Call of the wintry wild

a howling wolf atop a hill

“Probably I’d choose music with a sense of longing. That’s always what I think when I hear wolves howling. Endless longing.”

Public wolf howls are one of the most popular events of summer. Every August in Algonquin Park, thousands of cars line up beside the highway on weeknights to listen as naturalists try and entice the resident wolves to howl back.

The curious crowds vanish in winter, but the wolves don’t. If anything, they’re even more likely to howl in winter, which makes this a perfect season to hold a do-it-yourself wolf howl.

Despite years of research – and centuries of around-the-campfire experience – scientists still aren’t completely sure why wolves howl in response to humans. Some speculate that they interpret our calls as a potential challenge, and so they howl back to tell us that this territory is already occupied.

Others put a less aggressive spin on it: classical pianist and wolf conservationist Helene Grimaud thinks it possible that wolves are simply joining in our feeble attempts at their language, the same way we might sing with others around a campfire. She points out that wolves will sometimes modulate the pitch of their howl, so that it lands on the same note as the human is singing.

Certainly howling is a form of social glue for the wolves themselves, as it is for coyotes and some breeds of dogs. It’s a way of saying “where are you?” to a distant member of the pack, to let others know that food is available, to coordinate a group hunt, or indeed to tell interlopers to stay away.

The only time of year that wolves don’t howl very much is during the denning season in April and May, when baby cubs are too small to travel. Howling then might invite unwelcome attention. In winter, though, they howl just as much as they do in summer. The advantage of howling back is that your voice will carry further in the cold, still air. There’s also less noise on a winter’s night – both animal and human – than in the summer. And you’re much less likely to get an angry call from neighbours whose dogs are barking and howling in response to you!

Howling takes absolutely no special equipment or training. Just go outside and call. It’s worth listening to some recordings of wolves howling to get the idea – they typically hold a single, long note with pitch adjustments only at the beginning and end of the howl. Here are some tips from a wildlife biologist.

This area is home to both wolves and coyotes. The big timber wolves, or grey wolves, are mainly found only in the far north of the province; around here, wolves are more likely to be the endangered Alqonquin wolf, which is believed to be a cross between grey wolves, eastern wolves, and coyotes. Pure coyotes are the most common species – they can often be distinguished by sudden outbursts of yipping and pack howls, rather than the solitary call of the pure wolf.

Regardless of who is in your area, if you really want to get some response, it’s probably best to have a single howler at first, with others designated as listeners. Take turns, rather than everyone howling at once.


Posted in Connecting with Nature.