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Nature curiosity: Why do coyotes howl?

(Photo via Shutterstock)

The sound of a coyote howling in the night is enough to stop people in their tracks, but have you ever stopped to think about what they are saying?

For coyotes, howling is one of the most basic forms of communication, but it can have several purposes. According to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, a coyote’s howl is a high-pitched cry meant to signal other coyotes and animals in the area. A coyote may let loose with a howl to call to its pack after hunting alone, for example, or it may howl to signal to coyotes from other packs that it is nearby, providing a warning not to invade its territory, Penn State University reports.

Coyotes also often howl together when pack members reunite after hunting, the University of Michigan states. These howls can be impressive as their combined calls carry into the night.

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Coyotes can differentiate among the coyotes in their group by their howls, so they also know when a howl is coming from a coyote that is not a part of their pack, according to the Urban Coyote Initiative.

Coyotes don’t communicate exclusively by howling, however. They also bark, yip, growl, whine and huff, and each vocalization has a different intended purpose. Growling, for example, is used as a threat, perhaps to an animal it sees nearby, while barking is meant to warn an animal farther away or to communicate a threat to coyotes in its pack, the Urban Coyote Initiative reports. 

The sound a coyote is making is only one part of how it communicates both within its pack and with other coyotes and animals. Coyotes use body language, including gestures and facial expressions, to convey many different messages, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

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The idea that coyotes and other canines, including wolves and dogs, howl at the moon is probably more coincidence than anything. We hear howling at night because they are nocturnal and actively hunting at night, Live Science reports

Howling, barking and other vocalizations as well as body language aren’t the only ways coyotes communicate. They also urinate on trees, bushes, rocks, posts and other structures and leave behind their scat as a way to mark territory and alert other coyotes to their presence, IDNR reports.

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