By Rich Higgins
1. A Scientific Perspective
Over the course of fifteen thousand years, Canis latrans, in all twenty plus variations, has evolved a complex and varied social structure, which requires a complex and varied communication system. Dr. Phillip Lehner, a professor and research scientist at Colorado State University, stated that
“The coyote’s ability to adapt to a changing environment is ultimately a consequence of it’s complex behavior, especially it’s manifold communication system.”
Coyote communication is indeed a manifold system and is comprised of visual, olfactory, tactile and auditory signals with the latter being of primary interest to predator callers.
Dr Franz Camenzind, during his five year study of unexploited coyote populations on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming, identified nine coyote vocalizations. Dr Lehner identified eleven vocalizations as did legendary ADC trapper Bill Austin.
Dr. Lehner classified the coyote’s vocalizations into three categories, Agonistic, Greeting and Contact.
Agonistic is defined as aggressive or defensive behavior between individuals of the same species.
Anyone who has observed aggregations of coyotes around carrion knows and understands the meaning of agonistic.
He further classified them as Long Range and Short Range communications and Universal and Individual vocalizations. Evidently coyote puppies are born with an innate understanding of certain vocalizations. Whether they are born c.latrans umpquensis in northwest Washington, c.latrans var. in New Hampshire, c.latrans frustror in east Texas, or c.latrans ochropus in coastal California, all of their puppies, regardless of subspecies or geographic locale, are apparently born with an instinctual understanding of Universal vocalizations. Individual vocalizations are those that are taught by the parents to the pups or by one coyote to another. In addition, I am convinced that Universal vocalizations have Individual modifications; that coyotes will lend their personal “accent” to certain howls.
Dr Lehner defined coyote vocalizations as
” a graded continuum, both within and between vocal types, and vary in intensity through changes in amplitude, frequency, and vocalization type.”
Dr. Lehner listed his eleven vocalizations in order along a physical continuum as follows:
7.Whine (high frequency)
1.Whine (low frequency)
Dr.s Jaeger, Mitchell, Makagon, and Barrett published a paper titled “Information Content of Coyote Barks and Howls” in which they conducted discriminant analysis of spectrograms of recorded coyote howls and barks. They concluded that because of the variations in the length, shape, and volume of the supralaryngeal vocal tract, coyote vocalizations are individually specific, meaning that coyotes can identify the howls of coyotes that are known to them. Their study and others have determined that highly specific information regarding identity, size, age, sex, and emotional state are encoded in coyote howls.
Kathleen Fulmer’s Master’s thesis is titled
“Characterizing the Functions of Coyote Vocalizations Through the Use of Playback”
Her objective was to investigate coyote responses to broadcast vocalizations. Ms. Fulmer and her associates broadcast recordings of lone howls, group howls and group yip-howls to 113 radio-collared coyotes in ten territories on the ALE in Washington State.
Fulmer reported that coyotes responded vocally more to group yip-howls than other vocalizations and responded with physical approach more to lone howls. Coyotes responded more often to playback broadcast within their territory than to playback broadcast along or outside of their boundaries.. Resident coyotes often repositioned themselves more toward their core area before responding either vocally or with an approach. Most environmental factors(presence or absence of moonlight, barometric pressure, humidity, and precipitation)
were not significantly correlated with coyote’s movements in response to playback. Movement varied significantly with wind.
2. A Caller’s Perspective
Most of the eleven vocalizations can be successfully used to either entice a physical approach from coyotes of all social groups or to evoke a vocal response from resident members. It is important to know that transients and nomads, which make up as much as 70% of the population at certain times of the year, are generally non-vocal, that announcing their location is usually not to their benefit. Subsequently, when we hear howls we can be fairly certain that they are being issued by resident coyotes and we callers can use that knowledge to our benefit.
Because coyote vocalizations vary widely in meaning and intention, it would follow that their application to calling would also vary widely. Some vocalizations are of limited utility in that they appeal only to coyotes of a specific status within a specific social group, while others have a much broader appeal to most if not all coyotes. Coyotes will respond to vocalizations for one
or more of at least six different motivations with social issues and territorial concerns being foremost.
The following is a brief description of each vocalization and the manner in which it can be used on stand.
AGONISTIC and ALARM
This is a short range, low intensity threat and/or alarm and is the sound that the parents use to send the pups into the den or cover.
I use it to stop or position coyotes that are very close to me without scaring the Bejeezus out of them as a loud bark will often do.
A short range, low to high intensity threat. I use this in the same manner as the woof and often in combination with it.
A very short range, high intensity threat that is produced by the forceful and rapid expulsion of air through both the mouth and the nose simultaneously with the resultant effect of blowing snot and spit in the face of the current object of their discontent. It is produced in a rapid series that results in a chuffing sound.
