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Know the West

Awake at night and listening to coyotes

Man-made sounds elicit a wild ruckus in the Bitterroot Valley.


When I heard the jet, I checked the clock on my nightstand. Right on time, I thought. The last flight out of Missoula for the night was heading south, up the Bitterroot Valley and almost directly over our house. I looked to make sure my dog, Scout, was indoors. In the clock’s green glow, I saw her sprawled near an open window. She seemed oblivious as the jet filled the room with its roar and whine. But I knew her peace would soon be disturbed. I lay back in bed, and waited.

The song began with a single howl, long and loud, a reminder that only delicate window screens lay between us and the warm night. I heard a little growl from Scout, then the clicking of toenails on hardwood as she scrambled into a gap between the wall and bed. The coyote was close, probably just downhill from the house in a wooded gully. Others joined in, yipping, barking and wailing in high-pitched cascades of notes. Coyote music leans towards excess; even one coyote can sound like quite a few. But this crazy chorus must have been the work of at least a quartet.

"Howl," from the “Domesticated” series by artist Amy Stein, who says her photographs “serve as modern dioramas of our new natural history. Within these scenes I explore our paradoxical relationship with the ‘wild’ and how our conflicting impulses continue to evolve and alter the behavior of both humans and animals.”
Amy Stein

Somewhere across the gully, a dog barked, then another, their deep voices off-key as they tried to shout down the coyotes. In less than a minute, the plane’s roar faded into the dark. The coyotes finished their piece with a couple of soft yaps and went silent. Soon the neighbors’ dogs quieted, too, leaving only the chirping of crickets and the sound of Scout snuffling from her hiding place. I fell asleep thinking about the passengers on the plane, far above, pondering their beverage selections and the relative advantages of cookies versus seven tiny pretzels. And I wondered whether any of them were aware of the ribbon of sound unfurling below their flight path, as it had under every jet that passed that summer.

For more than 15 years, my family and I have lived on that same patch of sagebrush and bluebunch wheatgrass, a dry ridge sloping down to a small ravine thick with ponderosa pines. We often wake at night to the conversations of animals — the screeching of foxes, the hooting of great horned owls, and at least every week or two, the howling of coyotes. After a lifetime spent living in coyote country, I knew they howled to reunite with pack members or assert their property rights. But until that noisy summer, I had never heard them answer the territorial cries of an internal combustion engine.

Once our coyote neighbors cut loose on that first airplane, they seemed to set aside all their inhibitions. They raised a ruckus for every low-flying jet on its way to Salt Lake. They activated their own alarm for every fire truck or ambulance that sped past, sirens blaring, on the highway a mile to the west. Perhaps they were simply answering each noisy challenge with one of their own. Or maybe they were just having fun: Their singing seemed to express a certain gleeful silliness and lack of menace, as if they were only practicing.

I started to wonder. In all that yipping and yapping, I thought I heard a puppyish note that reminded me of Scout’s early days with her littermates. And the coyotes’ frequent fits of howling always seemed to erupt, day or night, from the same general area in the gully. There must be a family with pups out there, I decided. And I thought I knew just where they were living.

At the base of our hill lay an enormous dead ponderosa, old enough to have witnessed generations of Salish gathering bitterroot on these hillsides. The tree’s heavy trunk, almost four feet across, lay twisted and rotting over a large depression hollowed out by the paws and claws of many different species. Nearby I had once found a flurry of deer hair and a scrape of dirt topped with mountain lion scat. Still, it seemed to be an ideal place, at least when unoccupied, for raising pups.

I avoided the tree that summer. I didn’t want to disturb the family of coyotes that may or may not have been living there.

After a couple of months of howling on a hair trigger, the coyotes gradually became less consistent. Sometimes the sound of a jet tore through our neighborhood, and I waited in vain for their fanfare. Nothing. They didn’t even call out to sirens anymore, though I had learned that their behavior was not unusual. By fall, the singing stopped entirely. The puppies grew up, I told myself. Or the coyotes moved away. Or, perhaps, they were dead.

We still hear coyotes every now and then, but not on any particular schedule. When summer comes and we start to leave our windows open to the night, I listen for those last flights out of Missoula, and I wait for the singing. I’m still waiting.

Julie Gillum Lue is a writer in western Montana.