Wildlife

The Howling: Why You’re Hearing Coyotes This Month

February 13, 2019

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Coyote spotted in Yosemite National Park, California. Photo © Rachel Stepien

I stepped outside last night to take some glass bottles to the recycling bin. The evening was clear, cold and seemingly silent. I hurried with my task, no wanting to linger in the chill. And then a howl rippled through the air. Coyote. The sound echoed through the neighborhood, carrying clearly from a nearby hillside.

I stopped and enjoyed the vocalizations. The long howls were interspersed with sharp yips, sounding like multiple animals. It lasted for several minutes.

I never tire of that sound, no matter how many times I hear it. And this time of year, I enjoy the coyote concert frequently.

Coyotes are one of the most vocal mammals. And they’re also now found widely, so if you live in North America, there’s a good chance that you have some roaming near you.

You can hear them at any time of year, but you may notice increased activity in February and March. And, if you’re like me, you’ll find the howling particularly resonant on a cold winter’s night. Here’s what’s going on.

Photo © Ian Shive

The Pair Bond

Quite simply, it’s breeding season. While the exact timing varies, depending on geography, coyote breeding season generally occurs between late January and March. Coyotes are generally monogamous, forming strong pair bonds for several years. Some researchers state that the coyotes will remain together until one of the pair dies.

Coyotes are also territorial. The pair howls and yips to let other coyotes know that they have an established territory and not to intrude.

Coyote researcher Brian Mitchell describes the sounds you’re likely to hear at this time of year:

“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.”

Mitchell also notes that other nearby pairs may then respond, announcing their own territories. At such times, it can sound like a cascade of howls across the landscape.

According to Mitchell, this is not the only time of year that coyotes establish their territorial boundaries. The pups are born later in spring, and will form a loose family group. A pack of coyotes howling is an iconic sound of the American West, and it likely serves dual functions. Mitchell writes:

“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.”

Photo © Dan Dzurisin / Flickr

Song Dog

Howling may be the most recognizable coyote vocalization, but these canids actually have a wide repertoire of sounds. (One of the animal’s more endearing nicknames is “song dog”). Researchers generally identify 11 vocalizations that serve a variety of functions, from alarm to warning to socialization.

There is much we don’t understand about the coyote’s calls. Their “language” is likely far more complex than we can comprehend. Researchers like Mitchell note that coyotes have accents that vary geographically and even among family groups, much like humans. And coyotes can recognize another coyote by its distinctive call.

Even though coyotes are one of the most common and adaptable predators in the world, there is much we don’t understand. And there’s also a lot of contradictory information – and complete nonsense – written about coyotes.

There are two reasons for this. Coyotes are relentlessly persecuted throughout their range. A lot of people kill or attempt to kill coyotes, and oftentimes they present their own opinions as fact.

For instance, people often grossly overestimate the number of coyotes in an area. When a couple of coyotes begin calling, their sounds can vary rapidly in pitch and sequence, which can sound like a lot more coyotes than actually are there. Coyote howls often echo against hillsides, compounding the confusion.

This actually may provide a benefit to coyotes. As they establish their territory, sounding like a big pack may deter other coyotes from entering the territory.

I have often heard local hunters describe areas “absolutely overrun with coyotes,” based solely on the howling they’ve heard. Most likely, they were fooled by just a few animals.

Photo © Dru Bloomfield / Flickr

A Flexible Lifestyle

I suspect there is another reason for a lot of the contradictory information about coyotes and their behavior. It’s because coyotes behave differently depending on habitat, interactions with humans and other factors.

Coyotes are one of the most adaptable predators. They are found in the Idaho wilderness near my home, but also can live in the midst of large cities like Chicago and Los Angeles. They live in farm country, in suburbs and in urban parks.

The reason that they can thrive in so many different habitats is that they are very flexible and adaptable. They will change their diet and their habits to fit the environment.

So a coyote’s territory and pack bonds are likely different on the public lands of the Rocky Mountains than they are in a suburban neighborhood.

