I set off for a nature walk late in the afternoon of Jan. 29. It was the day of our first winter storm, and the woods behind my house had finally quieted down after a busy snow-day celebration in the neighborhood.
By 3:45 p.m., children had dragged their sleds back home, the sky was graying, and the forest was quiet again. The only human footprints in the snow were my own, and this pleased me. I knew I would see something.
I passed a small herd of whitetail bucks but kept going until I came to a spot that reminded me of the West. I heard no cars, and the houses that rim the forest were completely obscured by trees.
On a far ridge, they appeared. I saw the outline of two large animals, and one was coal black: a pair of coyotes.
Their level trot did not alter, and I knew they had not yet seen me. They carried their full tails low, so unlike the dogs that had bounded through the woods earlier in the day. The thick trees obstructed any clear shot of the pair, so I looked for a break in the trees, and pointed my camera to the tiny clearing, hoping that the coyote pair would not stray from their course along the ridgeline. The larger, reddish male saw me, maintained his unhurried gait, but turned his head in my direction as he moved.
When we both had a clear view, the male stopped. The stare I received was transporting. It reminded me of some picture book from my childhood where the pioneer family sees the glowing eyes of a wolf near their cabin. Those images were meant to frighten, but we all loved them, and longed to see something that wild in our own backyards.
The coyote showed no aggression. He turned back to his mate to make sure she was following, and resumed his travel along the ridge.
After celebrating this chance encounter, I started to wonder exactly what creature I had seen. The pair were clearly Eastern coyotes, but lately, the news has been filled by stories about coywolves, and evidence is emerging that our Eastern coyote is more a “canis soup” than we ever imagined.
When the last of the Eastern wolves (canis lycaon) were driven from their home ranges by settlers, they were an endangered group. Their numbers were few, and it is now believed that they interbred with Western coyotes that were moving eastward away from the domain of the larger, heavier Western wolves (canis lupus). It is even theorized that these Eastern wolves may be either the same species, or a close relative of the red wolves that conservationists in North Carolina are trying to reintroduce in Dare County.
These hybrid coyote/wolf crosses possessed a behavioral plasticity that the wolves did not possess. The Eastern coyote is larger, and heavier than the Western coyote, and yet it has the coyote ability to slide into a suburban landscape with ease. In heavily developed states like Massachusetts, the coywolf (as it has now been named) can be found denning in drainage pipes, or under a stored canoe by a human dwelling. It has a wider jaw, which allows the hybrid to hunt for larger game such as deer. Like the wolf, it has learned to hunt in packs.
DNA analysis indicates that the coyotes we see in the East show an ancestry that includes red wolves (canis rufus), Eastern wolves (canis lycaon) and Western coyotes (canis latrans), along with a little domestic dog, and a touch of Canadian gray wolf. Scientists are still trying to hash it all out, and there is no single agreement as to what to call this eastern canid species. The coyotes that I have seen don’t appear to have the larger jaw of the so-called coywolf, but they are considerably larger than any coyote I have encountered in the West. To my untrained eye, our local coyotes resemble the red wolf.
Champions for the coyote argue that we shouldn’t persecute the coyote as an invasive species filling the gap left by the disappearance (more accurately extirpation) of the native wolf, but rather the return of a stronger more adaptable version of a native Eastern wolf population. In North Carolina, it is open season on the poor coyote, and the hunting is done strictly for sport. You can hunt coyotes 24 hour a day, but the coyote will not be stopped. Every attempt to curb coyote populations has failed. The more we hate them, the stronger they become.
There is great debate over our local coyotes. Some of us revere the return of a native predator, and others worry for their small pets, poultry and personal safety. Perhaps we simply need to exercise caution and learn to coexist with the coyote. Cats need to be kept indoors at night, dogs need to be leashed, chickens need to be properly housed. Pet food should not be left outside.
Finally, we should protect our open green spaces. When the last of our pastures and forests are covered by development, the coyote will still be here. He may be forced to reside under the deck of your house, but he will survive.
Bolin Creek Forest stands out as a safe zone where we can still have encounters with nature. Walkers, runners, cyclists, and yes, coyotes, all occupying the same piece of land … with enough room for everyone to share the terrain.
Mary Parker Sonis is a local naturalist, photographer and writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org