Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Eastern Coyote: The Adirondacks’ Large Canid

eastern coyoteThere 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. 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 of Eastern Coyote courtesy Daniel Bogan, PhD candidate at Cornell University, and Dr. Paul Curtis, DNR.

This essay first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack on July 15, 2009.

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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.

30 Responses

  1. Brian Mann says:
  2. Ellen Rathbone says:
  3. Mauigirl says:
  4. Ethan says:

    Thank you for this!
    I’ve been informed by a few experts that the phenomenon of 2 or 3 coyotes sounding like 10 is referred to as “auditory illusion” or the “Beau Geste effect”. Incredible animals, too often misunderstood, wrongly and indiscriminately persecuted.
    Long may they live.

  5. Chris says:

    Down here in Westchester County the coyote scene is quite different. They are now almost as part of the suburbs as deer and turkeys. We see and hear them a few times a month.

    • Ellen Rathbone says:

      I live in a midwestern city now (ugh), and the only coyotes I’ve seen are within the city limits, although I hear them often at work (local nature center), especially when the area sirens are tested every Tuesday morning!

      What a treat.

      Coyotes are so adaptable.

  6. Ricardo Vasquez says:

    I live in Peru NY and about 10 yrs ago now i had a pack of 3 very large animals in my back yard which is a corn field it was around midnight as my wife and i were returning home from work they were beautiful. My wife wouldnt get out of the car until i made sure they were gone. Im armed so had no fear and as soon as i parked the car and got out they ran away.

    • Ellen Rathbone says:

      For the most part, coyotes are not likely to harm you. I read a piece recently that talked about how young coyotes may follow people, apparently out of curiosity, and that can be disconcerting. And yes, there have been a handful of cases (I can think of three) where coyotes actually attacked. But overall, if you exercise caution and common sense, I doubt you have much to worry about if you encounter a coyote. Most wildlife is happy to leave us alone if we leave it alone.

  7. Steve B. says:

    In the Burbs, Coyotes are quickly learning there’s an easy food source called “pet”. The small ones are especially easy to catch and tasty. These “pets” are generally unsuspecting of the danger of a predator that has moved into their territory. I suspect the cat variation of pet will be quick learners, as they already are threatened by the other pet called dog, thus might be naturally scared of this new creature.

    The dog type pet will be totally clueless, thinking it’s just a German Shepard or some such, which they might be used to.

    The human “owner” of this ready food source will as well, have a steep learning curve when they begin to understand why some beloved pets didn’t come home for dinner.

    The resulting howls will be a mix of the Coyotes as well as the humans screaming for the politicians to do something about their pets disappearing,

    • Ellen Rathbone says:

      I encounter this concern a lot here in the midwestern city where I now live. What can I say: we have moved into their territory. And if people are going to let their pets outside, unsupervised, then they shouldn’t be surprised if they encounter wildlife. Most urban coyotes probably find plenty of other food besides Fluffy or Fido, and are actually performing a great service keeping “vermin” under control, but they are opportunistic.

      • Steve B. says:

        There was a coyote spotted and photographed in Central Park, NYC last week. There are known breeding pairs in 2 city parks in the Bronx. A pair were photographed on a wildlife camera in the north shore, western Long Island last year.

        It’s safe to say that we haven’t moved into coyote territory as much as they’ve moved into human territory. They’re very good at adapting.

        I love the thought of having coyotes around, I admire their adaptability and perseverance. When I lived summers in Santa Fe, NM, they were all over the place and we learned to not let the cats out.

        Glad the article debunked the old legend of “coydogs”. I always thought that was rubbish.

  8. Ellen gordinier says:

    I truly love the Adirondacks I lived on Long lake for 32 years with my family my husband was the residential New York Hamilton county happier days shall never know my heart will always be there

  9. Shirley freitas says:

    I moved to Dutchess County in 2015 after a lifetime in northern California. We had coyotes everywhere. I cannot even count the times I saw them, everywhere from hikes in Bay Area mountains and open spaces to our own backyard in Mill Valley. My most memorable experience was in 1990. A friend’s dog and I were jogging in a pretty remote open space adjacent to Mount Diablo when a coyote began trotting alongside us. At first both the dog and I were fairly nervous but eventually realized the coyote wasn’t going to attack and soon the three of us were peacefully jogging the trail. After about a mile and a half the coyote veered off and left.
    We once had a young male coyote setting up a den in our back yard. The wildlife group advised us to out ammonia soaked rags where the scat was. It worked.
    Cats were often taken and some people called cats “coyote candy.”
    I’ve seen two coyotes since moving here. They were larger than the western coyotes.