One of the differences some researchers have recognized is that urban coyotes likely vocalize less. I live in an area surrounded by a large wildlife management area and a river greenbelt. I hear coyotes regularly. If you live in a city, you may not hear coyotes as much – but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. They have just found it easier to survive by being quiet.

If you do happen to find yourself in some wide-open spaces this month, step outside in the night and have a listen. You may enjoy one of the great sound shows in nature, the chorus of yips and howls. The coyote survives and thrives despite us, and its howling serves as a reminder to the wildness still in the world.

Matthew L. Miller

Matthew L. Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matthew

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84 comments

  1. I love hearing the howl and yips of the coyote where I live. And upon observation of these animals I agree with what you say here. Thank you for the informative read! The coyotes are actually a very amazing animal and deserve a bit of respect in the chain of wildlife.

  2. Thank you for this enlightening information! I love coyotes and wolves but know very little about them.
    Much of the information given is negative. I live in a suburban area of Chicago and they give “Coyote warnings” which I suppose is good if you have small pets and want to preserve them.

  3. This is wonderful–thank you so much! I love hearing them, and the occasional time that I see one of these beautiful beasties beside the road, as I did last week. And I have intimate family relationships with my dogs, so I feel especially drawn to these relatives, as I am to wolves.

  4. How to stop the cruelty in WY of running down coyotes (and other wildlife) with their off road vehicles? And the whole hog killings of coyotes in MT? Such needless sadism!

    1. I grew up in western Montana and I’ve watched very ignorant people vilify coyotes my whole life and the cruelty these ignorant animals, called people, are currently exercising openly and proudly appears to me to be another sign of the trump administrations ability to encourage and support and spread hatred and violence which allows such unbelievable behavior to be taking place in my beloved western state(s). laws are great, but zero good if not enforced, I’ve signed petitions, written legislators, but hold out little help until that monster is ousted from the highest office in the country. these horrible beings should be arrested, their firearms and snowmobiles confiscated for good and they should be rigorously psychologically evaluated because they are certainly a threat to the natural world and its inhabitants and we all deserve to be protected from THEM-THE COYOTES ARE NOT THE THREAT TRUMP SUPPORTERS ARE!

  5. I have, indeed, been hearing more coyote songs recently in central Texas, and it is interesting to know why. The ones in my area seem to sing at about the same time every night, which I had not noticed in northern New Mexico when we had a cabin in the San Pedro mountains, but perhaps I was not paying as much attention. Thank you for this informative article.

  6. Being born and raised in Arizona, the coyote howls and yips were often heard and I personally have been in close quarters with one or a few at a time (always kept my respectful distance). I did not know though, that just a few could sound like many, thanks for the info. I have lived in Central Oregon for the past 2 years on 2 1/2 acres out from town….not once yet have I heard or seen a coyote, not even when traveling in the many forests here…..very odd!

    1. Perhaps you have not seen coyotes in Central Oregon because of the annual coyote slaughtering contest that takes place there. Horrific and shocking, but sadly, true.

  7. I believe that coyotes use sound to triangulate to move in on a kill. I walk dogs in a 260 acre urban park and one set of yipping sounds gives us the location of one part of the pack or a den. But then later we will hear a second location sounding off. By the time I hear a third I leash up and leave, because they are known to send out a female to entice a dog to chase …. and they will run that dog between the groups until it is exhausted and then they kill it. I have seen panic stricken dogs being chased across a ranch only to be met on the other side with a new group of coyotes, so it turns, and runs into yet another group……. until it can run no more.

      1. Louise, I have 2X witnessed my greyhound run after a coyote only to see him run back with 3 or more coyotes on his heels. My Afghan hound was surrounded by 4 coyotes until I sent my other dogs to his rescue, this inside the fence on my 5 acre property. Dog packs will kill coyotes and coyote packs will kill dogs, I have seen both. The mystery to me is why do the dogs see the coyotes as something to go after when they wouldn’t behave that way towards other domestic dogs.

