Why humans are howling every night, and why wildlife is joining in

Video by Ty Betts

Listen carefully the next time howling erupts in your neighborhood in honor of the healthcare workers who are saving lives while risking their own during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s a chance one of the 8 p.m. howls you hear isn’t coming from a human or pet after all.

Why they howl

Stewart Breck, affiliate faculty in the Colorado State University Warner College of Natural Resources and carnivore ecologist for the USDA, studies what are known as human-wildlife conflicts. This could be anything from birds colliding with airplanes to wolves preying on livestock. Of particular interest to Breck are coyotes, which unlike many wildlife species, have not avoided living in urban areas; rather, they’ve adapted to them.

Breck is part of CSU’s Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence, which works to minimize conflict between humans and animals. He studies coyotes that are present in nearly all major U.S. cities and have been known to prey on cats and small dogs. According to Breck, the coyotes have been partaking in the howling too.

“Certainly, coyotes and wolves, if you play a siren or howl — they’ll respond,” Breck said.

Breck knows a number of people in Fort Collins who have reported lifting their voices up to the night sky and hearing a pack of coyotes respond with howls of their own. But what the canids are saying to us remains somewhat of a mystery.

Gray wolves, which are extremely rare in Colorado, and coyotes are very social animals. They form tight-knit family units, and according to Breck, howling acts as a way for them to communicate. This could be to signal the start of a hunt, to honor the reuniting of a pack member, or to claim ownership over a certain territory. Still, Breck admits that there’s likely “a lot more to what they’re doing than we realize.”

Why we howl

One person who has heard coyotes respond to the nightly howling is Jeni Cross, a professor in CSU’s Department of Sociology, director of the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, and director of research for the Institute for the Built Environment.

As a sociologist, Cross has been intrigued by this new routine neighborhoods have adopted. The idea seemed to gain traction from the Denver Facebook group Go Outside and Howl at 8pm and as a sociologist, Cross has some ideas about why this venture has been so successful.

The first instance of communal vocalizing during COVID-19 wasn’t the howling, Cross notes. Residents of European cities including Siena, Italy, stood on their balconies and sang together. In New York City, clapping and cheering are heard across the city every night at 7 p.m. to thank healthcare personnel. In Colorado, this public expression took a different form.

“It makes sense here, especially in the West, that what we’re doing is howling,” Cross said, “because howling is something you can hear from quite a long distance.”

Where Western cities and suburbs are less concentrated, howling works as a form of expression that’s more practical than coordinating a song. But the reason so many people are taking part is a little more complicated, Cross believes.

During this difficult period of physical distancing, many aspects of everyday life have been disrupted. This includes day-to-day workplace interactions, uplifting gatherings such as concerts or church services, and sadly, the ability to gather together to grieve the loss of loved ones.

“And we need all of these things for joy and for grief,” Cross said. “So this howling is the opportunity for us to experience both joy and express grief in that communal way and it’s also in that really visceral-physical way.”

Read more thoughts on quarantine howls from CSU English Professor Deborah Thompson

For some, the howling is also a way to express gratitude.

“My daughters tell me we howl to acknowledge the hard work the healthcare workers are doing,” Breck said. “It’s kind of fun too. It feels good to howl.”

Howling can mean something different to each person who does it but, “that’s what is perfect about it,” said Cross.

So, while it might seem odd to howl in your backyard each night, if it’s something that helps you feel better — howl away. A nearby coyote may even join you.