Wolves live in family groups called packs. Most packs have about 8 members, but some have more than 20.Zoologists believe the members of a pack remain together because they have strong affection for one another. Most maturing wolves leave the pack and become lone wolves. A lone wolf travels alone until it finds a mate. These two may have pups and form their own pack.
A pack lives within a specific area called a territory. Wolves claim a territory by marking it with their scent. The leader of the pack urinates on rocks, trees, and other objects along the boundaries of the area. Other wolves can then recognize the boundaries. A pack does not allow other wolves to hunt in its territory. If wolves from another pack trespass, they may be attacked and killed.
Studies indicate that the size of the territory depends mainly on the availability of prey. If prey is scarce, the territory may cover as much as 800 square miles (2,100 square kilometers). If prey is plentiful, the area may be as small as 30 square miles (78 square kilometers).
One of the most important and interesting ways wolves communicate is through "body language." A wolf pack is very organized, and the Wolves in the pack live by certain "rules." The biggest rule is that there are leaders and there are followers. The leaders of the pack are the Alpha Male and the Alpha Female, the father and mother of the pack. They are usually the biggest, strongest and smartest wolves in the pack. They are usually the only members of the pack to produce pups. Most of the time the other pack members do what the Alphas want them to do. This is called dominance.
The Alpha pair communicates their dominance with their bodies. They carry their tails high and stand tall. The less dominant wolves keep their tails low and often lower their bodies while pawing at the higher ranking wolves. If two wolves have a disagreement, they may show their teeth and growl at each other. Both wolves try to look as fierce as they can. Usually the less dominant wolf, the "subordinate" one, gives up before there is actually a fight. To show that it gives up, the wolf rolls over on its back and the other wolf stands over it. You can see that following the dominance "rules" helps keep the wolves in a pack from fighting among themselves and hurting each other.
Wolves communicate other things with their bodies, too. If they are angry, they may stick their ears straight up and bare their teeth. A wolf who is suspicious will pull its ears back and squint. Fear is often shown by flattening the ears against the head. A wolf who wants to play will "dance" around and put the front of its body down, while leaving the back part up in the air.
Wolves have a very good sense of smell, which they also use to communicate. Wolves mark their territory with urine and scat. This is called scent marking. When "outside" wolves smell this, they know that an area is already occupied. Of course their sense of smell also tells them when food or enemies are near.
Have you ever heard a wolf howl? That is one of the ways wolves communicate with their voices. Wolves don't just really howl at the moon. They will howl any time of the day, but are most often heard in the evening because that is when the pack is most active. They howl to find other pack members, to let "outside" wolves know where their territory is, or to get the pack excited and ready to hunt. Sometimes it seems as if they howl just for fun. Wolves also bark to warn other pack members of danger or to challenge an enemy. They often growl in dominance disputes or other kinds of "fights." They make a squeaking noise to call the pups and the pups mother will whimper to calm them down.
Wolves mate during the winter. The female carries her young inside her body for about 63 days. She then gives birth to 1 to 11 pups in a sheltered area called a den. The den may be in a cave, a hollow log, an abandoned beaver lodge, or underground.
Wolf pups weigh about 1 pound (0.5 kilogram) at birth and are blind, deaf, and helpless. At first, they live on only the mother's milk. When they are about 3 weeks old, they begin to eat meat and to leave the den for short periods. Adult wolves provide the pups with meat. An adult eats much meat after killing an animal. To get some of this meat, the pups lick the mouth of the adult wolf. The adult coughs up the meat, and the pups eat it.
All the wolves in a pack help take care of the pups. When the pups are very small, other pack members bring food to the mother so she doesn't have to leave the den. When the pups are a little bigger, pack members "take turns" bringing them food, playing with them and even "babysitting." Once the pups are about 8 weeks old, they leave the den and start using "rendezvous sites." These are meeting places where the wolves gather to sleep, play and learn. Until the pups are old enough to go with the adults, they stay at the rendezvous site. Often one of the adult wolves stays with the pups to watch over them.
Wolf pups love to play. Many of their games appear to be a sort of practice for the things they will do as adult wolves. Pups have been observed playing with "toys" like bones, feathers or the skins of dead animals. They "kill" the toys over and over again and carry them around as "trophies." As they get bigger they begin to hunt small animals, like rabbits. This is all good practice for the day they join the pack for their first real hunt for large animals.
When the members of a pack gather to begin a hunt, they greet each other and howl. Their howling may become very loud, and it warns other wolves to stay out of the pack's territory.
Wolves roam through their territory until they find prey. They then move in on the prey. They may inch closer to it, perhaps in single file. Then they break into a run, and the chase begins.
Wolves hunt and chase many more animals than they can catch. Wolves eat almost any animal they can catch. Many of the animals they hunt, such as caribou and elk, are faster and stronger than wolves. Therefore, wolves must be quick, tireless, and clever to catch their prey.
Wolves hunt at any time of the day or night but tend to hunt more in the evening, night, and early morning. If wolves can catch their prey, they attack the rump or sides of the animal. They try to wound the animal and make it bleed until it weakens. Then they grab the victim by the throat or snout. Wolves can usually kill a large animal in only a few minutes. However, the entire hunt may take several hours. The wolves may give up the chase if the animal is strong, such as a healthy moose. They also may abandon the hunt if the animal is exceptionally fast.
Sick, injured, or aged animals that lag behind their herds make easy targets for wolves. The wolf helps strengthen the herds of its prey by killing such animals. An old or unhealthy animal can be a burden to its herd. For example, an aged caribou eats food that other caribou need to raise their young. A sick elk may infect other members of the herd. By eliminating such animals, wolves perform an important natural function.
Many people despise the wolf because it kills other animals. Wolves provoke farmers and ranchers by destroying sheep, cows, and other livestock. Many hunters dislike the wolf because it kills game animals, such as elk and deer. These hunters mistakenly think that wolves wipe out game in certain areas. That is seldom true.
Fables and folklore also have contributed to the wolf's bad reputation. In many old sayings, the animal is a symbol of badness or evil. For example, "to keep the wolf from the door" means to prevent hunger or poverty. "A wolf in sheep's clothing" describes a person who acts friendly but has evil intentions. Fables pass on the misleading notion that wolves attack people. In the story of Little Red Riding Hood, a wolf threatens to eat a little girl.
Hatred and fear of wolves have led people to destroy large numbers of them. Government poisoning programs formerly helped exterminate wolves in the United States and other countries. Bounties (rewards) were sometimes offered for the deaths of wolves.
The United States government has classified the gray wolf as an endangered species in every state except Alaska and Minnesota. This wolf is a threatened species in Minnesota. The red wolf is classified as endangered in all the Southern States. Gray wolves have been reintroduced into the wild in Wyoming and Idaho, where they once roamed in great numbers. Red wolves have been reintroduced into the wild in North Carolina and Tennessee.