Wolf howls: what wolves are telling each other- and you- through howls

If you’ve ever heard a wolf howl — whether in the wild, at a zoo, or at a sanctuary — you know that it can be an eerie yet beautiful sound. Here’s what you should know about wolf howls:

  1. Why they howl,
  2. How to tell the difference between a gray wolf or coyote through howls, and
  3. What the different howls and barks from wolves mean.

Horror movies and other pop culture would lead you to believe that wolves howl at the moon. Not true. Just like with domestic dogs, howling is actually a form of communication.

Why do wolves howl?

For wolves, howling can have specific purposes, such as locating family members. When hunting, wolf pack members spread out across their territory. They howl back and forth to determine each other’s locations, using long howls that slightly rise and fall in pitch. Because of their low pitch and long duration, these howls can be heard up to several miles away.

When entire wolf packs howl together, it is called a chorus howl. Chorus howls sound like the long clear howls you may be familiar with from movies or documentaries, but also sometimes include occasional deep aggressive sounding barks and shorter higher pitched howls made by pups. If you are fortunate enough to hear this, listen carefully. You may be able to count four or five individual animals, but it becomes extremely difficult — even for our biologists who specialize in wolves — to count more than that because the howls start to overlap and harmonize with each other.

Not only do wolves howl to other members of their pack, they also howl to neighboring packs and lone wolves. This helps them alert outsiders that a territory is occupied. Nearby packs will often respond with chorus howls of their own. This long-distance communication helps reduce the need to physically defend a territory, helping them maintain the large territories wolves are known for.

Is it a wolf or a coyote?

Coyotes howl for many of the same reasons, except their howls are much higher pitched, shorter in duration, and include more sharp yipping. These higher pitched sounds only travel about a third as far as a wolf howl, which corresponds to the coyote’s significantly smaller territory.

Both wolves and coyotes howl the most from late evening to early morning because that is when they are the most active.

Click the videos below to listen to the difference in pitch and duration between Washington wolves and coyotes.

When do wolves bark?

What you may not have known about wolves is that, in addition to howling, they also bark, similar to domestic dogs. Barking is usually used as a warning by wolves. If you accidentally wander into a wolf denning or rendezvous site (an area where wolves leave pups still too young to hunt while older members go further afield) wolves may bark at you to warn you that they are nearby and that you should leave. It is a lot like when a dog barks at someone they don’t know who comes into their yard or home.

Watch the video below to hear Washington wolves barking.

While the video above was taken by one of WDFW’s wolf biologists during a wolf survey, audio of wolves and coyotes howling often comes from a new innovative technology WDFW is using to help determine how many wolves are in Washington in less expensive and labor-intensive ways.

Small recorders are used to pick up wolf howls, and analysis of the audio can reveal how many wolves are present in a certain area; whether there are adults, younger wolves, or pups present; and the size of their territory. Biologists use this data as part of their research to monitor the recovery of this endangered species.

If you would like to try to hear wolf howls for yourself, places in Washington where you may have some luck include:

Just as listening to a person talk can reveal a lot about them, studying howls can reveal information about wolves. You can find more information on Washington wolves on the WDFW website.



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.