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From Issue #32 December 19, 2013

Cry Wolf

Humanity perfects the art of mimicking nature for science and hunting.

By Mary Catherine O'Connor Twitter icon 

When Bill Feeney stood out under the full moon on a frigid early April night in Northern Wisconsin in 1944 and gave a deep, full-throated howl, he was not expecting what he received: an equally deep, full-throated response from a wolf he and his colleagues from the Wisconsin Conservation Department had been tracking.

Rather than calling out the names of fellow researchers whom he believed to be nearby, Feeney had howled as a bit of a joke. Since he is deceased, we can’t ask Feeney whether he considered his howl a new research tool that built on tracking wolf prints, examining scat, and searching for dens.

Feeney’s call and response came years before wildlife biologists began to use vocalizations as a tool to study wolf packs. Imitation is a surprisingly good way to locate dens and estimates pack sizes and composition. Mimicking calls has spread far beyond wolves, however, and beyond voice to new devices and digital recordings, as researchers now use vocalizations to get a peek into many corners of the animal kingdom.1

Wisconsin DNR wolf specialist Dave MacFarland conducting a howling survey for wolves in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, August 23, 2013. A live Internet connection is required to play.

Found in translation

Feeney reportedly howled just that one time. This was likely because he was leading the wolf study in secret and felt nightly howling sessions would not be a good way to keep the research clandestine. Though the woods of Iron County were sparsely populated, they were frequented by trappers trying their damnedest to kill every wolf they could.

In the 1940s, Wisconsin was only one of four states where wolves were still extant; the last known gray wolf in that state was killed in 1958. The species has now returned and has been removed from the state’s endangered species list. In fact, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan now each have wolf hunting seasons and cull quotas.

Officially, Feeney was conducting a major deer study, but the secret wolf study was an offshoot. He focused on counting and better understanding wolves’ social and hunting habits — knowledge he knew might be unattainable in the future, given that the state was paying a bounty of $20 for a dead adult wolf and $10 for a pup.

Deer hunters were already steamed over the recent introduction of hunting regulations, and considered wolves a major competitor. “The public was so anti-predator and specifically anti-wolf that it would have been committing employment (and possibly life) suicide to admit to doing any investigation on wolves,” says Richard Thiel, a wolf biologist who led Wisconsin’s wolf recovery plan in the 1980s.

Feeney and the biologists who worked for him disagreed with the bounty and hoped the species would persist, and Feeney even told the famed ecologist Aldo Leopold that he would publish the wolf study findings, which showed that wolves did not significantly affect deer population. But the war disrupted academic publication schedules, and the public’s abhorrence of wolves grew more intense at each public meeting about deer-management policies. Feeney become quite reticent, eventually sequestering all the research notebooks. The study remained secret and the researchers mum.

In the late 1950s, biologist Douglas Pimlott began broadcasting recordings of wolf howls in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, wondering if they might respond. Indeed, they did. That planted the seed, and he and his colleagues began howling as a means of locating wolves during late summer, when lack of snow and thick foliage prevents conventional surveys, which are done mostly by tracking paw prints and conducting visual surveys during the winter. After testing out their voices, they realized their own howls were as convincing to the wolves as the recordings of real wolves.

This meant Pimlott and his crew could ditch the truck from which they broadcast the recordings, and set out on foot into the forest, armed only with their voices and notebooks. Over time, a protocol was developed that wildlife biologists still use today. The vocalist issues an initial howl — not too loud in case the pack is nearby — and then repeats the howl three times, turning 90 degrees each time, to ensure it is amplified to each of the cardinal directions. Then, he waits and listens. If there is no response, she will repeat the four-howl sequence, at the same cadence but louder. If this fails to elicit a response the howler might try a third time or move to a different location before howling again.

Biologists have long been using vocalizations not just to locate animals but also to better understand animal communication and social structure. While wolves are fairly easy to imitate with the human voice, many other species are more difficult to mimic closely enough. Instead, researchers rely on recordings.