I don’t attempt to use this sound because of the context in which the coyote uses it. If any readers do attempt to use it, I recommend that their rabies vaccinations be current.
This is a short to long range, low to high intensity threat and/or warning. This is one of the most controversial of all the vocalizations among callers. One well known calling video producer states that when he hears this sound he gets in his truck and drives at least five miles before making another stand. Many callers agree that hearing a bark in response to calls means that the caller has been “busted”, detected and identified. In reality, coyotes bark for a number of reasons, including to increase their sense of security when confronted by a sound, sight or smell that intimidates them, whether it is identified or not. Lap dogs bark frantically at unidentified noises and people whistle while walking along a dark street for much the same reason. A barking coyote can often be approached from a different direction and called in or, in open country, an approach can be made by utilizing a “gorilla” walk or and “ugly cow” walk. These are performed by squatting or bending over under a net to obscure the human form and then “duck walking”, closing the distance by zigzagging into range. By approaching at a 45 degree angle, rather than directly toward the coyote, we can often approach surprisingly close in full view of the coyote.
Scott Huber, an ADC trapper for the state of South Dakota says that he does not use barks with his howls because he feels that many coyotes will perceive those barks as intimidating and will not approach. I rarely use barks on a stand to elicit an approach for the same reason and I will address the reason for this when discussing the next vocalization.. I do use barks to stop and position a coyote where I want it.
This is probably the least understood and most mis-used of all vocalizations. It is often called the “Challenge Howl” which I believe is a misnomer and contributes to the confusion associated with this vocalization. Many callers consider a “challenge” to be an invitation to do battle, similar to the elk challenge bugle. Elk issue these “challenges”, coyotes do not. As stated earlier, vocalizations are a graded continuum and escalate in intensity as the encounter intensifies. If we consider the barks to be warnings to stay away and not approach closer and we know that those barks can escalate into threat bark-howls, then we can consider the threat bark-howl to be exactly that, a threat and demand that the intruder leave now or else, rather than a challenge , then it helps to put the sound and it’s application into a proper perspective. This vocalization can be spectacularly effective if you set up a stand near a den during dening season and reports of those responses at that time are probably the reason that so many callers insist on using it. I often hear ” I knew coyotes were in the area and I blew a challenge howl, but nothing showed up” Quite simply if you set up a stand in overlapping home range or along boundaries or even within defended territory and loudly demand that every coyote within hearing “leave now or else”, they quite probably will. Transients, nomads certainly will and at certain times of the year they comprise as much as 70% of the total population. If you are primarily interested in calling in the greatest number of coyotes then this vocalization will be counter productive, if your goal is the selective removal of the alphas and you know that you are within the groups core area then this can be an especially productive call.
This is a high intensity submission or startle response.
From a calling perspective, adult yelps can be alarming to coyotes with a low security level and would probably be most effective within the same scenarios as the threat bark-howl. Puppy yelps or puppy distress, however, are one of the most effective sounds in the callers repertoire. They will effectively call in coyotes of all ages and social groups as well as fox, bobcats and probably many other predators.
7. Whine (high frequency)
This is a short range, high intensity submission.
I do not use whines as a primary call. I do use them as coaxers, enticements and curiosity draws in conjunction with other sounds.
1.Whine (low frequency)
This is a short range low intensity greet from subordinate to dominate animals.
I use this whine in the same manner as the high frequency whine.
2. Greeting Song
This vocalization perfectly demonstrates the complexity of coyote vocalizations and behavior. Dr Lehner and Bill Austin both named this the “wow-ooo-wow” because it is a mixed sound that apparently results from an oscillation between motivations. The result is a vocalization that grades back and forth between a low frequency whine, which is a low intensity submission, and a growl, which is a low intensity threat.
Duplicating these sounds with handcalls and howlers will be an extraordinary feat and beyond my meager talents, however a recording of the greeting song broadcast within a pack’s claimed territory would surely be investigated by the residents.
This is a multi-faceted, graded, fluctuating greeting. This is one of the most important vocalizations to the coyote’s social structure. As the other greetings escalate in excitement, the dominate coyote will generally initiate the howls and is gradually joined by the other group members as the intensity escalates. The howls become modulated and yips become more frequent and other sounds are included which have been described as “gargles” “screams” and “laughs”. I have witnessed a greeting ceremony that escalated to such a high level of excitement that at least two of the subordinate coyotes began yelping as if they were being injured. The social intercourse that this ceremony develops plays an integral role in strengthening social bonds and reaffirming status within the pack.
1. Lone Howl
This is the jewel in the callers repertoire because it is an entire lexicon within itself.
