A Yearling Female Comes of Age?

The once thriving Blacktail pack has dwindled from 12 to 3 wolves.  I saw them in the Blacktail Plateau area of Yellowstone National Park, though a few days later they were on the run. A new pack has moved into their territory. They will have to be careful.

When I first saw the wolves, along with Wolf Project staff and various wolf watchers, the wolves were bedded about 10 feet from each other. They were 693F, the alpha or breeding female; the uncollared gray yearling female; and 778M, the alpha or breeding male. (The Wolf Project places radio collars on about 20% of the wolves in the park and each collared wolf is given a number.) Here are journal notes from January 14, 2013:

The gray female gets up walks and lies down near her father, 778M. (I see her leg is blackened from mange.) She rolls on her back and shimmies upside down nearer 778M. She paws at him upside down reaching for his face. Then, she presses her foot pads against his belly. He remains still. The movements seem very puppyish, but, after her kicking caresses, she becomes more affectionate, and it is easy to remember that the breeding hormones are cycling in everyone. The gray female yearling stands up, walks around behind 778M and presses the side of her face to his, one cheek and then the other. Then she hugs him from above and behind, (the way I sometimes hug my favorite dogs).

During all this, 778F remains bedded and nearly impassive. His face looks relaxed but calm and he accepts the hugs and pressings but did not respond or even move much at all. It may have had something to do with the fact that his mate, the yearling’s mother, 693F, had her head raised and was watching the display. She did not move either, did not jump up to harass or pin her daughter, which some alpha wolves would do. The female alpha in a wolf pack generally represses breeding in all the other female wolves in her pack, just as the alpha male will repress the males. Sometimes the breeding female harasses the subordinate females so much that the younger wolves do not even ovulate (see Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation by Mech and Boitiani)

Perhaps the gray yearling just wanted to bond, express affection, and her mother understood that; or perhaps she really was flirting, and her father’s passivity was a subtle rebuff. We might not have caught a look that her mother may have thrown her. Whatever the reason, the parents remained calm and the gray yearling soon walked off to the west and bedded at some distance, still facing her parents.

A Dance

At that point, 693F stands slowly and stretches deeply in a downward dog stretch. She stretches again and looks over towards 778M but waits for a moment. Then she walks over to him, with her tail held high, but when she reaches him, she drops it just a little lower than his and he raises his at the same time, as if this were a coordinated movement between the two. He stands and she kisses the side of his face, big lapping wolf kisses. At first I wonder, is she being affectionate or is she simply cleaning off the drippings from a carcass meal? But I don’t see blood on his face. She kisses or licks under his jaw and then again she licks the side of his face over and over.

Suddenly they both drop into a play bow, front legs and shoulders stretched low and rumps high in the air: 778M dances like a pup around 693F—circling and play bowing and jumping. She shifts in response but he does most of the leaping. All the while both wag their tails. They pause in the dance and she holds one paw stiffly against his chest. They press their faces together.  Then they stand with their two sides pressing along the length of their bodies. They have been a pair since 2008 and seem very close. Yet, it’s not clear that they have been the pack’s main breeders, even though they lead the pack as alphas. This is a good example of the many different ways packs organize themselves.

The Greeting

Finally, the two alphas turned and traveled to the gray female, who remained lying down as they approached. 778M kept his tail dropped straight down and relaxed and 693F lifted her tail to a horizontal position, straight out and up at the tip a little. It was as if he were leaving the messages about hierarchy to her. When the alphas actually greeted the gray by touching her nose with theirs, both the alphas raised their tails. She responded with a low wagging tail. Crudely put, a higher tail signifies dominance and a lowered one, submission. Yet, relationships between wolves, so highly social, are more complex than that, and the yearling did not seem oppressed. She responded to their greeting with bouncy enthusiasm. The three rubbed against each other with affection.