  8. We’re not just hearing them but seeing them in the afternoon in the backyard.

  9. This is certainly the case right now in east-central Florida. The Eastern Coyotes are very vocal in the cattle pastures near town every night around 9:00 pm. As there are no hills here from which the sounds can echo, it sounds like there are more than 2 animals in the chorus. Very cool to hear while relaxing in the living room with the windows open!

  10. My husband and I are lucky enough to spend part of Aug – Sept camping in Dolly Sods, WV while serving as station managers for the Allegheny Front Bird Observatory and our favorite part of the evening is listening to the coyotes songs as we fall asleep! We look forward to their seranade every year!

  11. Mathew, I appreciate your article, as I love the coyotes, and all animals that live among us. I live in northern Catskills mtns, I am a hunter, fur harvester (trapper) and nuisance wildlife relocater, and enjoy being in the forest. I have explained what I am here to give you an insight about the fact that people like me respect all of our environment as well. Once again thank you for all of your factual information, there is a lot of hearsay out there, and your research and facts are greatly appreciated.

    1. We had a high-content coy-dog for 13 years and, while they can be trained, they don’t have the same behaviors as domesticated dogs. They bond intensely with one person, they’re very skittish around others, they’re strangely quiet (it can be unnerving for folks used to dogs barking and whimpering) and they have physical abilities, like tree-climbing, that are more cat-like than dog-like. And there is no fence that can stop them if they want to see what’s on the other side.

  12. I live in rural Maine and live hearing them at night or seeing them trotting across our back field. They are a gift to us. I feel no malice toward them and am saddened that so many people hate them.

  13. Great article. I live in Dutchess County, NY and I am thrilled to hear a coyote serenade now and then near my home. I have even had a few face to face encounters with them; however; they usually run off faster than it takes to blink! The youngsters tend to need a “shoo!” though as they are more curious – especially of ouside cats! (Which cats are now “inside” cats.)

  14. You should check out my propery. They kill the wildlife. Howling every evening.

  15. I hate them, they just got my small dog in my fence yard around noon time in Los Angeles!!!

    1. This is why I have mixed emotions! I now have a small dog and let her out very early to do her job; always, always worried about a coyotee getting her. (She runs right back into the house after her job is done) I have a friend who brags about his guns and hunting dogs for hunting coyotee ( and deer). Makes him feel like a man since there is no other way for him.

  16. Great article. It is a very sad and distressing thing when a pet is lost to a coyote. Coyotes don’t differentiate prey and consider our domestic pets as a food source if they can obtain them. Coyotes aren’t good or bad, they’re just trying to make the best living they can in the territory they’ve got. It’s up to us to take steps to make resources unavailable so coyotes won’t be attracted. Coyotes are often able to jump fences and the best way to protect pets in fenced yards is to coyote-proof the fence by making it at least 6 feet high with coyote rollers on top. Check out the roller bars here: https://coyoteroller.com/

    1. The rollers, what a great design!
      With 7.6 billion of us and growing by the minute, we need inovative ways to allow wildlife to survive with us, for at least a few more decades.

  17. We reside in an area close to lake placid, n.y. and frequently. Enjoy the coyotes midnight songs. Their sounds are so special. As is the call of the loon heard during summer and spring months….a. Gift!
    W e always have a. German shepherd. In our family and for years. all of them have enjoyed joining in the howling. We. have acres fenced and the coyotes honor our territory Never. Entering the property even if the gate has been mistakenly left open.
    Animals can co,exist with. Guidelines! Yes.. mare

  18. Great article. We have some bonding pairs in the nature reserve near our home in Calgary. They will often come out an have a look at my dog and I, but as long as we keep calm, so do they. Beautiful and misunderstood animals. I love ’em.

  19. Thank you so much for sharing your words and insights. I miss the coyote song if I don’t hear it for awhile; we live in W Mass near Mt Tom where they have plenty of space to roam around. We delight in seeing their tracks in the snow, even though we never see them. Lovely creatures, they are.

  20. Men in my area brag about killing the coyotees – often with their hunting dogs helping them.
    Farmers (me too) have lost their barn cats – probably to coyotees.