Biologist’s research is subject to peer review, which probably results in conservative conclusions by many researchers. I have seen papers that describe the function of the lone howl as “announces location”. We lay persons, however, are not held to strict standards and we are free to speculate as much as we wish. One electronic call manufacturer has 33 coyote vocalizations in their catalog. Eighteen are lone howls with names such as “female solicitation howl” , “male domain howl”, “adult female western territorial howl”, “dominate male rally howl” and “Lost Mate”. These names are descriptive and may or may not correctly identify the purpose and intent of the issuing coyote. The inflections, modulations, frequencies, and different durations of the howl change it’s meaning. A short, low frequency howl that ends on an ascending note has an entirely different meaning than a short, low frequency howl that ends on a constant or declining note. One may be a “Lost Puppy Howl” the other may be what Gerry calls a “Bite my Butt, You’re a Dork” howl. Until discriminant analysis of vocalizations can adequately identify the purpose and information broadcast in the howls, Gerry’s interpretation has as much merit as the call vendor’s does. Dr. Lehner proposed that “the large intra-individual variations of howls might obscure inter-individual differences between coyotes.” This is significant in that it suggests that the research biologists do not know if those large variations and differences are within the howls or between the coyotes.
Because howls are individually specific I don’t believe that we can fool any coyote into believing that we are their lost mate, lost puppy or any member of their pack. Since coyote howls contain specific encoded cues, I am at a loss as how to encode the information that I am a two year old, 23 lb. female that is lonely into my howls.
Because we can not hope to encode specific information( with certain exceptions) into our howls, because we can never hope to convince any coyote that we are their family member, because howls are so complex we can never know with certainty what information we are transmitting, it becomes obvious that the complexity of coyote communication makes it all very, very simple for most callers.
Since we can not know with certainty what information we are conveying to the coyotes with our howls, we simply try to convince all coyotes within hearing that we are an unidentified coyote sounding off. Most howls, regardless of how they are packaged and promoted, will accomplish that.
A non-aggressive howl and it’s presentation are of utmost importance when appealing to the greatest number of coyotes to investigate the source of the howls that the caller issues. The caller does not want to intimidate or even diminish the sense of security of the betas, omegas, or transients/nomads and discourage their approach. The caller does not want to blast out a hairy-chested bark threat-howl from within overlapping home range and send every coyote within hearing packing; the alphas for their defended territory and the transients for deep cover. I use a howl that is so non-threatening that it even brings in twelve week old puppies to investigate the source. Follow it up with prey distress or a curiosity trigger.Simple.
2. GROUP HOWL
The group howls are lone howls performed by two or more coyotes following reunion or in response to distant howling.
I don’t bother with the group howl on stand because the lone howl is more effective in eliciting an approach response and the group yip-howl is more effective in eliciting a vocal response.
3. GROUP YIP-HOWL
This is, I believe, the most interesting of all vocalizations. It is useful for spatial distribution, passive territorial defense, increased pack cohesiveness, establishes and affirms rank within the pack,and even influences reproductive rate. In addition to all of the social functions that it serves, the coyotes just love doing it. Major Boddiker aptly calls it the “Joy of Life Call”
Because it announces the occupancy of a territory by resident coyotes it can be considered to be a territorial claim or declaration. As such it informs all transients and adjacent pack members of the residents presence which encourages those coyotes to move along, which in turn facilitates spatial distribution. I know of three studies that have suggested that “excessive howling” reduces litter size and encourages dispersal.
This is the vocalization that researchers use to locate resident coyotes because it elicits a like response more than any other vocalization.
My son Tyler and I can reproduce these howls with our handcalls and howlers and occasionally do so to locate the current position of known packs. However to simply locate coyotes in unfamiliar territory we will broadcast at high volume a recording of a group yip-howl from a speaker held outside the truck window while driving slowly toward the coyote’s suspected location. The resident coyotes seemingly hear an approaching pack of coyotes that are claiming that territory and this technique literally rips a vocal response from the residents. Very much like a loud emergency vehicle siren rapidly approaching their position will often do.
As more hunters and more callers exert more and more pressure on coyotes their comfort zones become smaller and more remote and their security levels diminish. These coyotes become reluctant to respond either vocally or by approach. Social issues and territorial concerns still must be addressed and a skillful caller can often utilize the proper vocalizations with the proper presentation to motivate a resident and even an occasional nomad to investigate the source.
In conclusion it would probably be prudent to quote two gentlemen who are not shy about sharing their opinions either.
“Of course, this is just my opinion. I may be wrong.” Dennis Miller
“Only the Yippers know for sure and they aren’t telling.” Scott Huber
This article is the property of Rich Higgins and can not be reprinted without permission.