“It’s far easier to do the kinds of studies we do than it was a few years ago because now we’re using digital files,” says Mike Webster, a professor in Cornell’s Department of Neurobiology and Behavior and the director of the Macaulay Library, which holds the world’s largest archive of wildlife sounds and videos. “With digital files we can manipulate them. You can take a single note and change its frequency and do playbacks right away and see how [the animal we are studying] responds. With tape, you have to splice and it takes hours on end.”

Webster says vocalizations let researchers start to unlock animal language, which is especially important with birds because they use sound to identify species and find mates and rivals. In fact, many types of animals use language in important and fascinating ways: whales are a focus area because their calls travel across thousands of miles under water.

“We can’t talk to birds in bird-ese, but we’re getting closer to understanding birdsongs,” says Webster. “We’re basically writing the translation dictionary.” Studying recordings lets researchers discern things like the emotional state of individual birds, and it has revealed clues as to how animals adapt to changing environments. “Birds in cities sing differently than those in the country, because we humans make a hell of a lot of noise, so they shift the way they sing to make it louder.”

A deer on a farm vocalizing.

The art of deception

Animal vocalization has a considerably longer history in hunting than it does in wildlife research. In both applications, vocalizing is the art of fooling wild animals by imitating their ilk, but the motivations are vastly different. For wildlife biologists and other researchers, vocalization is a tool for conserving — or arguably, saving — wildlife.2 Hunters use vocalizations, as well as decoys and olfactory attractants (smells), to lure animals to within their gun or bow range.

The first auditory attractants used in North America were developed thousands of years ago by Native American hunters, who imitated the animals they sought both by using their own voices and by constructing calls using wood or bone. (Hunters also camouflaged themselves, sometimes in the hides of the animals they sought.)

In the late 1800s, non-indigenous hunters began using their voices, and eventually fashioned mechanical duck and turkey calls made from wood, using designs similar to those of Indian hunters. Lacking any concerted efforts to conserve habitats and prevent over-harvesting, however, hunters were quickly depleting waterfowl and big-game populations. The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 put a cap on some wildlife losses by taxing sporting arms and ammunition and using the funds to improve habitat and conserve many types of game.

“The first deer track I ever saw was in 1939 and I didn’t shoot my first deer till three years later [because] they were nearly wiped out,” says Leonard Lee Rue III, an 87-year-old naturalist, photographer, author, and deer expert in New Jersey.

Rue says his interest in deer calls was planted when he was a young man, guiding a hunting trip in Canada and “working with an old Algonquin guide. He was making bleating calls using a cedar twig and birch bark.” Rue went on to develop a device called a grunt tube with a call maker from New York, Charlie Burleson, now deceased. “We sold it by the thousands,” he says. “It had a ring on it so you could adjust the call. Just like humans, all deer sound a little different, so you can make the pitch higher or lower.”

Deer use many different sounds, postures, and smells to communicate with each other, and these change throughout the year. Their vocalizations fall into five categories: distress, aggression, mating, maternal, and mustering (or making contact). Deer force a long exhale, called a blow, through their nostrils, or might also emit a quick, short burst of air, called a snort, to express alarm or distress. A fawn in distress makes a bleat that hunters imitate to bring in a doe, because does respond to any fawn’s call, regardless of whether it understands it to be its own fawn. Plus, bringing in a doe might also bring in a buck.

Ursula Rue, Leonard’s wife and business partner, demonstrates distressed fawn calls with her own voice; they sound disconcertingly like a human baby’s cry. “My wife, she can make a fawn sound that will attract every doe, period,” Rue beams.

Aggression calls include a grunt-snort, which bucks (and sometimes does) make toward subordinates nearby. The curious-sounding apex of aggressive calls is the grunt-snort-wheeze. Hunters might use these to attract a highly dominant (and therefore large) deer.

Mating vocalizations include the tending call, which a buck makes while trailing a doe during a rut. Hunters use this sound, which sounds like a low soft burp, because it may attract a large buck who wants to challenge what he believes is a competitor.

