Lonesome or aggressive, mournful or spirited, few sounds in nature thrill and mystify like the nocturnal dirge of this top predator. A listener’s guide to the meaning of wolf howls
By Ray Ford
“It’s a little early for this. My voice isn’t warmed up,” Rick Stronks says apologetically. Then Algonquin Provincial Park’s chief naturalist draws a deep breath, rounds his lips into an oval and tilts his head back.
A long, mournful wail soars over the bog behind the park’s visitor centre, rising over the Jack pines and squawking jays, and dissipating on the wind. When the song fades, Stronks pauses, waiting for the park wolves to respond. But there is only silence. On this sunny, late-March morning, most wolves are pairing up.
Things are different in August, when boisterous pups are free of the den and Stronks leads the park’s popular Thursday evening public wolf howls. Then, his call bridges the vast divide between species. More often than not, the wolves reply.
“Sometimes they’ll all howl together in a beautiful, long, sustained howl. Sometimes it’s a single, nonchalant howl,” he says. “I never get tired of it. It’s incredible to hear.” The sound is wild and mysterious. But discerning listeners can sense the feeling – sometimes even the message – behind the song. Despite the many threats to wolves and coyotes, including development, hunting and trapping, their song goes on and grows even stronger. Coyotes yip and warble across the fields and suburbs of southern Ontario. A 2005 Ministry of Natural Resources paper estimates that 8,850 eastern and grey wolves inhabit the northern and central forests, and that even in a province where people outnumber wolves by more than a thousand to one, the generally healthy prey populations make it “likely that wolf numbers in most areas of the province have been either stable or increasing since 1993.”
Because one of the province’s top predators is so elusive by nature, its howl is our most likely point of contact with the wolf. Subtle and near-constant communicators, wolves send signals using posture, gestures, sounds and scents. But when a long-distance call is needed, they throw their heads back and release a drawn-out song that rises and falls, sometimes with the monotony of an air-raid siren, occasionally with the twisting, trailing descents of a John Coltrane sax solo. Their broadcasts reach as far as 10 kilometres in forested areas and up to 16 kilometres on the tundra.
These days, Stronks says, Algonquin is “more or less saturated” with wolf packs, making it a prime location for a course in wolf-howl appreciation. “There are probably about 35 packs in the park,” he adds. “So from your campsite at night, or on a canoe trip, there’s the possibility of hearing wolves.”
More than 140,000 visitors have come to listen since the park’s public wolf howl program began in 1963. Drawing more than 2,000 listeners a night, the howl is “probably the largest naturalist-led interpretation program in North America, if not the world,” Stronks says. “If we don’t have a wolf howl, we still have the wolf talk, and we play tape recordings of wolf howls.” Still, there’s no substitute for the real thing. On evenings when the howl goes ahead, thousands wait patiently in the hopes of hearing the wolves. If only a talk takes place, maybe 400 people show up.
The roots of the public wolf howl reach back to the late 1950s, when biologist Douglas Pimlott was trying to locate wolves concealed in the park’s dense bush. Pimlott played recorded howls on truck-mounted speakers and listened for the response. The broadcasts received an almost instant – and unnerving – reply. The air filled with howls.
At the time, “none of us knew what we were doing in trying to trigger the howl ourselves,” long-time Algonquin wolf researcher John Theberge, who worked as a summer student with Pimlott, recalled in Peter Steinhart’s The Company of Wolves. “We wondered if we were triggering aggression.” The research crew soon found that wolves would respond to a human imitation of a call, making the speakers unnecessary. Sometimes, curious alpha male wolves even visited the researchers.
The crew was triggering one of howling’s central functions: to mark territory and help packs avoid confrontation by spacing them out across the landscape. By howling at the edge of their territories, the members of a pack are posting a kind of verbal no-trespassing sign. Pimlott found that a strange howl inside a pack’s turf will often draw the attention of its leader. When pack members spread out during a hunt, their howls act as audible beacons, helping the animals reunite.
Researchers also speculate that wolves may howl to attract a mate, or simply to express themselves. “The basic information they would be sending is, ‘I’m a wolf,’” says Fred Harrington, a biologist and animal behaviour specialist at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax. “Perhaps I’m a male or a female. I’m this individual wolf. I’m feeling this right now.”
The howl serves a social purpose, too. A group howl resembles a campfire singalong, with pack members mingling voices, wagging tails and wriggling bodies, often before or after hunting. It is a bonding exercise, a chance to cut loose when the gang is together, but it also has the practical benefit of letting pack members hear each other. “If you’re going to use howling as a form of long-distance communication, you have to know what each member of the pack sounds like,” Stronks says.
For human eavesdroppers, the easiest distinction is between solo wolf performances and group efforts. Solo howls typically last no longer than 14 seconds and can be “flat” (with little rise or fall), arcing or “breaking” (with discontinuous, trailing “blue” notes at the fall).
Choruses start with a single call but soon become successions of intermingling howls that last as long as two minutes. Group howls are more variable and more animated, and range more widely along the frequency spectrum than solos, especially if pups join the glee club. Pups are so “juiced to howl,” Harrington says, that even a siren or a loon call will set them off. Harrington adds that the general cacophony of a group howl often leads listeners to overestimate the size of a pack – and that may be precisely the howlers’ aim. If two or three wolves can sound like a legion of aggressive competitors, they can intimidate neighbouring packs, gain a little elbow room for hunting and garner an evolutionary advantage over less raucous vocalists.