Coyotes: Dispelling Myths About Who They Are, What They Do

Some recent media claims about behavior are misleading.

Posted Dec 21, 2017

More and more people are routinely hearing coyotes yip, bark, and howl in their backyards in urban and suburban settings or where they go, often with their companion dogs, for fun and exercise. Coyote sounds have become increasingly more common in a wide range of urban landscapes, and while we know some details about why coyotes vocalize and what their different sounds mean, we really actually don’t know all that much.1

It’s no surprise to most people to learn that coyotes are amazing and adaptable animals who can live just about anywhere, ranging from remote wild environs to crowded urban areas. They eat just about anything and often are mischaracterized for being vicious predators who routinely harass humans and their companion animals.  While attacks do occur, in reality, they’re quite rare, considering all of the opportunities coyotes actually have to interact with humans and domestic animals. Coyotes, like most wild animals who wind up living in our midst, try to avoid us, but because of human development, they're often displaced from their home territory. They have no place else to go to live and to raise their own families, so that’s why they often end up among us.

Coyotes often live alone or as a mated pair, but they can live in packs that are basically extended families. That’s why they’re so adaptable and able to live just about anywhere. My long-term research of coyotes living around Blacktail Butte in the Grand Teton National Park outside of Jackson, Wyoming, showed that just when you think you know all there is to know about coyotes, you find out how little you do know.

What are coyotes talking about when they vocalize?

Recent claims about coyote behavior made by San Francisco Chronicle outdoor columnist Tom Stientsra prompted Camilla Fox, Founder & Executive Director of Project Coyote, and me, to write an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle titled "Coyotes howl to chat with their neighbors." Our op-ed, focusing on coyote vocalizations, reads as follows:

Coyotes are more than an icon of the American West. They are probably your neighbors.

More and more people are routinely hearing coyotes yip, bark and howl in their backyards or in other urban and suburban settings. In fact, Canis latrans, the scientific name for coyotes, means “barking dog.”

When you watch coyotes throw their heads back and sing to their heart’s content, they seem to enjoy it. That was Marc’s impression when he and his students studied wild coyotes in the Grand Teton National Park for more than eight years. It’s fun, it feels good, so why not howl?

But what are they saying?

Researchers have identified around a dozen or so coyote vocalizations. Some coyote sounds are used to defend their territory and dens and to tell other coyotes they’re around, but some vocalizations give away much more information.

There’s little evidence that vocalizations are used to coordinate pack hunting [or to celebrate the kill]. Some research shows the alpha, or high-ranking, males and females and pairs do most of the vocalizing.

Based on extensive and detailed research that involved recording and playing back howls and yips and observing the behavior of captive and free-ranging coyotes, wildlife researcher Philip Lehner 40 years ago placed coyote sounds into three general categories:

Greeting: Sounds include low-frequency whining, wow-oo-wowing (often called a greeting song), and group yip-howling (when reuniting and greeting).

Agonistic: These are vocalizations used during aggressive interactions and when coyotes display submission. They include woofing, growling, huffing (high-intensity threat), barking, bark-howling, yelping (submission and startle), and high-frequency whining (usually given by a subordinate coyote).

Contact: Sounds include lone howling (one of the most common vocalizations), group howling (when reuniting or in response to lone or group howls or yip howls), and group yip-howling (which may announce territory occupancy and may help regulate density of population).

Howling sounds can travel around 1,000 yards and can be used by coyotes to identify who’s calling, their gender and perhaps their mood. Transient coyotes don’t usually vocalize as much as resident animals in order to avoid interactions. Lone howls can also announce the location of an individual separated from their group.

One interesting and useful discovery is that humans aren’t very good at estimating how many coyotes are around by listening to their howls. Indeed, they overestimate the number of individuals actually present. So the melodious cacophony and symphony of sounds shouldn’t be used to claim that numerous coyotes are all over the place.

The more we understand all aspects of coyote behavior, the easier it will be to peacefully coexist with them. We should use what we know to protect them. State and local policies should embrace our understanding of coyote behavior.

We’re fortunate to share our homes with coyotes and other animals, and it’s important that we come to appreciate and understand the fascinating animals with whom we share our magnificent planet.

Myths put forth as facts

Camilla's and my essay was motivated by a number of ludicrous and false claims in two essays that were published in the San Francisco Chronicle by their outdoors writer, Tom Stienstra. In a Q&A in a December 3, 2017 column titled "Clear Lake duck may have been 5,500 miles off course," we read:

Q: When a group of coyotes sound off for about 30 seconds in the evening, have they caught prey? If not, what triggers the outburst? — Stuart Brown

A: The louder the howl, the bigger the prize, often a fawn.