Deer use a contact grunt, which is not nearly as low or guttural as an aggressive grunt-snort, as a means of making basic contact with each other. Once she sees a deer in the distance, a hunter might produce contact grunts to entice it closer to her.

But hunters also must match the calls they make to the season. A doe might bleat as an alarm call outside the rutting season, but that bleat is likely a mating call while she is in estrus. Bucks, on the other hand, make the grunt-snort-wheeze only around rutting season.

Not all deer calls are vocalizations, either. Rattling antlers together to mimic a fight between bucks can bring in a buck, as hunters learned thousands of years ago. Rue says this technique caught on among modern-day hunters in the early 1980s.

Deer whisperer and empire builder

Some kids play with the family dog or guinea pig. David Oathout’s animal companions included 140 whitetail deer, which his stepfather kept inside a sanctuary in the Adirondack Mountains. “The deer would allow me to walk with them through the woods,” he says. “We would feed them and they got quite tame. I learned their vocalizations.” As a young adult, Oathout toured the country giving seminars on vocalizations. What bothered him was that none of the mechanical deer calls he tried sounded to him as authentic at his own voice.

“Deer calls were becoming very popular with hunters, but deer got almost spooked by them because they were not making natural sounds,” he says. Oathout started deconstructing existing deer calls and, by accident, stumbled up an innovation that would allow the caller to add inflection to the calls. He had been rolling a rubber cover on a call he was tinkering with so many times that his fingers nearly bled. He cut the rubber and realized that this allowed him to rock the reed back and forth with his finger, which lets the user manipulate the sound. That is important because it allows a hunter to imitate both does and bucks, and produce specific calls, such as tending grunts, by changing finger position.

“When a buck is in the rut, he won’t eat, sleep, or drink. He’d rather have a sexual encounter with a doe. So he constantly vocalizes and sometimes his voice cracks [from overuse]. With the deer call I invented the user can make all those kinds of sounds,” says Oathout. He licensed his patent to the game-call manufacturer Hunter Specialties, which has been selling the device, called the True Talker, since the mid-1990s. “They have sold well over a million,” says Oathout. “I’ve basically retired on that one patent.”

Calls had started to become more popular among deer hunters in the late 1980s, as more hunters started using bow and arrow, with which they must get closer to prey than they do with firearms. But calls have remained an integral tool for duck hunters for many decades, and if Oathout retired on the proceeds from the True Talker, Phil Robertson could likely retire 100 times over with the success of his Duck Commander.

Growing up in a large family near Shreveport, Louisiana, Robertson and his siblings hunted avidly in order to source food for the family, and Robertson continued hunting into adulthood. Unhappy with the performance of duck calls on the market, he designed, whittled, and, in 1973, patented his own call. Like other duck calls, Robertson’s Duck Commander is based on a hollowed wooden body with a reed that mimics a duck’s quack (or mating call, or feeding call — nuances produced by the caller’s technique). The Duck Commander, however, uses a unique reed design and is marketed toward duck hunters rather than competitive duck callers, though the two groups have significant overlap.

A charismatic man who struggled with addiction before becoming a devout Christian, Robertson’s instructional videos, giving hunting tips and tutorials on using duck calls, had garnered him a strong following among duck hunters well before A&E premiered Duck Dynasty, a reality show about his family and business. But the show, which broke cable TV viewership records with its season four premiere, has placed Duck Commander into the American lexicon.

Duck Dynasty is as much or more about the antics of the fiercely Christian family — Uncle Si, the bombastic Vietnam vet; son Willie, the driven CEO; son Jase, the hunky, duck-obsessed call maker/developer — as it is about shooting ducks. While anecdotal evidence suggests the show has led to popular duck hunting spots being overrun by newbies in sparkly clean camo gear, there is no data showing that significantly more people are duck hunting because of the show.