As with people, the wolves seem to be conveying several social messages at the same time. The breeding pair dampened any possibility of the daughter breeding with her father; wolves strictly avoid incest and the breeding pair are often the main enforcers. Yet, at the same time the three wolves were cementing and expressing their bond as family and pack members.

Copyright 2013 Ilona Popper

Cornell University’s Macaulay Library has finally gone online with the world’s largest collection of recordings of the natural world, especially birds and animals. It’s terrific! I just listened to golden eagle cries–and was blown away. I have heard these eagles in the field, but probably more often than I realized. I’d have never identified the full variety of calls if I had not heard them in the archive. One of the calls sounded like a barking dog!

Here’s how the Library describes its collection:

The Macaulay Library is the world’s largest and oldest scientific archive of biodiversity audio and video recordings. Our mission is to collect and preserve recordings of each species’ behavior and natural history, to facilitate the ability of others to collect and preserve such recordings, and to actively promote the use of these recordings for diverse purposes spanning scientific research, education, conservation, and the arts.

CHECK IT OUT!    http://macaulaylibrary.org

January 16, 2013

Read Your Work at the Open Mic for Poet and Prose Writers, 7 p.m. at Pine Creek Cafe, Pine Creek, Montana

Ilona will host an Open Mic. Poets and writers in any genre are welcome to sign-up and read their works.

January 23, 2013

Hellroaring Writers: Unstoppable, 7 p.m. at Pine Creek Cafe, Pine Creek, Montana

Six women writers  who will read from their poetry, fiction, and non-fiction works: Ilona Popper, Ellen Winter, Elise Athison, Rainy Martin, Joanie Kresich, Amanda Eggert.

From December 3, 2012 journal from Yellowstone Park:

At the Carcass

Yesterday, I watched an interloper black yearling male wolf courting young Lamar Canyon female wolves.  Or, at least he was having some fun playing with them. I arrived at the Confluence pullout in Yellowstone to see a gray yearling eating on a very fresh carcass, about 2 miles away. (The wolves were pulling it around easily, so it was either a deer or an elk calf or had been consumed quickly that morning.)

The gray soon left and I watched two blacks arrive. They were being pretty companionable too, eating side by side and wagging a lot. One black was a large jet black male, gorgeous. The other a slight black female. All the wolves except the black male (3 grays and 1 black) had made squat urinations at some point, so we knew they were females…

This was during Winter Study for the Yellowstone Wolf Project, where young researchers are assigned to study several specific wolf packs. From dawn to dusk, they record and observe every kill made by “their” pack. Doug Smith, head of the Wolf Project, collects the same data independently from a fixed-wing aircraft. I watched the wolves along with some Wolf Project staff and crews and some “wolf-watchers.”

The black male left and the lone (smallest) black yearling female kept working at the carcass. I saw her rub her chin along the snow, cleaning off itchy dried blood perhaps, or scent marking. When she would step off the carcass and begin to travel, perhaps to find one of her sisters, eagles would drop down on the carcass. The black yearling would turn, see a huge golden fly into the carcass and she would storm back, scattering ravens and the eagle.

…We saw a gray wolf appear, coming up from the river. As she approached the carcass, the black yearling began to run away. At first, I thought a golden eagle flying in had turned the tables and was chasing her. No, it was the gray wolf. She was radio-collared (820F), and she was chasing her sister!  The gray popped her tail up as she ran after the black, who stopped and threw herself on the ground, groveling to 820F.

The gray wolf stood over the black yearling for a moment and then the gray returned to the carcass to eat.  The gray, 2 yr. old 820F, either full of beans or simply so thrilled to have found this new carcass, began to do a play-bow dance all around the carcass…She whipped the ravens and eagles into spirals through her own gyrations. She was so puppyish in her dance—waiting to eat till she had got her jollies out. Yet, her dominance of her sister was a sign of her maturing into the pack hierarchy or perhaps of the rise of mating season hormones?  The younger black wolf took off…

Tete a tete

The speculation is the black male is a Mollies pack yearling and he has been courting the young Lamar Canyon pack females because their parents are away—with pups—to the east.  It’s possible he’s the one who killed this carcass. Since Mollies and Lamar Canyon packs have tried (and sometimes succeeded) in killing each other over territory, this male was taking a chance. The male left the carcass and began traveling east too, along the route at least one gray yearling had taken.  He was howling periodically.

