The wolf-like coyote in our backyard

A coyote at Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook

“Coyote power: surviving by one’s intelligence and wits when others cannot; embracing existence in a mad, dancing, laughing, sympathetic expression of pure joy at evading the grimmest of fates; exulting in sheer aliveness; recognizing our shortcomings with rueful chagrin.”

– Dan Flores, Coyote America

I. An encounter

The O&W Rail Trail, Marbletown, dusk. If I weren’t on a bike, the mosquitos would be overwhelming; but I’m gliding along unbitten, the forest’s cool shade and birdsong a welcome relief after pedaling under the sun on the roads of Kingston and Hurley. Miles away from the main trailheads, the path is clear of walkers and joggers. A bicyclist coming from the opposite direction appears as a disturbance in the symmetry of the slowly unfolding landscape, originating from the vanishing point and seeming to move faster as he get closer. Then a sound like my own tires in the gravel comes into earshot and the next moment he’s past, and I have the trail to myself again.

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After a few minutes pedaling alone, something crossed my path. It was the size and shape of a German Shepherd, but light on its feet – so light, as it trotted through the undergrowth across the trail 50 feet ahead of me, that its head seemed to stay perfectly level, as if the different parts of its body were operated by separate intelligences, the legs gliding along over rough terrain, finding the path, while the mind was free to regard me coolly.

There was no mistaking it for a dog. A dog would pack another 25 to 40 pounds on the same frame, and would bound over fallen tree branches and the raised trail, shoulders and hindquarters in visible gallop, tail up, tongue out. A dog wouldn’t look at a human speeding his way with cool indifference. This was a wild animal, its wildness more arresting because of its familiar appearance, the way a more-realistic-but-imperfect animation of a person’s face is more jarring than a less-accurate design.

I’d heard mad yips and yaps in the distance, usually on winter nights; but I’d imagined small jackal-like animals, nocturnal, and so wary and rare that somehow I couldn’t picture them inhabiting the fields and forests I knew. Instead, they were like banshees, existing on another plane of reality that only bled into ours during the witching hour.

But the animal that crossed my path that evening was undeniably there. With its long legs, large head and dense gray coat, it looked like an impossible creature: an Eastern wolf, unseen in these woods for more than a century. But at a second glance, the nose was sharper and the body, though large, wasn’t wolf-size. So, what was it?

 

Coyote canoeing in a traditional tale

II. A story

One day, Coyote was hungry, so he went to visit his brother Kingfisher.

“Do you have anything to eat?” asked Coyote. “I am hungry.”

Kingfisher didn’t like Coyote’s rude way of speaking. Nevertheless, Kingfisher sent his son to cut three willow sticks, and heat them up over the fire until they were strong. Kingfisher placed the sticks in his belt, flew up to the roof of his lodge, then out over the frozen river and into a hole in the ice. When he emerged, there was a fish on each stick.

Coyote ate his fill and saved some to bring home to his wife and children.

“You must come visit me tomorrow and I will feed you in turn,” said Coyote.

Kingfisher didn’t really want to visit Coyote, but he agreed. The next day, when Kingfisher arrived, Coyote called to his son and had him fetch three willow sticks and heat them up. Coyote put the warm sticks in his belt and climbed to the top of his lodge and leaped from the roof toward a hole in the ice, missing it and breaking his neck.

Kingfisher sighed and flew over to the place Coyote lay, took the sticks from Coyote’s belt and dove into the water. When he emerged, he had many fish. He stepped over Coyote’s body four times and Coyote came back to life.

“That’s my way, Coyote, not your way,” he said. “I do not imitate others like you do.” With that, Kingfisher flew away, leaving the fish flopping in a heap at Coyote’s feet. Coyote took the fish to his wife.

“Wife, behold the many fish I caught using Kingfisher’s technique. He is afraid of me and told me not to do it again. He knows my medicine is strong.”

His wife cooked the fish.

– From the Okanagan version of the Native American story “The Bungling Host,” as told (more or less) in Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: How Disruptive Imagination Creates Culture.

 

III. The persecuted

“The cayote is a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolf-skin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. He has a general slinking expression all over. The cayote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry.