There simply are no data that support Mr. Stienstra's response.

And, in a December 9, 2017 essay titled "Wildlife victory crowned by 20 herds with 13,000 elk," also in a Q&A, we read: 

Call or celebration? “Having spent many early evenings camped in wilderness regions with coyotes and enjoying their brief ti-yi-yipping, I can tell you that they are coming out of their dens for the night and calling the pack together for the hunt and/or for socializing. They do it night after night and have yet to make a kill.” — Ron Leineke (my emphasis)

Speaking coyote: There are different calls, of course, and the letter writer was referring to when a pack goes berserk in the middle of the night. On my ranch, we’d hear that, and the next day, the golden retriever would often find a small deer leg in the area, perhaps from a fawn pried away from the doe.

They also call to socialize, as Ron notes. A friend, Steve Dunckel, was on the Pacific Crest Trail with his dog alongside, when in the early night, a distant and brief call of coyote came in the wilderness. The dog howled back, and a moment later, off he went. The dog never returned to camp. Steve was heartbroken, broke off the trip and returned to his mountain cabin. Two months later, back at the cabin, 500 miles away, the dog came trotting down the driveway to his home, like nothing had happened — and they were reunited.

Once again, there simply are no data to support these responses. Yes, these observations are interesting, but they're hardly facts. When we asked Mr. Stienstra to provide us with references for these and other claims he essentially told Camilla to go out and watch coyotes and get some wilderness experience like he has done. He also suggested that she "take a course in the University of Nature, where you are around coyotes all the time and can see, hear and witness their behavior." Camilla wrote back and assured him that she had plenty of experience watching coyotes and writing about them, mentioning her co-authored book titled Coyotes In Our Midst.

I also wrote back mentioning my own experience of studying coyotes in captivity and in the field which has spanned four decades:3 "... before you go off and lecture Camilla and perhaps me indirectly about what we should do, kindly pay attention to what we have done -- you owe your readers scientifically credible claims and we await learning about the resources where you found your information — that would help us well get the 'truth' out to your and our readers." To this, Mr. Steinstra wrote back, "A small column item like that does not need a citation, and even though correct in every way, was verified by DFW [Department of Fish and Wildlife] scientists, as I provided to you. In my response to you, I was not being dismissive in any way but reached out to you in an honest connection in hopes you might connect to the same people and experiences as I have." "Correct in every way" is rather a gross overstatement, and to date, we haven't received any details concerning where the data are published. 

We need facts, not myths

Sensationalist media often harms coyotes and other nonhuman animals. The fact remains that neither Camilla nor I could find any published studies that demonstrate "The louder the howl, the bigger the prize, often a fawn," or that "when a pack goes berserk in the middle of the night" it precedes hunting. Indeed, it would be nice to know more about coyote vocalizations in general. 

We're still waiting for scientific verification of these and other claims, as it's always helpful to know the science behind assertions put forth as facts. We also need to stick to what we know, because claims like Mr. Stienstra's produce fear in people that results in coyotes and other predators being labeled as inveterate killers who are then killed because of what people incorrectly perceive to be truths about these most amazing beings.

Please stand by for discussion of coyotes and other fascinating nonhumans with whom we share out magnificent planet. 

Update: Bad news for coyotes: Coyotes Are Colonizing Cities. Step Forward the Urban Hunter

References

1) This essay was written with Camilla Fox. Caleigh Hall kindly offered excellent editorial suggestions. 

2) For more discussion of coyote social behavior and other aspects of coyote biology please see "Coyotes: Fascinating Animals Who Should Be Appreciated," "Coyotes: Victims of their own success and sensationalist media," "Coyotes: Let's Appreciate America's Song Dog," "Coyote America: The Evolution of Human-Animal Relationships," a review of Dan Flores' outstanding book Coyote America and an interview with the author, and links therein. 

3) My graduate work was done with Michael W. Fox, author of numerous essays and books, including Behaviour of Wolves, Dogs, and Related Canids and The Wild Canids: Their Systematics, Behavioral Ecology and Evolution. His seminal comparative ethological research formed the basis for much of what followed in studies of canid behavior in captivity and in the field. My fieldwork in the Grand Teton National Park followed up on six years of research done by Franz Camenzind on the ecology and behavior of coyotes living outside of Jackson, Wyoming.