Suddenly, he stands and wags his tail as if he has spotted someone. A few seconds later he steps forward to greet one of the grays (was it 776F—who has lost her collar). As the black male stands catty corner to her, the gray 776F shows her teeth— at first, just one canine. As he steps closer, she rolls her upper lip showing all her teeth. Each time he pauses for a second, then wags and jockeys to come closer or perpendicular to her…. Over and over, she shows her teeth, or sometimes snaps; and at least once, she chased him, driving at him, her mouth snapping, her hackles up. It did not deter him for long.

She traveled west;  he followed;  she stopped and howled;  he stood shoulder to shoulder with her, looking in the westerly directions of her howls. They both listened to the west. I remember twice, he stood perpendicular just ahead of her and after she howled to the west, he turned his head west and swiveled his ears all around. After a while, she was either so focused on howling or just accepting that he was hanging with her that she stopped snapping or showing her teeth. She howled, however, pretty much nonstop, and he joined in, as if to say to her sisters, Yes, do come back, or Where are you?,  as if he were not an outsider…Pretty charming!

Note: That day, some of us joked that the big issue facing 755M, the breeding male of the pack, would be these flirtations.  He’d try to drive off visiting males to prevent too many pregnancies in his pack, too many mouths to feed. Yet, a week later, 832F, the alpha female (known for years as the ’06 Female) and parent of these young Lamar Canyon wolves was killed by a hunter.  Earlier, the beta male had also been killed by a hunter so, 755’s been left the only mature adult to feed his pups. (He has help from 2yr. olds and yearlings but they are small.) Now, the mating season drama will include whether 755M takes a new mate, or not.

Copyright 2012 Ilona Popper

*Preview new poem


 We began our labor at the bottom of a ravine and worked up a steep hill. Sometimes there would be as many as twenty or thirty-five trees falling at once: they reminded me of men falling in battle, that same dead, helpless fall.

Lt. Charles F. Morse of the 2nd Mass. Infantry, recorded October 28, 1862, while commanding a detachment of 100 tree choppers. Lt. Morse oversaw the felling of 1/3 of the trees on Maryland Heights mountain near Harper’s Ferry, WV.

 struck down

the living

felled around us

cracking sounds

gray forms

crashing beside us

great frames

brittle on the land

I had seen him

fall out of the corner of my eye

the first to go

close to me

then there were so many

I couldn’t take it in

all the bodies

not yet turning to

shapes on the ground

I didn’t want to look

some screamed as they fell

the trees would

let out a groan

he did as I crawled to him

I hardly knew him

but wrote for him

cover the leaves

with words

cover my eyes the leaves

bouncing down in front of me

as if alive

they did not know they were dead yet

hacked off at the base

severed from the root the stump

a stump

he was

a brother


the trees brother and sister

went down alike

we did not know them


one by one

we did not acknowledge

them in passing

dragging the cannons up the hill so steep

the blood pounded in our temples

our empty bellies

sore legs

rooted there how long?

they said

we had to hold the hill

make us to kill

our brothers

make us to kill

to kill each other

to hold a hill

to have some way to say

who is winning

who is losing

the president could not complete the ascent

it was too much for him

couldn’t even visit the hill we held

we killed so many

hundreds of trees

and men

make us to kill

we’ll take down

the oaks

the dog the fox the frog

the owl’s perch

scorch the very world

we live in

make us to kill

we take down the world

copyright Ilona Popper 2004

first appeared in the anthology, In Good Company: Poets Celebrate Shepherdstown’s 250th Anniversary, November 2012

please do not reproduce, print, or copy