He is always poor, out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him, and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede. He is so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it. And he is so homely! So scrawny, and ribby, and coarse-haired, and pitiful.”

–Mark Twain, Roughing It

The coyote is the most American of canines. All members of that family, including wolves, dogs, foxes and raccoon dogs, descend from a common North American ancestor. The difference is that their evolutionary path included time in Eurasia. The coyote never left. The gray wolf, for example, evolved into a large, highly social predator of large hoofed mammals on the Asian steppes, returning to North America only 20,000 years ago. When the first Europeans ventured into the old-growth forests of the East Coast and heard the wolf’s howl, they may have felt a chill run up their spines, but it was a familiar chill. Thousands of years of living together embedded the wolf in the European mind through mythology, folktales and idioms. Romulus and Remus. Little Red Riding Hood. The wolf at the door.

When Lewis and Clarke encountered the coyote as their route through the Eastern forest opened into the Great Plains, they thought it was some type of fox. They eventually settled on “Priari Wolf” (prairie wolf), a name that was still heard in the West through the first half of the 20th century. “Coyote” comes from the Aztec coyotl via Spanish. Mark Twain popularized the name and established the animal’s bad reputation in 1872’s Roughing It.

 

Coyote (Canis latrans) from John James Audubon’s The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Image from the Ewell Sale Stewart Library & Archives

The timing is important: The South was beaten and the West was next. The mythic age of the pioneers was ending; out with the mountain men and in with the ranchers; out with the buffalo and in with the steer. There was no room for predators; all would be exterminated. Wolves may have been a more prolific killer of livestock, but there was a certain respect for the charismatic wolf. There was no love lost for the cowardly coyote. In the end, it didn’t matter what we thought of either; both were shot and poisoned with equal verve by ranchers and the federal government. Actually, we used a quality in wolves we find naturally appealing – their sociability – against them, baiting traps with the scent of their recently killed pack members.

It was, to put it mildly, a different time. People weren’t conscious of the interdependence of nature; they thought if an animal was causing trouble, then removing every individual was a logical response. Even the Hudson Valley’s own John Burroughs, the naturalist who went into nature to be “soothed and healed” and to have his “senses put in order,” wrote that predators “certainly needed killing” and “the fewer of these there are, the better for the useful and beautiful game.”

By the 1920s, the gray wolf was all but wiped out in the Lower 48. But not the coyote. Despite annually killing 30,000 (confirmed) and perhaps another 100,000 whose bodies were never found, there seemed to be no way for us to reduce their numbers. One reason for their resilience lay in their evolution as second-dog to the wolf. Wolves mercilessly kill coyotes as competitors, and coyotes have reacted accordingly with social and reproductive flexibility. The more coyotes killed, the larger the litters in the next generation.

“The coyote’s yipping howl, known around the world as the iconic music of wild North America, has several functions, one very important one of which is to assess the size of the surrounding coyote population,” writes Dan Flores in Coyote America. “In the face of persecution that thins their numbers, they respond with whopping litters with high pup survivability.” (Indeed, the species takes its name from these vocalizations: Canis latrans means “barking dog.”)

Flores also writes of the coyote’s flexible social ties, which he calls “fission-fusion.” While wolves live in stable packs with a single breeding pair and their grown offspring, coyotes are capable of working alone, in pairs or in larger groups, as the circumstances allow. When the knives are out, whether from humans or wolves, coyotes scatter. If the harassment is consistent enough, they go into “colonization mode” and begin exploring new areas. When they go after big game – the opportunities for which expanded dramatically after the wolf was removed from the ecosystem – they combine into ad hoc packs.

The killing of coyotes hasn’t stopped. Though naturalists insist it’s all but futile to try to reduce coyote numbers, it’s estimated that 400,000 are still killed each year in the US, mostly in the West. If the coyote historians were to tally the body count, this would be an atrocity. But for the species, our attempt to control nature has been a boon. It has led to the removal of the wolf without hurting coyote numbers, and pushed the coyote to colonize new areas it never would have otherwise.