    So, I have mixed emotions about this wild animal.

  21. Kane County Utah wants to allow night hunting of coyotes, skunks and a few other mammals. There will be a meeting Tuesday morning, I believe. Is there anything you can do to help us speak out against this?

  22. Matthew, I have been hearing much coyote song every night after going to bed. Thank you for this informative article about my interesting coyote neighbors.

  23. Coyotes won’t “overrun” an area. If they find food difficult to find, they move on.

  24. I love coyotes. Live in Colorado which has a lot of public land over run by sheep on public land who destroy everything.

    Hopefully coyotes will eat more sheep.

    Good article-

  25. In my suburban neighborhood animal control authorities try to control coyote population by shooting them. That management style seems dangerous in a semi urban area and doesn’t really seem to effect the population. I see coyotes every day, so I am guessing that more just move into the territory. Would it possibly be more effective to trap and neuter the existing coyotes for re release so they could control the population in their territory and not add more to the density?

  26. Coyotes are newcomers to my property. Since they arrived I have noticed the disappearance of smaller animals, like skunks, raccoons even squirrels and I miss them. What are my options?

    Ingrid Greenfield

  27. Thanks. I enjoyed the coyote blog. I’ve grown up hearing coyotes and still thrill to hearing that wild voice after 79 years of yips and howls

  28. I live in Southern California and it seems people either love the coyotes or hate them! Some neighbors were going to call in predator hunters to kill the group we have heard “singing”. So many people think they attack children and that is simply not true. I wish people could learn to respect wildlife and not want to kill everything!!

  29. Loved reading this. I hear coyotes very often in my back fields and yes, it sounds like there are many of them.

    Thanks,
    Lou

  30. I live in the country and hear coyotes daily. In fact, when they are vocal, my dogs run out the doggie door and tend to wander off for a bit. We have witnessed them chasing the coyotes and then the coyotes turn and chase them. I fear that one day my dogs may not come back due to being lured in and attacked, but I am not one of those people that just want to kill coyotes for sport. I am an avid animal lover. People say how nasty coyotes are with rabies and mange etc. We rarely see them but do occasionally and it does seem that their numbers are rapidly increasing but I believe it is the echoing of their calls etc like explained. They recently held one of their “coyote hunting derbies” in the area and it breaks my heart to know that they are called in to their senseless death for sport.

  31. Coyote’s are not an endangered species!!! They should be culled. They are not native to coastal California [possibly to all of the state] and should be exterminated here; just as non-native vegetation should be eliminated. Like the Ravens and crows they are a forbording of what trends are detrimental to the abundant life, which flourishes here more than anywhere else I have ever seen. I know these things are true for I know what was here when I was 1-40 years old. If you weren’t here then you would be ignorant of the facts; since not much research happened in the early and mid 1900s. Humans don’t live long enough to bare witness to such things; but I have witnessed these facts personally and I say to you, that I have seen the all to rapid change in my life time. The major cause is Human Beings, who think it is cute to introduce non-native species to all areas outside their native habitat. Like, there are no turkeys hear on the coast; so I’ll bring them out west to coastal California. How cool is that [Bull Crap]?

    1. Coyotes are not endangered (and there is no place in the article where this is stated). Coyotes ARE native to California. Just because something is not present for 40 years does not mean it was never native to a place.

  32. Coyotes and wolves are hightly endangered and need endangered species act protection somehow, some way.

  33. Interesting and true evaluation. We lived in southern .ca where we often heard and saw coyote. Beautiful animals, social with their kind and so vocal. America needs to know them. They are not a threat.

  34. Thank you for answering the question I have always had – do different groups have different accents. The ones at Carlsbad Cavers National Park around the visitors center sound decidedly different from the ones around Ft. Stanton Cave near Capitan, NM. Not being around them that much, and not being with a group of scientists who study coyotes (they are cavers, cartographers, microbiologists, geologists, etc), no one was willing to hazard a guess, nor particularly interested.

