Why Do Wolves Howl?

These creatures embody the very essence of the wild. We should listen to what they have to say.

Primitive extraterrestrial communication.

Kidding. Man’s best friend’s wild cousins have been making their voices heard for almost 1 million years now and as long as humans have been around, we’ve been fascinated by it. Whether it’s watching The Wolfman or listening to Ozzy Osbourne, you’ve heard it. But aside from sounding ominous and inspiring decades of cliches, why do wolves howl?

First and foremost, howling serves as a means of communication. The idea that wolves howl at the moon is a common misconception. Though singing to the moon elicits a bit more mysticism, there is a very simple explanation for this. Wolves aim their snouts to the sky for projection. As they are often calling to other members of the pack, their goal is to amplify as loud and far-reaching as possible. That means out and up! The fact that the moon is often out when you hear wolves howling is simply attributed to the fact that wolves are nocturnal animals and like to hunt by the light of the moon.

So, what are they saying?

Rally the Troops

If the pack has been splintered during a hunt or is a couple bodies short, wolves will howl to reassemble the group. These howls are usually deep in pitch and very sustained, like a primal homing beacon. Wolves hunt over very large areas, spreading out over miles of land, so getting separated from the pack is a somewhat common occurrence. In the forest, a wolf’s rallying call can carry as far as 6 miles, and in a frozen tundra with no trees, 10 miles. This guiding howl is also used to help pups navigate back to their parents, should they stray.

It's Game Time

Have you ever been watching a football or basketball game and right before the game starts, a team will huddle up and start pumping each other up? That’s exactly what wolves do prior to a hunt. Before a hunt, wolves will often gather for a rowdy howl sesh that serves as an important communal bonding experience for the pack. These social howls involve wolves coming together in close proximity, barking, while getting good and amped up before the hunt. This both promotes togetherness between the hairy comrades and gets the blood pumping before they head out on the prowl. Once the stalking has started however, wolves will fall silent and deadly. Lots of bark before the hunt, nothing but bite during.

Back Off

Though social howling has been observed within a pack, it also functions as an ominous warning to those who are not welcome. Wolves are extremely territorial and fiercely protective of their pack. This is why wolves will howl to both advertise their territory and send a clear, threatening message to those who may wander too close. This behavior is especially prevalent during mating season, when wolves are extra protective of their mates, pups, and food. A wolf answering an unknown howl from the outside is declaring his intent to stand his ground and for the potential intruder to kindly: Back. The. Hell. Off. This is why many lone wolves traveling in uncharted territory will remain silent as to avoid any unnecessary confrontation.

I'm Lonely

This kind of howl is characterized by a rise and fall, often with a “slide” up or down at the end. Wolves will howl when in search of a mate or when experiencing feelings of captivity or isolation.

Woo Hoo!

Wolve’s have been known to howl simply because… they can! Wouldn’t you? After a successful hunt, wolves will group together to sing their praise. They seem to genuinely enjoy it. Other members from the pack almost always show a tendency to join in a good howl. Whether this is cathartic or just a comforting bonding moment, it often attracts other members from the pack, even at a distance. This community sing truly exemplifies the meaning of “wild”.

Wolves also make their voices heard when their mates are giving birth. I guess it’s a bit of role reversal with the dad in the waiting room doing the screaming.

A wolf’s howl is thought to be specific to that wolf alone. Pitch and tambor play a more crucial part than one might expect in these animals’ songs to the sky. For example, a deeper howl indicates the presence of the Alpha, where smaller-sounding, higher-pitched howls signify different positions within the pack’s hierarchy. Some adolescent wolves may even be scolded or punished for joining in a howl in which they haven’t yet earned.

Most interestingly, it seems no two wolves howl on the same note. If two wolves do happen to begin on the same note, one will always change pitch. There is always harmony, never unison. Though researchers aren’t exactly sure why this is, many believe it is to make the pack sound larger, and therefore more intimidating. Strength in (the sound of) numbers.

The term “lone wolf” is a bit of a misnomer. These animals are highly intelligent and socially communicative, albeit within their pack. They are creatures of bold resolve, emotional exhibition, and most importantly, family. So if you are ever one of the lucky few to hear a wolf howl in the wild, pay attention. See if you can dial in on what they’re saying. It will be a fascinating look into how some of nature’s most wild animals communicate. On a side note, if you are close enough to hear wolves howling, you may also want to consider backing the hell off.

Published: March 14, 2018

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Brian Wisniach

California

Writer by day | Couch potato by night | Camper on the weekends | Storyteller at heart