Until the late 19th century, coyotes were an animal of the open grasslands and prairie. The combination of an unbroken forest environment and the presence of large predators (not only wolves, but also cougars and bobcats) prevented coyotes from moving east until the arrival of European settlers, who tamed the wilderness by clearing the woodlands for farms and exterminating animals that posed a threat to livestock and people. In the process, they created a habitat more suitable for the coyote and opened up a niche for a mid-to-large-sized predator. Nature abhors a vacuum.

 

 

IV. The hybrid

There’s a common belief that only members of the same species can produce fertile offspring. Most individuals of different species can’t reproduce, and have no interest in reproducing; and those who do, like horses and donkeys, produce sterile progeny. But there are many exceptions to this, and the Canis family is one of them. Wolves, coyotes, jackals, domestic dogs and dingoes can all produce hybrids.

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Numbers vary depending on location and type of test, but in general, Eastern coyotes have a lot more wolf and domestic dog genes than their Western counterparts. According to coyote biologist Roland Kays, a research associate professor at North Carolina State University, coyotes in the Northeast “are mostly (60 to 84 percent) coyote, with lesser amounts of wolf (eight to 25 percent) and dog (eight to 11 percent).” It’s believed that interbreeding with wolves occurred as Western coyotes made their way across Canada. Coyotes and wolves aren’t normally friendly, but interbreeding is more likely when the populations of both species are low – as are the wolf’s generally, and among coyotes pioneering a new territory. Because the wolf genes conferred offspring with greater adaptive fitness for the deer-filled forests of the East, they were more likely to be passed down to succeeding generations, which reinforced those qualities without requiring continuous interbreeding.

Thanks to this mixed parentage, the Eastern coyote goes by many names. Many of us grew up being told that the yips and yaps we heard at night came from “coydogs,” though it’s doubtful dogs ever made up more than a small amount of coyote DNA. Lately the new name is “coywolf.”

One person you won’t hear using that name is Kays. He argues that, although the Eastern coyote has, on average, a significant amount of wolf ancestry, it’s premature to label it a separate species because of wide variability. Individuals in the same area may have a large amount of wolf genes or none. “In other words, there is no single new genetic entity that should be considered a unique species,” writes Kays. “Instead, we are finding a large intermixing population of coyotes across the continent, with a smattering of non-coyote DNA mixed in to varying degrees along the eastern edge. The coywolf is not a thing.”

A coyote spotted off Springtown Rd. in New Paltz (Timothy Richard O’Keefe)

Jonathan Way, founder of Eastern Coyote/Coywolf Research and another coyote biologist, disagrees. Eastern coyotes occupy a different niche, have a larger range and are more social than their Western counterparts. His studies, together with William Lay, have found Eastern coyotes’ genetics to be about 60/30/10 coyote/wolf/dog. If 40 percent of the animal’s ancestry is non-coyote, argues Way, a new species is in order. He suggests Canisoriens, “Eastern canid,” though he’s cool with coywolf in English, because it gives due credit to the influence of the Eastern wolf. “In one word, coywolf quite accurately summarizes the main components of this animal’s background,” writes Way. “Other species have far more names. For instance, cougars (Puma concolor) are also called mountain lions, pumas, catamounts and panthers, among dozens of other local names. To use the terms ‘Eastern coyote’ (or Northeastern coyote) and ‘coywolf’ as synonyms seems highly valid to me.”

Whether it’s a distinct species or not, we’re not only watching evolution unfold in front of our eyes; we’re also playing an active role and shaping it.

V. In our backyard

What can we say about coyotes in the Hudson Valley? Unfortunately, there’s been no study that focused specifically on our local population, so we’re restricted to anecdotes and general observations that would be true for Eastern coyotes in similar areas across the Northeast. Our local coyote is quite a bit different from the Western coyote. It’s larger, 35 to 50 pounds versus 20 to 30 pounds, with a thicker coat, less pointed nose, larger skull and stronger muscles and tendons around the jaw. Size and color are more variable as well, due to their mixed ancestry.

The first coyote was seen in northern New York State in 1919. Eighty years later, a coyote made it to the Bronx. Today, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) estimates that there are 14,500 breeding pairs across the state.

Coyotes arrived in the Hudson Valley in the ’60s and ’70s. Michael Fargione, field research and outdoor programs manager at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, said that coyotes were first noticed on the Institute’s property in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Their numbers have increased since then and are relatively stable now.

