Gray Wolves

Wolves are one of the most misunderstood animals in the forest. Many people fear wolves and think they are a threat to humans. Nursery rhymes and fairy tales depict wolves as “big and bad.” In reality wolves are shy and much more afraid of us then we are of them.


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Did you know that wolves are closely related to dogs? People a few thousand years ago took wolves and tamed them or domesticated them. These domesticated wolves are now what we call dogs.

What do wolves look like? Wolves look like large dogs and weigh between 57-130 pounds. The males are larger than females. Wolves range in color from white to black but are most commonly gray with a black tipped tail.


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Where do wolves live? At one time wolves were found throughout most of the US wherever there was an adequate food supply. Up until recently they were killed off almost to the point of extinction. The government paid hunters to kill wolves because they feared that wolves would try to take livestock. Today wolves are found in Alaska, Canada, and the northern parts of Minnesota, Idaho, Washington, Montana, and Wisconsin. Since wolf populations are so small, they are listed as endangered in most states. The wolves in Minnesota are only threatened meaning they are not in immediate danger of becoming extinct.

What do wolves like to eat? Wolves are carnivorous which means they primarily eat meat. They have also been known to eat berries and insects. Wolves prefer to eat large mammals such as moose, deer, and caribou but they also eat birds, fish, mice, snowshoe hares, beavers, and muskrats. Wolves usually hunt in packs but in the spring and summer when there is plenty of prey available they hunt alone.

How do you tell the difference between wolves, coyotes, and dogs? It is difficult to tell the difference between wolves and coyotes. Coyotes are usually about half the size of wolves and they have larger ears and longer noses. Wolves also howl in long tones, while coyotes call out in yups and yaps. When wolves walk they place their back feet in the print of the front feet but dogs walk so that their prints do not overlap. Wolves differ from dogs by having a narrow chest, longer legs, big feet and they hold their tail down straight but not curled. Wolf tracks are about 9-14 inches wide.

Did you know that ravens sometimes help wolves find food? Some people have noticed that ravens circle in the air around sick deer or moose. The wolves notice the circling ravens and realize that prey is close by. This is a remarkable relationship because both animals benefit-the wolves find food and the ravens eat the leftovers!

How many pups are in a litter? Mother wolves have litters of between 1-11 pups. The average litter size is 5-6 pups. Mature wolves wait until they are 3 before becoming parents.

When are the pups born? The wolves breed in February and March and the pups are born 2 months later. Usually only the alpha male and female are the ones that mate, so a pack only has 1 litter of pups each year.


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Where do the mothers keep the pups? The mother digs a den in the dirt where she can deliver her pups. Sometimes, she finds an old beaver lodge or log to deliver hers pups in instead of a den.

How much do the pups weigh? When the pups are born they weigh about 1 pound and are deaf and blind. They grow quickly and usually put on about 3 pounds each week! After 3 weeks they can see and hear and they begin to get very playful. At 6-10 weeks, the pups are moved to an aboveground den where they can romp and play. As the pups get older they begin hunting with the adults and they also learn how to survive in their environment. The pups are very playful and they spend time imitating hunting techniques. This gets them ready for when they set off on their own to form their own packs.

Did you know that other members of the pack help raise the pups? When the mother goes hunting, other pack members baby-sit for the pups. When the adults return from the hunt they bring extra food back to the pups which they carry in their stomachs. The pups nip and bite at the adult’s mouth and cheeks to make it regurgitate. This is how the young pups feed after they are weaned.


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Who is the “leader of the pack?” Wolves live in groups called packs. Packs usually consist of 4 to 8 wolves. The wolves are usually family members but sometimes two packs will join together. The leader of the pack is the dominant alpha male. The alpha male is the strongest wolf and he can go anywhere and take anything. He also gets to eat first before any of the other members. Next in charge is the alpha female and then the beta male. The pack ranking or hierarchy is in constant change. If the alpha male fights with another male and looses than the winner becomes the new alpha male. Wolves show their status within the pack with body posture, baring teeth, vocalization, and tail position. High ranking dogs keep their tail high in the air and submissive dogs keep their tail low between their legs.

Why do wolves hunt in packs? Wolves hunt in packs because it is easier to catch large prey in a team. They usually eat old or sick animals. After the hunt, the wolves eat as much as possible and they also bury any leftovers in caches.

Why do wolves howl? Wolves howl to communicate to one another. They howl to try and regroup the pack, to signify the beginning of a hunt and also to communicate to other packs about their territory. A howl starts off low until the wolf points its’ nose to the sky and the tone gets higher. When one wolf starts howling another will join in in a different pitch. This is a clever adaptation because the wolves howling in different pitches makes it sound like the pack is much bigger.

Did you know that wolves are territorial? The packs will protect their area from other packs or lone wolves. The size of each territory depends on the amount of prey available. In areas where there are large supplies of prey species the area is small but when food is scarce the pack needs a large territory to roam.

How have wolves adapted to their environment? Fur- Their thick underfur keeps them warm. The underfur is also waterproof because it is oily. Wolves also have another layer of fur called guard hairs.These guard hairs are smooth and hard and they allow wolves to shed dirt and moisture so that ice does not collect on their fur. Hearing and smell- Wolves can hear a sound in the forest as far as 6 miles away. This is important for them to communicate with other pack members and neighboring packs. Wolves also have an excellent sense of smell. They can identify animals from 1.5 miles away. This is important for finding prey and for locating other wolves. Legs and paws- Wolves have long legs with large paws. These allow them to run easily through snow and water. The large feet act like snow shoes spreading the wolf’s weight out evenly across the snow. Wolves are often running from 8-10 hours per day. Some wolves have been spotted running 22 miles without stopping.

Why are wolves important to our forests? Wolves are found at the top of the food chain. A food chain shows how energy or food is passed from one living thing to another. Wolves keep the population of old and sick animals in check. If wolves disappear than hundreds of other animals will be affected. It is crucial for these intelligent animals to survive in order to maintain healthy forests.

Next time you are in the woods in the border country, try howling at night and then listen. A wolf pack might respond back!

Wolf Links

Sources Brandenburg, J. 1993. Brother Wolf: A forgotten promise. NorthWood Press, Inc., Minocqua, WI. Dudley, K. 1997. Wolves. Raintree Steck-Vaughn, Austin, TX. Stensaas, M. 1993. Canoe Country Wildlife: A field guide to the North Woods and Boundary Waters. Pfeifer- Hamilton, Duluth, MN. Whitaker, J.O. 1998. National Audobon Field Guide to North American Mammals. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

 

Dave Freeman is the Executive Director of the Wilderness Classroom. Dave and Amy Freeman have traveled over 30,000 miles by kayak, canoe and dogsled through some of the world’s wildest places. National Geographic named the Dave and Amy Adventurers of the Year in 2014.

When the Freemans aren’t on expeditions or conducting school assemblies, they guide canoe, kayak and dogsled trips.

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