Illustration by Doug Pifer (courtesy of the Pennsylvania Game Commission)
I stepped outside with one of our dogs at about 8:00 pm earlier this fall and almost immediately heard a piercing wail followed by a wild series of yaps, chatters and yelps. It seemed to come from the field beyond our neighbor’s house. The dog never lifted his head from whatever he was sniffing. He’s heard coyotes many times before.
Later in the evening when I took the dogs out before bedtime, I heard the chorus again. It was coming from a distance, beyond the woods behind our house. I wondered whether these were the same or different animals.
The dynamics of animal sounds are more fascinating the more we learn about them. For example, scientists have recently learned that some animals we thought were silent, such as turtles and fish, communicate with their own unique sounds. Even the well-studied sounds of birds and coyotes have many secrets to reveal and mysteries to solve. For example, how can two or three coyotes howling at night sound like a dozen or more?
This phenomenon of one animal sounding like many is called the Beau Geste effect, after the novel authored by Percival Christopher Wren. In his story, Wren describes a ghoulish, but pragmatic scene of French Legionnaires propping up their fallen comrades to make the enemy think their army was bigger than it was. The term was first applied to male birds that sing several different songs at different places. Supposedly this gives the impression that the place is occupied by many individuals, thus keeping away competitors.
Here’s how coyotes produce the Beau Geste effect. Mated pairs tend to stay together with their young of the previous year. One coyote, generally the male, gives an opening howl, followed by his mate and then their young chime in. Each individual varies the pitch and intensity of their calls. Waves of sound in various pitches and frequencies bounce off rocks and trees and even nearby buildings, and then echo through hollows and valleys. Such reverberations from the howls of a very few animals can lead many folks to claim the country is “overrun” with them.
Over the past 20 years, coyotes have successfully repopulated in the eastern half of the United States. Their numbers appear to be growing not only in the wooded and agricultural regions but also in cities and suburbs. The howl of the coyote, once iconic to the Old West (or our cinematic perception of that geography), is now heard in New York City, Washington DC, and Atlanta.
Coyotes will probably always be controversial. Many people hate them for attacking pets and livestock. Coyotes are very flexible in their diet and even crops of melons and other fruit are subject to their depredations. And while many stories of their harms are exaggerated, coyotes do real damage to livestock, particularly to sheep during lambing season. Combined with their ability to live almost anywhere, this places them in direct competition with us. Their adaptability to a variety of habitats and their tolerance of humans have made coyotes subject to such outdated methods as bounty hunting and poisoning campaigns. Many states allow people to hunt coyotes anytime and anywhere, yet coyotes survive.
My wife and I have no doubt lost some of our poultry to coyotes, and we have watched an adult coyote chase a fawn, stalk wild turkeys, and kill a groundhog in the hayfield behind our place. Coyotes learned to tolerate our presence and go about their business in the open, in plain view of us. I admire them for their success in bringing a touch of the wild back into our lives.
Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown, West Virginia.By Doug Pifer