On the prairie, it is the coyote’s howl that thrills me most. I recently went more than two months since I heard coyotes in the night and I missed them terribly. Coyote howls are an integral part of the soundscape of the prairies.
Coyotes, I’ve learned, are nocturnal like owls and cats, though they might do a little hunting at dusk if they’re hungry or at morning’s edge if they’ve had an unsuccessful night. New parents, with a single pup or as many as 19, must hunt all day and all night.
Coyote howls carry far across the night air, sometimes for miles, although they sound much closer. They aren’t piercing, but duller, though not at all low. There’s a little ah first, and then the voice raises itself to a true howl that will be repeated several times. Up and down, start again, up and down. It is a primitive call but made in a way that gives solace. It reminds one of timelessness and how old the earth is. It is predictable; when you hear the first bit, you know what you will hear next. It simultaneously hints at urgency and at good news. There is good reason for this. At times, a coyote is howling to let its family know it has caught prey and there will soon be something to eat. The howl is thus the signal that life will continue. This comes at the expense of the prairie dog, the mouse, or even mule deer. Coyotes kill porcupine, too, the only animal to do so.
The howl can also signify danger. When I first heard coyotes, it was on a frigid New Years Eve, so cold we had to jump back in the car when the howls died down. It sounded like a pack of coyotes, but so rich is the sound that people often over-estimate the number of animals involved. It seemed like a miracle that freezing December night, my first New Years Eve living on the prairies. It felt like a kind of welcome, as if we had arrived, four months after making this place our home.
Coyotes are old animals, and they know how to live with us, we who are stealing their land at an alarming rate. They cannot be scared away, they are so determined to eat, even if it’s only garbage or carrion that’s on offer. Perhaps no other animal is as adaptable as a coyote. They will survive, especially since we’ve also taken much of the territory of their predators, wolves, and bears. The soundscape would be hollow without them.
This blog is written by Maura Hanrahan, the author of Unchained Man: The Arctic Life and Times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett. I’m also a retired Sub-lieutenant (NCS) and a member of the Department of Geography & Environment at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. You are invited to subscribe to the blog by going to the Contact page, clicking the bars in the top right corner, and then clicking the small blue bar that says “following.” Then you’ll get an entry every couple of weeks or so delivered right to your inbox. (All images in this post are from the Explorers Club.)