Willie Robertson told the New York Times this summer that most new owners of Duck Commander calls are not hunters but rather people who “put it on their desk and toot on it.” Duck Commander used to sell around 60,000 units in a good year, but manufactured over 1 million in 2013, and expects to sell them all at prices that range from $19.95 to $179.97. On top of the $200,000 per episode the family earns from A&E, Forbes estimates total revenue will pass $400 million in 2013. It’s quite a dynasty, indeed.

High fidelity

If he were still alive, Ben Rogers Lee might have his own reality television series, too. “He was the Babe Ruth of turkey callers,” Rue told me. Lee, who died in a car wreck in 1991 at age 46, was a prolific hunter, a world champion competitive turkey caller, and a highly animated good ol’ boy from Coffeeville, Alabama. In the 1970s, he started making calls that range in form factor based on the type of vocalization intended, such as a yelp, cluck, purr, gobble, and so on. Most calls are handheld, but a diaphragm call is placed inside the hunter’s mouth and is used in a manner similar to using a leaf of grass as a reed, which some early hunters did.3

The first diaphragm call Lee made was reportedly made of lead. But some of Lee’s most popular and considerably less toxic products were turkey call recordings. “He put them out on tape and people would use them instead of doing it themselves,” says Rue.

For some game in some states, wildlife agencies have banned the use of electronic calls, which are easily and cheaply downloaded as smartphone apps, because they are considered an unfair advantage and go against fair-chase principles.

While recorded calls are largely fail-proof, some game do get wise, or “call-shy,” to recordings because the pattern and inflection in the call is the same each time it is repeated. Some game even become shy to manual calls when hunters use them too often, or in a rote manner without enough variation.

“When a doe is in estrus and has not found a buck…[that] doe is frustrated,” says Oathout. “She makes a sound and when a buck hears that he comes running. But if every time he heard that same exact sound he had an arrow shot at him, he’d learn [to stay away].”

Walk the talk

Call-shy deer are one of the targets that Steve Wright is aiming for with his Wright’s Woods Walker, a new type of game call — on which Wright has a pending patent — that is meant to mimic an animal’s movement on the ground. Wright believes one reason deer become call-shy is that they hear a vocalization, often made by a hunter from high up in a tree stand, but there are no corresponding footfalls. The Woods Walker would be used in combination with a particular game call to “put all the pieces together,” says Wright.

The call comprises a burrito-shaped fabric sack that contains crinkly materials that sound like rustling leaves when the bag is handled. Hunters can use it to imitate different game, from a squirrel to a turkey to an elk, by merely fluctuating the cadence of the “steps” and the amount of pressure applied to the bag. Wright says he can even mimic a turkey scratching at the ground.

Could wildlife researchers use the Woods Walker to call to animals they’re studying? “It would depend on what information they’re trying to gain,” says Wright. “But I think when you add it to existing calls, it can work. If the [target animal] walks in the woods, I think this is a useful tool.” The same goes for wildlife photographers who want to lure their subjects in for a close-up.

No matter who uses it or for what purpose, Wright says it’s best to first get a line of sight. “If you can see the animal it’s even better. You watch and wait for a reaction. If they’re paying attention [to the mimicked footfalls], then you get the call out.”

“Duma,” top, by Darren. “Sunset Wolf Blues,” middle, by Metassus. “Deer Farm,” bottom, by Inverness County C@P Network Society.


  1. This account of Feeney’s howl comes from Richard Thiel’s The Timber Wolf in Wisconsin, a 1993 book still in print, which relied on decades of his work in the field and interviews with Feeney and others now passed away. 

  2. To track wolf location and movements, biologists now rely mostly on radio-collaring select wolves in a pack, which offers much more precise data. But biologists do sometimes augment collaring with howling, and for the past 50 years Algonquin Provincial Park has invited the public to attend as biologists howl to the resident pack, which nearly always responds. Thousands come to listen. 

  3. Early hunters constructed turkey calls from, you guessed it, turkey bones. Today, DIY hunters can make their own turkey-bone calls thanks to Instructables

An independent journalist based in San Francisco, Mary Catherine O'Connor writes about issues related to energy, technology, and outdoor adventure for a range of publications, including Outside and SmartPlanet.com.

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