    Fritzi Hardy
    Albuquerque, NM

  35. Since we moved in next to 40-acre “Horse Hill” in Mill Valley, CA we’ve enjoyed the company of a series of coyote bands that hang out in the baylaurel groves, stream courses, and live oak clusters. Our two hunters, Journey and Brady have been trained to tolerate their canid brothers and sisters. Last month a new character appeared at dusk. “Mr. Cool” is middle aged, about 35 pounds and has a beautiful rust , gray, and tan coat. His nonchalance in our presence led to the name Mr. Cool. He joins his predecessors “Stella,” and “Yoda–whose ears stuck out like the Star Wars character. We keep our distance and adhere to the maxim “A fed coyote is a dead coyote.” Camilla Fox of Project Coyote stops by from time to time with updates on her crusade against killing contests.

  36. Thank you for the lite insight. Coyotes are an integral part of wildlife controlling mice rabbits and small to medium mammals. We live in Oklahoma and have lived with these song dogs knowing that they are just as much a part of the nature we love as the deer turkey eagles bear and fox. We know that we have to take precautions with our animals because Coyotes are very good at watching everything going on in there environment they watch and learn and will take advantage of any opportunity for an easy meal. So enjoy there songs but don’t hate them for doing what is natural. Simple precautions make them great neighbors.

  37. I heard our coyotes last night. The range of sounds that they emit are incredible. I love hearing them!

  38. A well written and informative article with attached beautiful photography. Appreciated information.

  39. I live in Santa Cruz, CA – technically – the Live Oak area, along a riparian corridor. Yes, there a coyotes there. I hear the howling, and yips – so your comments helped me to understand how many this may mean – 1, several, babies, etc.

    I have seen the large coyote 2 times – once walking my dog at night, about 10 pm – on the other side of the street – running back to the green belt area. And, a second time, at the bottom of the green belt where there is a stream. Others, have seen several on the path in the back of our HOA, along the path. I also see their scat many days and then know they were there recently.

    Thanks for all your tips.

    Note: I never let my dog out in the back at night, when they might be wondering around. My dog doesn’t understand wild animals.

  40. I was so pleased and relieved to read your blog about coyotes. I live in a suburb about 20 miles south of Seattle and have a greenbelt behind our house. I had heard, as many have, that coyotes sometimes kill especially smaller pets. Before reading your article I used to really dread hearing the coyotes howling and yipping at night because I thought it meant they were killing some poor defenseless animal and possibly someones dearly loved pet. It sometimes tormented me and I’d cover my ears because I hated hearing them. I know, of course, that it is natural for them to kill animals to eat and survive. I just dont want to “hear” them doing it. I am so very relieved that is not what they are doing and now I can actually enjoy their “singing” and know that they are just communicating with each other and establishing their territory. Thank you so much for writing this.

  41. What a wonderful article — I live in the county and we see and hear coyotes regularly — they have, unfortunately, snatched a couple of chickens, cats and a turkey — but I don’t begrudge them their dinner. We live between the suburbs and a national park. They are here! Without coyotes, we’d be overrun with field rats and mice, which is something a lot of people don’t understand. Whenever I hear the complaining about coyotes and that they should be hunted down, my response is they’d be a lot more unhappy with the rodent population explosion that would follow the demise of the coyote. I have to admire an animal that has been able to adapt so well to a rapidly changing environment. (Kind of sounds like another creature with which we are all personally well- acquainted. )

  42. very informative article.. i live in n.e. Washington and surrounded by hills.. i do know their howling ‘bounces’ off the hills in the s.w. of me when they are howling to the north of me in ‘them thar hills’….. 🙂

  43. I have heard, constantly; that they will “entice” a domestic dog to follow them back to the pack; and then tear the dog to pieces. Is this true?

  44. Thank you for the article. I enjoyed learning more about the coyotes. While visiting Los Angeles, I saw a pair walking in the street in Silverlake. They have a distinct gait. I was at first cautious and made sure to keep an eye on them. They seemed not to be bothered with me nearby, and now I understand how adaptable they are to urban neighborhoods. I assume they must have been a male and female.

