Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Eastern Coyote – The Adirondacks’ Large Canid

There are few things as equally hair-raising and awe-inspiring as a chorus of coyote calls. My first experiences with these were of the hair-raising variety 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 that were draped over wooden platforms. At night we could see the fire reflected in the eyes of the “coydogs” that lurked in the trees between the junior and senior camps. And then we would hear the howls…no, the wails…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 that we had a lot more between us than a flimsy canvas wall.

These days I find myself enthralled by the coyote chorus that drifts through my bedroom windows at night. I poke the dog awake and we lie there listening to the music. However, there are admittedly still times when I am out walking the dog and we hear them, and they give me pause. Like the evening a couple years ago when we were coming home along the golf course and ran into a Wall of Sound. It was as though hundreds of coyotes had made a road block just around the bend in the road. I was fully convinced that we were about to see dozens of wild canines at any moment. I should’ve taken better note of the dog’s reaction, which was nil. Sound travels well in the cooler, damper air of evening; those animals, which sounded so close, were obviously further away than my imagination placed them.

The history of the eastern coyote seems to be shrouded in mystery. Where did it come from and how did it get here? A hundred years ago, there were no coyotes in the Adirondacks (or New York State). A hundred and fifty years ago we still had wolves. Foxes were our only other wild canid. So how did we end up with this large animal that has so nicely filled the gap left behind by wolves?

The basic theory is that the western coyote moved eastward. First it came to the plains and made a pretty good life for itself there. The plains coyotes, sometimes called brush wolves, were sometimes taken in by native people to work as beasts of burden. Because coyotes never really specialized, like wolves or foxes, they remained quite flexible in their behaviors, a trait that makes them highly adaptable to a wide range of habitats. It also makes them prolific breeders. As their population expanded, so did their range.

The evidence suggests that when the coyotes crossed the Mississippi River, some went northward into Canada, circumventing the Great Lakes, while others went east and south. The frontrunners found themselves in new territory that had no other coyotes around with which to mate. Most animals mate exclusively with their own kind, but canines seem to be the exception to this rule, and those early coyotes found nothing to mate with but wolves. The influx of wolf genes helped create animals that were larger than the originals and that started to show some of the social structure found in wolf packs.

So what about coydogs? To this day, children and adults alike talk about the coydogs they’ve seen. If you try to tell them that coydogs don’t exist, you’d best be prepared for a heated discussion, for they will not give up that notion. “My dad said that’s what it is” is a very difficult argument to refute. The first reported coyote-dog hybrid was in 1885, but whether this was scientific fact or anecdotal is conjecture. The first successful captive breeding of a coyote and dog was in 1937 and all the pups died. Captive breeding programs over the years demonstrated that coyote-dog hybrids end up with skewed breeding cycles, which result in pups being born early in the year when it is still quite cold and food supplies are low; most do not survive. Today eastern coyotes can certainly find plenty of other coyotes with which to mate, so there is no reason for them to set up housekeeping with feral dogs. Therefore, the likelihood of finding genuine coydogs in the 21st century is slim.

It wasn’t until 1944 that the first coyote was recorded in Quebec, but it seems that after that it didn’t take long for them to appear along both sides of the St. Lawrence River. Accounts of “wild hybrid canids” being trapped and shot in the Adirondacks were showing up in 1942 and 1943. The 1950s found these mountains to be fairly well populated with the new eastern coyote.

Today eastern coyotes are quite common throughout the Adirondacks. They have fairly good-sized home ranges (about 10 square miles), travel 10 to 15 miles a day, live in family units averaging three to five individuals, and eat a variety of foods. Many people suspect that coyotes are responsible for deer kills, and as a large predator they can and will take deer, but most of the coyote’s diet is made up of medium-sized prey, such as snowshoe hares and voles.

I have been fortunate to actually see coyotes on a couple of occasions. The first was a large specimen who was crossing my yard in the early morning twilight about eight years ago; it looked so much like a German shepherd that I had to do a double take. A couple winters ago a smaller coyote crossed the road in front of us as the dog and I were headed home from our evening walk. In both cases the animal glanced at me, took note of my presence, and then slipped into the forest and vanished. And that’s as it should be – a brush with wildness that leaves you with a memory and a yearning for more.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Bogan, PhD candidate at Cornell University, and Dr. Paul Curtis, DNR.

Ellen Rathbone

Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.

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