Many people delight in the night sounds of camp. Others may become edgy or frightened by the same sounds. Learning to distinguish between the noises can help settle nerves and increase the enjoyment of the adventure. This isn't always as easy as it might seem. Such is the case of telling the difference between wolf and coyote howls, especially in camp at night when the creatures can't be seen but when they are most apt to howl.
The sounds made by coyotes aren't really howls, usually, but rather a combination of brief barks and short sounds resembling "Yeowl-yeowl." Most often, these sounds are picked up by other members of the group as if they are all trying to talk at once. This means that it can take on the sense of a chorus, though it might seem a little discordant.
The purpose is somewhat different than the main reasons that wolves howl, too. Knowing this, and what the purpose is, can be helpful in identifying the animals.
Despite the fact that it may sound like there are many individuals, and sometimes there are, coyotes don't hunt cooperatively in packs. It isn't a mistake to refer to them as being in a group, rather than a pack. More specifically, if there are more than two, it is usually because they are a family group; father, mother and pups. They can be called a pack, however it is rare for the pups to stay with the group once they are old enough to fend for themselves.
When the family group is hunting, it is important for them to stay together. Until the pups are old enough to be on their own, they are still learning how to hunt, and getting separated from their parents could result in injury or death. While coyotes have good night vision, the nearly constant sounds serve to allow the family group to stay together.
Partly because they do stay together, it isn't necessary to howl loud enough to be heard over great distances, so the sounds tend to be brief, repeated by others in the group. Solitary coyotes may also make similar sounds as well, however in such a case, it is primarily to warn other coyotes away from their hunting territory. Coyotes are not tremendously social creatures, though they occasionally tolerate one another, so they often guard their territory in this way, as well as by using urine markers.
Richard Brown, former chief naturalist at Crater Lake National Park, referred to the baying of coyotes as a "happy, exuberant barking sound, like a bunch of kids playing in a school playground."
A wolf is not only a more social animal than a coyote, sometimes even taking another unrelated wolf into the pack, they also hunt cooperatively. The hunting style is one of the keys to wolf howls.
It isn't uncommon for some members of a wolf pack to chase larger prey to a certain area where other pack members lay in wait to chase the prey back the other direction. By doing this, deer and elk can be killed because they become exhausted, while the wolves are able to rest between chasing spurts.
This style of hunting can cover several hundred yards or more. It becomes necessary for members of the pack to know where the other pack members are, so the wolves howl and the sound is long and drawn out, sort of a "Oooooooo" sound. The howl is often answered, as with coyotes, but with hunting wolves there is often a quite noticeable difference in where the sounds come from.
A breeding pair of wolves, or those going through rituals prior to mating, may also howl in concert. Some people refer to this as 'howling at the moon', though the moon may not even be close to being full and may not even be in evidence. Still, the sound is normally a long, drawn out one, with much less yipping than with coyotes.
In his book, "Never Cry Wolf", Farley Mowat called the sound of howling wolves "mournful and strangely beautiful".
In neither case should people be concerned about the calls. It can take some time and practice to tell the howls apart, particularly in camp, at night. However, the sound lets a person know where the creatures are, and though both species are naturally curious, they rarely pose any threat to man. Hunting animals are usually more likely to be heard in camp, however coyotes sound like a moving chorus of animals. Wolves give more of the stereo-typical howl used in monster movies, often answered by another wolf at some distance from the first.
Learning to identify the animals that make the sounds is one of the first steps in becoming more comfortable with the sounds heard when camping, and it can be fun to point out the howl as well as what kind of creature made it.