  45. I enjoyed this info. I think they are beautiful and enjoyed learning more about them. Thank you.

  46. Very interesting, I live in a small town in Illinois and I see coyotes in the morning sometimes in our neighborhood. They seem attracted to the barking of the dogs in some yards. There very beautiful animals, I just worry that there looking for someones pet as their next meal.

  47. Very interesting and informative. I too love hearing the coyotes around our home. We have a Yorkshire terrier that throws his head back and joins in, answering the call of the wild.

  48. Should we have an inability to accept the coyote, that would indicate that Nature doesn’t accept us. I hope the sound dogs’ howling is another one of Nature’s ways of telling us that.

  49. Super article Mathew, my wife Geri and I had one cross our path last year in our small
    suburban area near Pittsburgh. Reminded us of our 8 year summer job in YNP , late’90’s
    to 2007, Worked for Hamilton Stores & DNC at Lake junction, YNP. Have many
    coyote pics including the kits in caves, and a coyote trying to chase a Grizzly away
    from her kit near the ocean. Thanks again for the article.
    Richard

  50. Thank you for that information! I have been hearing Coyotes from Western Mass, to Southwestern Maine for years now. I always thought it was a large group of them……… I am an animal lover & outdoor person, so these articles are very interesting and informative. Thanks for clearing up mine, and other people’s misconceptions!

  51. Coyote’s and Wolves both have something in common!
    As Wolf Depredation on Domestic Livestock escalates, in the U.S. and throughout the World with the Wolves successful re-introduction populations spread, the contentious anger between Livestock Producers and Conservationists does also grow. My published research Blog at http://WWW.FENCEFLAGWOLFTRAINING.COM is a tangible suggestion, with minimal cost, to mitigate the anger on both sides of the fence!

  52. They are magnificent creatures. I have encountered them close up, including one time when my golden retriever emerged from the forest with one walking behind her. We were fortunate that her being lured in did not amount to any harm, but I was quite amazed at the gentle expression of this coyote as she came out to stand four feet from me. We have encountered coyotes since then and have always found them to be curious, cautious and timid. I know that this is not always the case especially in urban settings. I have read newspaper reports of small dogs being snatched, but I have never felt threatened, nor have my larger dogs.

    Thank you for this informative article giving us more insights.

  53. That is good information to know. We keep our bedroom windows open at night and listen intently for the coyote howls and yips before drifting to sleep thinking the house is surrounded by a pack of them, hunting domestic pets in our dune neighborhood. I say a little prayer that all the cats and dogs are indpors and safe. But, now, knowing that that there are only two star-crossed lovers claiming their space, I will pray that they are not killed by other human idiots who think we are being attacked!

  54. In our area I am disgusted to say, there are huge hunts killing the coyotes between January and March. Why can’t this barbaric practice be outlawed!? I’ve seen it…I believe it is ignorance and wanting the kill that drives people(mostly men) to do these killings.

  55. Love, love , love coyotes. Have lived in Iowa, Canada , and now in Oklahoma, and coyotes have always been a part of my life.

  56. My wife & I hear them from time to time at night here on Cape Cod.
    I have also seen them during the day in my yard or sometimes just walking down the street.
    I do not agree with the annual Coyote hunts sponsored by a local Gun Shop. (The “Powder Horn”)
    They are an important part of nature and should be left alone.

  57. This was very interesting thank you for taking the time to write this article.

  58. Coyotes are God’s dog: smart, resourceful, the ultimate survivor.
    They were here before us and they will still be on this planet long after the human species self-destructs.

  59. Just wondering why coyotes always vocalize when hearing sirens? Are they mistaking the sirens as another pack? Thanks

  60. First time I heard the pack that’s probably about 1/2 mile or so from our farm in upstate NY, I honestly thought it was a blow-out teenage party. All that whooping and hollering …… sounded like a lot of fun.

  61. Good article, since I live in a reasonably isolated area why do my dogs seem to give coyotes singing right outside a pass but bark like crazy if the neighbor’s dog that lives 400 yards way makes a wiffle?