Last week’s topic was the animal imagery we give to full moons (January’s Wolf Moon, March’s Worm Moon, August’s Sturgeon Moon, November’s Beaver Moon, and others). Writing that took me back to one of my favorite memories of my own animals. We lived in Arizona for eight years, a time I came to love the desert and the animals who make it home — but also the northern half of the State which is actually far more like Colorado’s mountainous pine forests than the arid Southwest. There, up north with my three dogs, late on a clear night brightly lit by a gibbous moon reflecting off several feet of fresh snow, the four of us listened to the haunting cry of unseen coyotes, a sound both completely captivating and deeply unsettling.
Why do coyotes, wolves, other wild canids, and even domesticated dogs howl at the moon? It all depends on who you ask. A common theory proposes that moonlight allows these territorial animals to see their home turf clearly at night, triggering a sound designed to warn off intruders (members of other packs as well as other types of animals). A more human-centric theory holds that ancient people likely wandered more on brightly lit full moon nights, experiencing the howling more on those nights simply because they were out and about, and that this increased awareness of howls on full moon nights over time came to be mistakenly understood as if the moon’s phase actually led to increased vocalizing. Yet others perceive the sound as joyful singing, much like the song of whales deep in the ocean. The notion that these animals are howling actually at the moon has been largely dismissed: wolves, coyotes and other canines tip their heads up because it helps the sound carry further, and the moon just also happens to be up there.
Why then…? A warning to others to stay away, a rally cry for the family to come together, a song in celebration: perhaps some combination of that and more. I can only assure you that, once heard, it’s never forgotten. It is lovely, and a reminder of our own small frailness in a big and complicated world.