Other than in winter, my husband and I sleep outside on our back deck on an 8-inch foam pad, a heavy down comforter spread on top of us. Cozy and comfortable all spring, summer, and fall, it takes the first frost or snow in late October to get us to move indoors … but even then, we hesitate. 

On the final day of our last night deck-sleeping this past season, I wrote: “Another summer and fall has brought us all sorts of wonderful critters and sky delights: bears, coyotes, raccoons, and deer; the moon, the stars, the morning sun, pines and firs that reach forever high. We will miss the morning chatter of chickadees, jays, crows, and nuthatches. We will miss all of it, in you, the natural night.”

In the winter, the creature I miss the most is the coyote. It’s not that they aren’t still around, because they are. We hear them from our closed windows, howling for more than an hour, with the intermittent solitary high-pitched yip. 

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But it’s not the same as being outside with them.  

It feels good and right to hear coyotes howling at the edge of the woods at night. Do we carry something wild in us, too?  

Their scientific name, canis latrans, translates roughly to “dog barker” (coyote comes from the Aztec word coyotl, “trickster”), which couldn’t be a more appropriate name for this dog-like howler. With its nose pointed to the sky, it belts out a “yip, yip, eeeerrrr,” or an actual “bark.”

Brian Mitchell, who, as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, has studied coyotes’ yips, barks, and howls, says that we often mistake a pair of coyotes for a pack. “Because of the variety of sounds produced by each coyote, and the way sound is distorted as it passes through the environment, two of these tricksters can sound like seven or eight animals,” he said. “This is an auditory illusion called the ‘beau geste’ effect.”

canis latrans a mated and territorial monogamous pair (for a few years, not necessarily for life) of “alpha” coyotes, there is a clear way to tell if you’re hearing male or female sounds. Mitchell explained: “The male howls while the female intersperses her yips, barks, and short howls.” Additionally, he said, “‘Beta’ coyotes (the children of the alpha pair from previous years) and current-year pups may join in if they are nearby, or respond with howls of their own. Once one group of coyotes starts howling, chances are that any other alpha pairs nearby will respond in kind, with chorus after chorus of group yip-howls rippling across the miles.”

Not all howls are easy to differentiate, yet there is a distinction between two types: one, a group yip-howl, and two, individual howls (mixed with barks). The yip-howl promotes family bonding and announces that the territory is lived in. “In other words, the coyotes are saying, ‘We’re a happy family, and we own this turf so you better keep out,’” the researcher explained. “In a sense, the group howls create an auditory fence around a territory, supplementing the physical scent marks left by the group.”

CANINE COUSINS: Coyotes are comparable in size to medium dogs, but have certain traits that distinguish them from their relatives. Among these differences are that coyotes’ front paws are larger in size than the rear, whereas dogs’ paws are relatively equal in size; coyotes also have a black-tipped bushy tail, a narrow black nose, and larger mouth. Photo by Wendy Trabert

The other type, the individual howl and bark, indicates that the coyote has spotted a person, a dog, or large animal that poses a potential threat. “Imagine a scenario where a lone coyote is patrolling the territory boundary and comes across an intruder,” Mitchell said. “He starts barking and howling, and his mate and beta children come running to the right place.” 

As for coyote family fanfare, coyotes are monestrous (one heat during the breeding season), mating between January and March. Yearlings can breed as well. Two months later, in March to May, three to 10 pups are born and by the fall, they go out on their own at the age of 6 to 9 months. (The average life span of a coyote is 10 years.)

While residing with their parents, pups benefit from the protection of dens against weather and predators such as the mountain lion. Dens can be deep holes dug by their parents, spaces under rock ledges, in hollow logs, on steep brush-covered slopes, or in existing burrows made by other animals such as raccoons, skunks, marmots, or even bears. They may also have interconnecting tunnels and multiple entrances.

Both parents care for their pups with help from siblings from the previous year. According to the works of wildlife research scientists Eric M. Gese and Brent R. Patterson, sometimes “associates” become part of the pack and “possibly inherit or displace members of the breeding pair and become alphas themselves.” Pups are nursed from birth and at 3 weeks old are then nursed and fed regurgitated meat from their parents. At 5 to 7 weeks, they are weaned. 

Emeritus professor of Wildlife Management at U.C. Berkeley, Reginald Barrett, who spent 10 years as director of the Sagehen Field Station near Truckee, considers the social system of coyotes to be one of his most interesting studies. A territorial pair, he said, an alpha male and an alpha female, will defend their 2- to 15-square-mile area, even from another coyote called a “floater.” Floaters, often solitary, tend to be young, sometimes mangy, and inexperienced in their boldness to sneak around where two territories meet. The floater does not always remain a loner, however, as it will sometimes replace a part of a pair that has lost its partner. 

When it comes to witnessing coyotes slinking about at the crepuscular time of day, dawn and dusk, what we’re most likely seeing is a coyote on the hunt (being mainly carnivorous). They use those hours to track down rodents, rabbits, mice, voles, squirrels, and ground-nesting birds. They’ll even take down a full-grown deer, coyotes having been clocked running at speeds of 35-plus mph. They also forage for berries on manzanita or coffeeberry bushes. Otherwise, coyotes will consume human garbage and carrion, thus their association with the words, “opportunist” or “adaptable.”

THE CUNNING COYOTE is known in Native American tales as a trickster, its name derived from the Aztec word of the same meaning, “coyotl.” Photo by Wendy Trabert

Bigger than a fox yet smaller than a wolf, the coyote is comparable in size to that of a medium-breed dog, weighing 20 to 40 pounds. And although its grizzled fur can be like that of a dog — gray, tan, or reddish-brown in color — depending on where they live (darker coat in the mountains, lighter in the desert) — there are differences between the coyote and its domestic relative canine.  

First, a coyote’s bushy tail has a black tip and its long, narrow nose is black as well. Its ears, standing erect, are large in relation to the head; feet small in relation to its body. The muzzle is long and slender — one might even say pointy — and the forehead is flatter than that of a dog. Their legs seem longer than most dogs’ because the elbows are located higher. Coyote tracks are narrower and more oval than a dog’s wider tracks, and a coyote’s front paws are larger than the rear ones (whereas a dog’s front and back paws are similar in size). The clear difference lies in their teeth by measuring the length and width of the palate. According to aforementioned scientists Gese and Patterson, if the teeth row is 3.1 times the palatal width, it’s a coyote; if less than 2.7, a dog. 

That sound, so archaic in its projection, reminds us … the wild is still here. 

HUNGER GAMES: Though mainly carnivorous, coyotes are also known to forage for berries on both manzanita and coffeeberry bushes. Photo by Wendy Trabert