I remember sounds from my childhood home in the Texas Panhandle, noises that made me fearful and cold when I was small, with echoes that I rarely hear anywhere else, the calls of coyotes at night.
Seldom did we ever hear the howling of a wolf pack, but coyotes made their dens by the railroad track, which ran less than half a mile below our house. A large plum thicket filled the gully that came up from Lelia Lake and coyotes bred there. Our farmhouse was just up the hill.
If you have never heard the sound of a coyote, something that might strike fear even in an adult heart, test your metal by listening to the various calls, barks and growls here. Now imagine hearing that from large casement windows in your bedroom when you were seven, eleven or even twenty-two.
During the daylight hours, we might see a lone coyote jumping in the grass beyond our orchard, but nobody, not even the best marksmen in our family, ever got a shot at one. They took our chickens one by one, or they killed our barn cats and terrorized our guard dogs because they worked together to trick them and to instill fear.
Once my father determined to get two he saw jumping and cavorting in the sun at the far end of our pasture, but instead he accidentally shot the horse that ran in the path of the bullet. The injury was not that serious, since it was only in its leg, but because of a resistant infection, the horse eventually had to be put down.
Wolves, like coyotes run in packs. There may be similarities in habits, but the size is vastly different. Because Texans are pragmatic people, rewards were given for coyote kills. If one were to bring in a pair of front feet, he received a monetary “gift” from the city or county officials. Farmers who had cattle that ranged out in the open were particularly happy to display coyote tails on a fence post where passers-by could see and rejoice. More than once, my daddy found his young calves dead, after a coyote attack.
One farmer in our area found a coyote den lined with the skins of young cattle and sheep. Some of the carcasses had not been eaten, just killed and dragged to the den to become part of a posh flooring. Songs were written, stories told and pictures passed around our prairie neighborhood. Hal Bynum was born and grew up in Lelia Lake, the tiny town sitting on the edge of HWY 287 just before our plumb thicket, and I have no doubt inspiration for many of his songs and spoken word poetry were taken from his experiences growing up there.
Some ask why the wolves and coyotes howl at the moon. One researcher believes they do not.
Mythology and the imagination of the masses have created a popular belief that there is some sort of connection between wolves and the moon—that when the wild canines howl, it’s directly and deliberately at the Earth’s natural satellite. It’s a romantic concept, for sure—one we certainly enjoy telling the kids—but hardly the case in reality. The presence of the moon when a wolf howls, as it turns out, is purely coincidental and circumstantial.
“Canine experts have found no connection between the phases of the moon and wolf howling,” writes Animal Planet. “Wolves pipe up more often during the night because they’re nocturnal. But why do they point their faces toward the moon and stars when they howl? It’s all about acoustics, since projecting their calls upward allows the sound to carry farther.”
While communication is the main motivator, wolves howl for a variety of reasons within that scope. PBS recorded the various pitches and situational howls, from the “lonesome wolf” cry to the “confrontational” call. The purposes include relaying location (between rival packs as well as within their own), warning each other of impending danger, and, in the case of the infamous “chorus” howls, fibbing to rivals about the size of their pack. A small group of wolves howling together can sound like a large group, keeping rival packs in the dark about their true size—just like a bluff in the game of poker.