The Wolf Song


Once when our children were young, I took them on a wildlife hunt through Whiteshell Provincial Park. We played a discovery game to count the number of wildlife species we could see or hear. This special day, we “spied with our little eyes” several deer, a beaver, a bear and many smaller creatures.

As the sun began setting, we turned around and headed for home, and the children became restless, as children often do before falling asleep.

I pulled off to the side of the deserted road we were on and said: “Let’s listen to the silence.” The motor turned off, we got out and leaned against the car.

It was absolutely silent, but within moments we heard a low howl, a long, gutteral, quivering wail. Then we heard another howl – and another. Soon the night air was filled with a concert of high and low pitched howls.

I felt shivers go up my spine. It seemed like an eternity of sound. And then, as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. Silence again surrounded us. Slowly, almost reverently, we got back into the car.

“Wow…amazing…awesome!” my three girls exclaimed.

That was my introduction to the wolf song.

Wolf at the door…thrown to the wolves…wolf in sheep’s clothing…I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down. In our story books, the wolf is most often the villain, but this fascinating creature is far too complex to be seen just in black and white.

The wild wolf, Canis Lupus, is similar in appearance to a large German shepherd or a husky sled dog, but is lankier and has longer legs, larger feet, and a narrower chest. Its face is larger and less pointed than that of a coyote. Its tail is long, bushy and black-tipped.

The color of wolves varies from snow white to coal black, and all intermediate degrees of cream, grey brown, and orangy black. Grizzled grey wolves are most prominent. Pups of different colors occur in the same litter. Male wolves are noticeably larger than females.

Wolves have extremely complex social instincts. The wolf pack is a family with its social, order established by the dominant “Alpha” male and female. These are the parents of most, if not all pack members. They determine where the pack ranges and how well it survives. Within the pack there is a social hierarchy. The Alpha male is usually the largest and strongest dog, followed by younger dogs, then the Alpha female, and finally other females and pups in order of strength. The usual pack numbers between four and seven individuals but may include anywhere from two to 14. The Alpha pair breeds in February. The Alpha female ensures that this is the only breeding to take place within the pack. Her den may be an extended foxhole, a new den she digs out or an old den she has used before. She may want alternative places so that a safe refuge is always available. Whichever site she chooses must be close to water and close to a ridge that affords a clear view in all directions. A wolf den may extend 20 feet into a bank.

Born in late April or early May, the pups’ first visit to the outside world comes if the birth den is threatened. Then, one at a time, the mother carries the pups to a new home. Underground, the mother’s body keeps the newborn pups warm, and she leaves the den only to quench her thirst.

All members of the pack accept considerable responsibility for the education, protection and feeding of the pups.

During their first 11 weeks, pups welcome any adult that is permitted to approach them, but after three months any new arrival is seen as potential prey.

While weaning, the Alpha female joins the hunt to regain her body weight. Adults return daily with food for the pups in their stomachs, providing regurgitated meat for them.

The wolf pack occupies fixed home range around the den, which may be, at least during the summer months, anywhere from 100 to 260 square miles in area. Over this area the pack usually travels along fixed runways that follow game trails, logging roads, rivers, lakes and portages. Wolves are not particularly fast, and most of their regular prey species can outrun them in a straight race. They possess a keen sense of smell and have acute hearing. Their eyesight is less keen, so they resort to cunning to obtain advantages over prey. During the hunt, the pack may cover the territory in an extended line to outflank their quarry, or they may take turns chasing their prey in order to tire it. More often the pack splits up, and part of it circles around the quarry to drive it towards others that lie in wait.

Some people believe that wolves prey only on the fattest animals, but studies indicate that they prey primarily upon calves and aged and sick animals that are easily caught. In the Whiteshell the wolf is one of the only predators of beaver. There are a number of packs in the Whiteshell and the Park’s surrounding areas. A few years ago the number of wolves was approximately 46 animals in seven packs.

Wolves were once spread throughout Canada with the exception of the Queen Charlotte Islands, but the human hand has been against the wolf almost since the dawn of time. In some Indian cultures, however, the wolf was considered a “wild brother” and left alone. The wolf has been exterminated in large blocks of the southern parts of British Columbia, the Prairie Provinces, Ontario, Quebec, the Maritime Provinces and Newfoundland.

Special wolf studies are being conducted in Riding Mountain National Park. There are re-introduction projects and wolf studies in process in Yellowstone and in central Idaho. There is controversy on all sides of these projects.

That night when our family stood silently in awe of the wolf song, it gave us the picture of a vast universe filled with mystery far beyond ourselves.

Listen in the stillness, and you may hear the wolf song this spring and summer.

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