What do they eat? “I think they are opportunists, and so they feed on what they can readily obtain, whether it be mice, squirrels, possums, raccoons, rabbits, carrion, road-kill, birds, birds eggs,” said Fargione. “They feed on a significant amount of vegetation…Sometimes they’re feeding on berries. Other times they’re consuming some kind of vegetation, whether it be grasses or reeds or something like that, tubers maybe.”

A coyote on the Mohonk Preserve (photo by David Johnson)

The Eastern coyote’s larger size also allows it to prey on white-tailed deer. Hunters talk about the coyote’s ability to smell a newborn fawn from miles away, and the resulting dips in deer population when coyotes are more numerous. They’re capable of taking down healthy adult deer, but Fargione says that they generally need very deep snow like that found in the Adirondacks to hamper their prey.

There are up-sides to fewer deer, says Joshua Ginsburg, president of the Cary Institute. Deer feed on the forest’s understory. As the deer population is reduced, the forest changes and the ecosystem becomes more diverse. You get more oak trees, for example, which support a wide variety of animals, especially during mast years when all oak trees in an area shed their acorns simultaneously. Fewer deer also mean fewer road accidents, which can be deadly for motorists and deer alike. “The simplification of the ecosystem leads towards both less stability, but also, even more importantly, we know that these complex ecosystems are healthier for humans,” said Ginsburg. “In the Hudson Valley, where we have a diversity of predators and prey, we have less Lyme disease, because you get a diversity of predators eating mice and chipmunks, and those things drive tick cycles more than deer do.”

Ginsburg is describing a more filled-out ecosystem. But in the meantime, as coyote populations increase, other studies from the Cary Institute have found that their effect on Lyme might go the other way. Here’s why: Coyotes tend to push foxes out of an area. Foxes kill many more small rodents than do coyotes, so more coyotes could mean more mice and chipmunks. Because mice and chipmunks are the best reservoirs for the Lyme-causing bacteria transported by ticks, more coyotes in an area could help increase cases of Lyme disease in humans.

Though coyotes usually avoid us, that’s beginning to change, especially in more populated areas where people are less likely to shoot at them. As a result, coyotes are willing to live closer to humans. We don’t have much reason to fear coyotes, but our pets do. “The concept of living in the country is that you can let your dog outside. But we didn’t expect we would live in an area with animals as violent as coyotes,” said one man who moved from Manhattan to Westchester in a 2015 New York Times article about brash coyotes attacking pets.

This spring, a coyote (or coyotes) killed two dogs and attacked another off Springtown Road in New Paltz. In a New Paltz Times article, resident Jennifer Ippolito described seeing “a large canine predator” carry off one of her Maltese dogs. She chased after it in vain and returned to find her other Maltese missing. She reported it to the DEC, who told her it was likely a coyote, but she said that it “looked more like a wolf.” Four days later, Ippolito said she saw another probable coyote stalk and attack a 30-pound dog in the same area. She said she blew her horn and threw rocks at the predator until the woman and her dog could take refuge in Ippolito’s car.

Coyotes are known to become more aggressive in spring, which is their breeding season. The DEC issued a permit to “haze” the offending coyotes by shooting them with rubber bullets, with the aim of compelling them to move their den to a less populated area, but was unable to locate a den near where Ippolito’s dogs were killed.

The 8,000-acre Mohonk Preserve is near the area where the alleged coyote attacks occurred. Elizabeth Long, director of conservation science at the Preserve, said that coyotes are more often heard than seen. They frequent the more out-of-the-way parts of the preserve, like the foothills on the eastern side of the Shawangunk Ridge. Visitors who spot coyotes are often surprised by their large size.

“We definitely get reports and pictures sent to us describing coyotes that folks are positive are wolves,” said Long. “I lived in the West for several years, and I will say that most of the coyotes I see here are larger than the ones that I used to see out West; but they’re certainly coyotes and not wolves.”

