Gray WolvesBy Gerry Bishop
Working together. Playing together. Looking out for the little ones. This describes life in a wolf pack. Sounds kind of like life in your family, too, right?
When you hear the words “wolf pack,” what comes to mind? Scary howls in the night? A gang of powerful predators out to hunt down anything in sight? Those are things many people may imagine, because wolves have had a bad reputation for hundreds of years.
But now we know that, like so many other animals, wolves hunt and kill only to survive. And we’re also learning that their family lives are very much like our own!
A wolf pack is really just a big wolf family. There are Mom and Dad, of course—and they’re the ones in charge. With them are their pups. Some are still young, while others are fully grown, or nearly so.
The members of a wolf pack really care about each other. If another wolf pack threatens a pack member, its packmates will help fight off the attackers. Pack members often hunt together, cooperating to bring down large prey to share. And when a wolf just needs good friends, the others can be very loving.
You can tell how much wolves mean to each other by the way they act when they get together after being apart. They greet each other with nuzzles, licks, and friendly sounds.
A wolf pup stays with its family until it’s at least 10 months old and able to find food on its own. Some pups may stay until they’re old enough to have pups of their own—around the age of two or three.
When a wolf leaves home, life becomes a lot tougher. The wolf now has to catch food and protect itself from danger without the help of its pack. It also has to find a mate and a new place to live.
Gray wolves need lots of roaming room to catch enough prey. That often makes it hard for a wolf to find a place that isn’t already taken over by another pack.
A wolf pack marks the border of its living space with strong scents. The scents usually come from droppings, called scat, and little squirts of pee. When a strange wolf comes along, it smells the scents and gets the message: “This place is taken!” If the wolf tries to enter the territory anyway, the property owners usually will howl and try to scare the trespasser away. And if that doesn’t work, they may attack and even kill the invading wolf. Sometimes lone wolves have to travel hundreds of miles before finding hunting grounds they can claim as their own.
When a lone male and lone female wolf first meet, each may be wary of the other. But after some posing and sniffing and shuffling around, they may begin to trust each other. Then may come playing, nuzzling, and cuddling—sure signs that these two wolves are going to make a great couple!
Once the wolves bond and settle into their new home, it’s time to start a family. The wolves mate, and then, about five or six weeks later, Mom looks for a place to have her babies. Sometimes she finds a rocky cave or other hideaway. Sometimes she takes over the den of a coyote or fox. And other times, she may dig a new den from scratch.
Soon Mom gives birth to four to six little pups. In the den, she nurses them, cleans them, and keeps them warm. Meanwhile, Dad brings her food.
When the pups are about three weeks old, they start exploring inside the den. After the fourth week, Mom takes them out of the dark and into the sunlight for the first time.
FEEDING THE FAMILY
At first the pups stay close to the den’s entrance. They romp and wrestle and explore everything around them. Mom and Dad take turns going off to hunt.
In larger wolf packs, a “babysitter” stays behind to watch over the little ones. The babysitters in a wolf pack usually are older brothers and sisters that haven’t yet left the pack to live on their own. But they also may be “aunts” and “uncles” that have returned to the pack after living on their own for a while.
Eventually, the wolf parents return from hunting with “doggie bags”— stomachs full of meat they’ve recently eaten. The pups lick the parents’ mouths, and up comes warm, partly digested meat—the perfect “baby food” for the growing pups.
As the pups get older, the parents bring larger pieces of prey. But they carry these in their jaws—not in their stomachs. The pups tear off pieces and gobble them down. Often they fight over the food, trying to show one another who’s the boss.
HUNTING WITH THE PACK
Gray wolves sometimes hunt for animals as small as rabbits or even mice. But by working together in a pack, they’re able to catch and kill large animals such as deer, moose, elk, and sometimes even full- grown bison. Hunting such large prey takes more than fast legs and powerful jaws. It takes great skill—and that means wolf pups have a lot to learn.
When the pups are about three months old, they begin to follow their parents on their hunts. They watch everything their parents do, learning all they’ll need to know: (1) how to tell if an animal is sick or injured—and therefore might be easier prey, (2) how to chase down and tire their prey, and finally (3) how to attack the prey without getting hurt or even killed. (A kick from a sharp hoof can be deadly.)
Sooner or later, some of the pups will leave the pack to form packs of their own. And the wolves in each of those packs will work together, play together, and look out for each other—just as any good family members would!
“Family Ties” originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Ranger Rick magazine.