MONDAY, OCTOBER 02, 2006
I’ve lived in the North Country for thirty years, and during that time the howling of coyotes has become one of the common night sounds – a chorus of varying voices. It wasn’t always so, and in fact it was such a thrilling novelty back in the 1980s that one winter evening we hosted a potluck supper and invited John Green, biologist and coyote expert, to give a short lecture to the assemblage and then take us out into the woods on a “coyote call.”
John brought tape recordings and explained the different voices the animals use to communicate. We listened intently and several of us took turns doing vocal imitations before donning parkas, hats, mittens and boots and setting out for the hilltop (which seemed an appropriate howling location). Surely Sherman’s army was stealthier than we, and if Wiley had been anywhere in the vicinity, he wouldn’t have stuck around to find out what this gaggle of wise-cracking, flashlight-bearing, two-legged amateur naturalists was up to. Although it was a rip-snorting good time, no canines returned our calls that night.
In the years since, I’ve occasionally made efforts to commune with the coyotes. Sometimes I’ll try to initiate something by stepping onto the cold, open back porch and howling into the stillness of the night; other times I attempt to join in a conversation of nearby wails and yips that’s in progress. In the first case, sometimes my neighbor (who attended the potluck…) howls back; in the second, the woods immediately go silent.
I can only guess at how my efforts might translate, but it’s probably something like the time the sheep got into the carrots. I was staying with friends in Costa Rica and early one morning discovered the small herd munching happily on garden produce. Not knowing quite what to do, I grabbed a half-eaten carrot (because I didn’t know how to say “carrot” in Spanish) and ran to the kitchen waving it and yelling, “Las viejas!!!” The cook gave me a very baffled look… and then began to laugh heartily. I had informed her that “the old ladies” (viejas) – not the sheep (ovejas) – were into the carrots! And so it must be with the coyotes: I think I’m yelling, “Hey! How are you? Gather ‘round here!” and they hear, “Ich bin King Kong!! Run for your lives!!” Like the cook, Wiley has probably had a few laughs. He has never answered my calls.
Last night, in the heat of a passionate rendezvous, my mate emitted several fairly loud erotic moans. There was a “beat” of silence, and then suddenly through the open windows came a deafening and enthusiastic chorus of canine wails, barks and yips. Passion gave way to uncontrollable laughter as we realized we had finally communicated something our wolf-like neighbors could understand.
Is it not possible that all animals may share a language of passion, of fear, of need; of hunger or joy or anger – a language that transcends syntax? Humans have simply lost the ability to understand it. The coyote love song may not be very different than our own, and “calling” to them from a warm bed is much more pleasant than those old back porch efforts. John Green probably knew this, but he didn’t tell us.