 

VI. The mirror

“The coyote might be considered part of the same central stock of unspecialized canids that has formed the basis of the evolution of the family [Canidae]…These small animals seem to have maintained themselves with relatively little change, while the canids that became large, and specialized in habits, have disappeared. The [prehistoric] bear-dogs…, the hyena-dogs…and the great dire wolf…have all fallen by the wayside. Now even the gray and red wolves may be moving in this same direction, but the coyote shows no sign of being a has-been.”

– Ronald M. Nowak, “Evolution and taxonomy of coyotes and related Canis” in Coyotes: Biology, Behavior, and Management (1978)

“Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.”

– Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

We noted that the first Europeans who came to North America were familiar with wolves, but didn’t see coyotes until they made it to the prairie. The same goes for the first peoples. They also would have been familiar with the wolf from Asia, and would have no doubt incorporated it into their legend, religion and folklore; and they too had to journey for hundreds of miles on the new continent, likely over hundreds of years, before encountering the coyote. While the Europeans viewed the animal as repugnant and tried to wipe it out, the Native Americans made it a god. The trickster deity Coyote appears in hundreds of Native American stories. In its ability to inspire creative tale-telling, no other deity comes close. Why were Native Americans so fascinated by the coyote?

Maybe they saw something of themselves in this clever, adaptable but physically middling canine. The most obviously impressive North American megafauna all went extinct at the end of the last Ice Age, around the same time that the first tribes crossed Beringia. Climate change and hunting both played a role. The first peoples of North America would have seen it unfold, and learned the lesson: The bigger they come, the harder they fall.

Coyote in “The Bungling Host” has “no way.” He’s not a born fisherman, and his attempt to mimic Kingfisher is a farce. But things don’t always go so badly for Coyote. In other stories (and there are many), he’s able to bed the chief’s daughter, bring light, bring death (which makes the time given to us more precious) and give people access to water from parsimonious frogs who’d been hoarding it for themselves.

Sometimes his mimicry works. Like Coyote, man isn’t a born fisherman. We’re embarrassingly slow in the water and can hold our breath for only a couple of minutes at most. We’d make poor spiders, too, being unable to generate silken cables naturally from our posterior and weave them into a beautiful trap to ensnare our dinner without ever being given so much as a lesson. Yet today, we can move over the water faster than any creature that ever lived and are so good at trapping fish in webs that we have to exercise self-restraint lest we remove them all. “Having no way, [Coyote] is free of the trap of instinct, both ‘stupider than the animals’ and more versatile than any,” writes Lewis Hyde.

Coyotes cooperate when it suits them, but they spend most of their time with their nuclear family. We’re similar, though we take things quite a bit further. Humans rule the world because of our unparalleled ability to cooperate, which extends beyond friends and co-workers to millions of members of our species whom we will never meet, but with whom we cooperate through the shared belief in artificial constructions like money, the rule of law and the United States of America. We’ve certainly got coyotes beat there.

The domestic dog is descended from the wolf. Wildlife biologists who hold that the Eastern coyote should be a different species sometimes mention this to support their case, suggesting that it might make sense to count the dog portion of their ancestry as wolf. We were able to domesticate the wolf because of its social instincts. That doesn’t work with coyotes. Sure, a coyote pup may seem playful and affectionate; but once it hits puberty, it will get nervous and bitey. It will reject you. Something isn’t right; it doesn’t feel secure.

Humans, aside from a few disagreeable years in adolescence, don’t have that problem. We’re naturally social. But we do have that default insecurity about our place in the world.

Today, coyotes are the dominant wild predator across much of North America. Their rise to this status was more precipitous than our own. Neither of us is as comfortable or charismatic as the majestic lion or imperturbable elephant. For the most part, coyotes steer clear of us.

Hiking in the Hudson Valley, you regularly come upon and startle deer in close proximity. When they run away, they usually only go for 50 yards or so before turning around to see if you’re chasing. If not, they’ll go back to feeding. Coyotes don’t risk it. If they scent you, that’s it. Their anxieties have served them well.

Ours? Too soon to tell.

 


Note: I relied heavily on Dan Flores’ Coyote America to inform the sections on the Native American concept of Coyote, as well as coyote evolution and the effort to extirpate coyotes in the West – more than could be cited without impeding the flow of the article. The book is subtitled A Natural & Supernatural History and it is a good one. Check it out.

 

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