Earth Notes: Coyote Calls

Dec 6, 2017

After sunset, the eerie choruses of coyotes are among the most iconic sounds of the American West.

Credit J.N. Stuart

In fact, coyotes occur across the entire country. In the eastern United States, where they often interbreed with wolves, coyotes have bigger chests—and as with opera singers, that makes their songs and howls more powerful. In contrast to their eastern cousins, western coyotes are smaller and have higher-pitched yips and howls.

Howling helps individual coyotes stay in contact with each other as they travel long distances on nighttime hunting forays. And those sounds carry lots of information we humans only partly understand.

Nearly all coyote calls start with a sharp, staccato yip, followed by an extended howl that rises in pitch to a steady plateau. Each ‘song dog’ has its own style of rising warbles … and variation in how long it holds the sound. Their unique ‘singing’ styles lets them identify one another.

If a coyote gets separated from the group, rather than howling it intersperses a series of barks with plaintive yips—sounding for all the world like a lost puppy.

When lone coyotes reunite, they produce their most amazing songfests. Unlike wolves that tend to harmonize in a group howl, a coyote group will bark, howl, and huff, each doing its own thing but all at the same time standing in a joyous, cacophonous chorus.