Lugubrious Howl After Picking Up An Unwelcome Scent


Kicking dirt after his howl (with a youngster beside him)

This lugubrious howl capped extensive and intense sniffing by the resident alpha male of his territorial area. He had been picking-up the scent and following it fervently for several days, and I wondered what was going on. Right before the howl, his nose again was to the ground as he zig-zagged intently over the area. Immediately following the howl, he “kicked” the ground: he was clearly angry, but whomever he was angry at was not present.

Nose to the ground, following the scent

The intense sniffing occurred regularly for several days.

My initial thought was that a wayward dog might be causing alarm, but seldom have I seen dogs here. HOWEVER, the day after the recording, I spotted an intruder female yearling sniffing through the area evasively. She was a coyote I knew. Recognizable facial features apart, she was encumbered with a hefty radio-collar. These are used only in only one park in San Francisco — most of our city coyotes are free of them. So I’ll take this opportunity to say a little about her.

She had been “babysitter” for her own younger siblings born this year in her park several miles away. Pups in the city are more than five-months old now and require less looking-after, so relieved of this responsibility, she is freer to explore away from her home. Might she be making tentative steps at dispersal and looking for an unfilled niche within the city? She’s a year-and-a-half old and ready to move out on her own. Her brother, apparently, dispersed out of the city, dozens of miles south. On the contrary, this gal has been making forays within the city since March, but she always returns home (per Jonathan Young).

The yearling interloper

Might the howl have been either a warning to the intruder, or at least a vocalization of discontentment — the same as when coyotes howl after having been chased by a dog? Most intruders are chased off by resident coyotes — this is what I normally see — but if it happened here, I was not there to see it.

Papa’s five-month old pups.

Whatever was going on seems to have been resolved for the time being. I say this because the very next day this papa left the area for the day, leaving three youngsters and mom there alone. He would not have done so had there been danger lurking nearby. Leaving them for day-long intervals has been a routine behavior of his over the last couple of months, so things seemed back to normal and calm again. The youngsters seemed to know how to take care of themselves by doing what youngsters do best: playing chase and wrestling with each other, and keeping (fairly) hidden.

If the sniffing and howling were indeed because of the intruder, I wonder how serious of an infraction the intrusion was? My only clues that there was a problem were the alpha male’s repeated intense sniffing and his mournful howl, and then the intruder’s appearance. She has not re-appeared and neither has the intense sniffing behavior. Whatever was going on, no longer is.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Richard W Thompson
    Sep 16, 2018 @ 16:33:29

    Hey Janet,

    I’ve contacted you once before in regards to a pack I’m following that seems to have a very unique sound. Here is some audio I’ve managed to capture of the guys (still no visuals). I’m wondering if you can help me figure out what is going on here. Are these sounds all normal from coyotes? The human-like screaming is what really fascinates me.

    Thanks for any further help,


  2. yipps:janetkessler
    Sep 16, 2018 @ 20:03:43

    Hi Richard —

    Nice to hear from you again!

    Your recording is absolutely wonderful!

    I think what you are finding so fascinating is that these are very very eerie sounds which sound a little like “a human screaming in agony”, or “cackling witches in the forest brewing their potions”, as it has been described to me. Hyenas are even more spooky to hear! I tend to think you want to add more significance than there is?

    What could be going on, possibly, is neighboring coyotes with territorial issues/disputes. This might explain some of the more “grainy” sounds they are emitting. I have found the “grainier” or more “barking” type sounds to be warnings and anger, whereas the higher pitched, smoother sounds are more “agreeable” in their meaning. I might be wrong, but this is what I’ve seen so far. Please let me know if this explanation fits the bill. :)) Janet


  3. Richard Thompson
    Sep 19, 2018 @ 13:58:39

    Thanks, Janet. Your response does indeed help and I appreciate it. The main sounds I was interested in were the “ah-ah-ah-ah” sounds towards the end of the audio clip (almost stuttering like a car motor trying to roll over). Very neat sounding. And I do agree that these sounded a bit like warning vocalizations with a slightly aggressive tone. My only other questions are if you can tell whether or not the coyotes in this audio clip are older and how many it sounds like there could be. My guess on the latter is 3-4.

    Anyways, thanks again, and sorry for all the questions. Not many people are up for discussing these guys.


    • yipps:janetkessler
      Sep 20, 2018 @ 00:42:23

      Hi Richard —

      I’m always up for discussing these guys! This is almost certainly a coyote family, so two older parent coyotes and then perhaps yearlings and pups. I wouldn’t know how old the two older ones are, but they are old enough to have a family which doesn’t happen in their first year.

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