It can be heard at almost anytime, but especially after sunset. On calm evenings from the late summer throughout autumn, the high-pitched yelping cries of eastern coyotes occasionally echo across the landscape under the cover of darkness.
While the coyote is known to make its tormented-sounding bark during any season, at this time of year they tend to be more vocal.
As the litter of maturing pups is mastering the skills of hunting and developing the stamina to travel long distances, the coyote family is able to venture further in their nocturnal search for prey. By more regularly traveling around the territory of the adult pair, the members of the family become better acquainted with the location of food sources and with the spots where potential danger may lurk.
Since much of their time is spent moving through forested areas, or across brushy terrain, after sunset coyotes often lose visual contact with one another. Some naturalists believe coyotes “sing” to remain in contact with other members of their traveling party.
When a coyote is actively hunting, it remains quiet. Whether it is attempting to pounce on a mouse or vole in a brushy forest clearing, sneaking up on a beaver that is gnawing on a tree a short distance from the water’s edge, or tracking a nearby white-tail, the coyote must maintain a stealth-like profile for hunting success.
If one coyote family member stumbles onto a good hunting opportunity, it lets the pack continue on, while it pursues its target. Afterward, the separated family member follows the scent trail left by the moving pack as they may now be well beyond shouting distance.
During mid to late autumn, the coyote family may begin to break up, as the maturing pups develop the urge to establish a territory of their own and form a bond with a member of the opposite sex. The movement of wandering juveniles at this time of the year causes older coyotes to regularly advertise their ownership to a particular parcel of land.
This is done primarily through the maintenance of scent posts; however, vocalizations are believed to serve, to some degree, in this process. A howl is likely to be given when a resident adult encounters an older scent trail of an unfamiliar coyote that has cross into its territory. A young wayward coyote that happens upon an unoccupied stretch of land may also “sing” in its attempt to establish contact with other unattached members of the opposite sex traveling nearby.
Behaviorists have a difficult time attempting to say for certain what motivates the coyote to “sing,” or just how much information this wily canine is able to communicate with its short bursts of barking yelps. While wolf behavior can give some insight, the coyote is a different beast and may be experiencing different urges.
Regardless of the reasons behind their song, this eerie, unsettling cry is a familiar part of autumn. A stop along any remote section of road in the Park after dusk during this time of year, and bellowing out a howling bark can occasionally elicit a response from one or several members of the coyote family that resides in the immediate area.
Because of the unusually large size of the eastern coyote in the Adirondacks, some understandably mistake it for a wolf. The physical appearance of older, well fed coyotes in our wilderness can easily cause confusion over its identity.
Yet, when sitting around a campfire or on a porch outside of town, it’s the short, frantic yelps of the coyote that can be heard – not the steady, low-pitched, moaning howl of the wolf. It’s coyote music, not the wolf’s more lengthy, haunting melody, that breaks the stillness of autumn evenings.
Photo courtesy Paul Curtis; coyote howling illustration by Adelaide Tyrol.