night, so I guess they think it’s theirs). They stalked us, then chased us, and the vocalizing didn’t start until after they had chased us out of “their” area. Do coyotes vocalize when they’re closing in on a kill, or was that just to scare us? If we hadn’t gotten to the house when we did, what would the next move have been? Is it safe to continue walking my dog down that road (in daylight, of course), or has something changed now?
    Any answers you can provide will be very much appreciated.

    • Paula says:

      Kathleen, we live in WI and have a coyote population living in a large woods behind a farmers field which is behind our house. My understanding about coyote vocalizations (I’m no expert by any means) is that sometimes one coyote will make an “injured animal” sound. Not loud, just enough to draw a curious animal (I.e dog) towards it while the pack surrounds for the kill. I have heard this injured sound once when I was walking my dog. Perhaps this was the bleat you heard? Maybe as a way to stop you from walking away? If anyone has more experience about what I’m describing, please add to this. Sounds like a terrifying experience. Glad you’re ok.

      • Kathleen says:

        Thanks for the reply! That makes sense. They’ve proven themselves to be very cunning in their attempts to lure in our dogs. We’ve had several more encounters since the one above. The most dramatic was early this summer when we had a single coyote come right up to the house and entice my dogs (70 lb Lab and 80+ lb shepherd x) to chase it. The dogs turned back toward home when I yelled for them, but the coyote turned back too. So, both dogs and the coyote were running back up the driveway towards me. The coyote ran up next to my shepherd mix and did something that caused him to turn back on it and resume chasing it off of our property. He was led to a field across the way where 3 more coyotes suddenly appeared and surrounded him. My yelling broke the action for a second and he was able to tuck tail and run home. This was in broad daylight, late in the afternoon.
        I guess they have it out for my dogs. Maybe they’re battling for our property as territory. I don’t know, but we’ve been keeping the dogs inside unless we’re out with them. They hate being cooped up so much, but it’s better than the alternative!

  15. Mary Davis says:

    Great job, living in San Diego, these sounds are sometimes a nightly occurrence. especially in the spring. I would say the moonlight one is the most common.

  16. WLS says:

    Very good information, we havent been bothered for 4-5 years but they came back this morning!

  17. Kevin Wilson says:

    Have any of you ever heard a coyote make a deep low guttural grunt/huff sound? I once heard this sound right outside my window on a summer night, the closest thing I could compare it to was the sound lions make at night to communicate in Africa, I lived in California, east of the bay area. No lions that I know of here. On the third huff/grunt it broke into a shrill coyote howl .. ear splitting at that range. I’ve never heard of a coyote making this sound and I grew up with them always being around. The grunt/huff sound was SO loud I still have trouble picturing it coming from something as small as a coyote.

  18. […] For more info about Coyote callings check out this interesting article from Adirondack Almanac : Coyotes: Decoding Their Yips, Barks, and Howls. […]

  19. Robert says:

    I always thought rightfully or wrongly, that the excessive yips was the coyotes surrounding their prey and as it quickly stopped, they were going in for the kill. Of course thinking now after just coming in from a walk and hearing nothing after the yip, yip stopped, that I must be wrong.

    Would coyotes attack someone like myself (with dog) walking on their territory? During the day or night?

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