There are few things as scary and awesome as a chorus of coyote calls. My first experiences with these were mind-blowing when I worked at a summer camp in Lake Placid for three years right out of high school.
We spent the summer living in canvas tents draped over wooden platforms. At night, we could see the fire reflecting in the eyes of the “coydogs” hiding in the trees between the junior and senior camps.
And then we heard the howls… no, the moans… no, the… the… Words fail to describe the sound these animals make when they all sing together, but it was enough to make me wish we had a lot more in between. us than a fragile canvas wall.
These days, I find myself captivated by the chorus of coyotes that drift through my bedroom windows at night. I wake up the dog and we lie there listening to music. However, it is true that there are still times when I walk the dog and we hear them, and they make me think. Like the evening of a few years ago when we were walking home from the golf course and hit a sound barrier. It was as if hundreds of coyotes had set up a roadblock just around the corner of the road. I was fully convinced that we were about to see dozens of wild canines at any given time. I should have taken better note of the dog’s reaction, which was zero. Sound propagates well in the cooler, humid evening air; these animals, which seemed so close, were obviously further away than my imagination could place them.
The history of the eastern coyote seems shrouded in mystery. Where does it come from and how did it get here? One hundred years ago there were no coyotes in the Adirondacks. One hundred and fifty years ago we still had wolves. Foxes were our only other wild canid. So how did we come to this big animal that so beautifully filled the void left by the wolves?
The basic theory is that the western coyote moved east. He first came to the plains and made a pretty good life there. Plains coyotes, sometimes referred to as scrub wolves, were sometimes taken in by natives to work as beasts of burden. Because coyotes never really specialized, like wolves or foxes, they have remained fairly flexible in their behaviors, a trait that makes them very adaptable to a wide range of habitats. This also makes them prolific breeders. As their population increased, so did their range.
Evidence suggests that when the coyotes crossed the Mississippi River, some went north into Canada, bypassing the Great Lakes, while others went east and south. The favorites found themselves in new territory that had no other coyotes to mate with. Most animals mate exclusively with their own species, but canids seem to be the exception to this rule, and these early coyotes only found wolves to mate with. The influx of wolf genes helped create animals that were larger than the originals and that began to show some of the social structure found in wolf packs.
What about coydogs? To this day, kids and adults alike talk about the coydogs they’ve seen. If you try to tell them that coydogs don’t exist, you better prepare for a heated discussion because they won’t give up on the idea. “My father said it was like that” is a very difficult argument to refute. The first reported coyote-dog hybrid dates back to 1885, but whether this is a scientific fact or an anecdote is only a guess.
The first successful captive breeding of a coyote and a dog took place in 1937 and all of the puppies died. Captive breeding programs over the years have shown that coyote-dog hybrids end up with asymmetric breeding cycles, resulting in the birth of young at the start of the year when it is still quite cold and food reserves are low; most do not survive. Today, eastern coyotes can certainly find plenty of other coyotes to mate with, so there is no reason for them to tidy up with wild dogs. Therefore, the likelihood of finding real coydog dogs in the 21st century is slim.
It wasn’t until 1944 that the first coyote was reported in Quebec, but it seems after that it didn’t take long for it to appear on both sides of the St. Lawrence River. Reports of “wild hybrid canids” trapped and shot in the Adirondacks appeared in 1942 and 1943. By the 1950s, these mountains were fairly well populated by the new eastern coyote.
Today, eastern coyotes are quite common in the Adirondacks. They have decent sized home ranges (around 10 square miles), walk 10 to 15 miles a day, live in family units of three to five people on average, and eat a variety of foods. Many people suspect that coyotes are responsible for deer death, and as top predators they can and will take deer, but most of the coyote’s diet is made up of medium-sized prey, such as hares. of America and voles.
I have been fortunate enough to see coyotes a few times. The first was a large specimen that passed through my yard in the early hours of the morning about eight years ago; it looked so much like a german shepherd that I had to do a double take. A few winters ago a smaller coyote crossed the road in front of us as the dog and I walked home from our evening walk. In both cases, the animal glanced at me, noticed my presence, then slipped into the forest and disappeared. And it is as it should – a brush with savagery that leaves you with one memory and one craving for more.
Photo of the Eastern Coyote courtesy of Daniel Bogan, PhD student at Cornell University, and Dr. Paul Curtis, DNR.
This essay was first published in the Adirondack Almanack on July 15, 2009.