  10. Ray Hull says:

    I was out walking my Newfs along our Hudson River Boat Launch Park this morning when, on our way back south towards home, I saw a medium-small dog trotting out from shore on the spotty thin Hudson River ice. He was headed for Albany and about a third of the way out on the not-so- solid river. Then, he just stopped and appeared to sit down, but after a few moments of no movement, I decided that his hind-end had broken through the ice when he stopped. Not really sure what to do I watched for a minute or two and he was still and seemed focused on the Albany shoreline. Figuring that the fire department wasn’t going to risk men, I decided to start calling the dog. “Come, Come on, this way, Come, Come on.” Suddenly he got his hind-end up and started trotting toward us. He was still a half-block south of us, so, I decided to walk on home as I wasn’t prepared for my guys—by then on full alert–to greet a strange, unleashed dog.

    As we walked up beside my house, I looked down toward the ferry slip, and lo and behold: up popped his head from the brush along the riverfront opposite my house. I shouted “Good Boy! and Merry Christmas!” as I opened the gate. At that point he made it up to the clearing and watched us and only then could I see that he was a fox…and a lucky one. Can’t imagine why he responded toward us, unless he smelled my guys and figured I was a canine lover…and that would have been correct.

    So that’s my Christmas 2019 tale of best wishes to all of God’s Creatures for the day.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours and let’s hope for a Peaceful New Year.


  11. Joe quellman says:

    more likely the coyote was glancing less at you but at “ the dog”. and ehat’s up w/that rather austere reference used thruout to man’s revered best friend anyway?

  12. Charlie S says:

    Ellen Rathbone says: “For the most part, coyotes are not likely to harm you.”
    “Most wildlife is happy to leave us alone if we leave it alone.”

    Yes but! Let us not forget Taylor Mitchell, the 19 year-old Canadian folk singer who was killed by coyotes while walking a trail in Canada ten years ago.

    I like the eerie sounds they put out at night or early mornings, and I’m glad we have them, but I do not trust coyotes. I recall one day some years back I was visiting my brother’s place down in Schoharie County up on the Maybie hill. There’s an old barn on his property where I used to sneak into and up to the second floor where old bales of hay took up a large area on the north end. I used to position myself on one of those bales of hay near a window whose frame and glass had long since gone away. I used to just sit up there for hours at a time and look out into the fields and woods, watch the snow come down, or on summer days just watch the world of insects and birds go by. It was so peaceful! You can count on one hand how many cars would pass that barn in a day…is how rural it is there. I used to sit in that barn, sip beers and smoke weed and write into my journal or read a book while taking in those rural scenes out that pane-less window. The sound of the wind creeping through gaps was one of the most joyful sounds while in that barn on moody days, not a care in the world from me, not a soul in the world knowing my whereabouts during these visits to the old Maybie barn. Such pleasing thoughts thinking about those bygone moments these moments! That old barn has seen better days unfortunately as the roof caved-in during that big snowstorm surely ten years ago by now. My brother told me nearly 40 inches fell over that landscape up in those parts during that storm. It was a heavy wet snow.

    Well anyway! There was this one evening, just as it was getting dark, I stepped out from that barn and headed towards the road to get to my brothers house which was a few hundred feet away. The barn sits on land that goes down so that when you first step out the road is at nearly eye level. As I got closer to the road I suddenly heard the slight howl of a coyote, a very soft howl… and then another slight coyote note right after that from another animal from another section near where the big cornfield is on the opposite side of Maybie Road. The first thing that came to mind was that as soon as my head popped out over that road I was picked out by those coyotes and the scheming began, or I saw myself as prey. Of course this was in my own head this thinking but nonetheless this is what I thought and so I acted by picking up my pace as I headed for my brother’s door.

    You never know! I do know that coyotes are smart! I’ve seen at least two of them look both ways before they crossed roads, one up in Indian Lake, the other in Rensselaer County. I know someone in Blue Mountain Lake who told me some years ago that he was coming out of the woods from Cascade Pond and was followed by a coyote the whole walk out, which is damn near three miles. This person said ever since then he carries a gun with him when he goes into them woods. What you say above is true Ellen…………..but!

    • Boreas says:

      Charlie – could that have been cannabis-induced paranoia? Been there…

      Certainly why the Native Americans considered them tricksters. Although the bigger they get, the less tricky they need to be.

  13. Charlie S says:

    Steve B says: ” I suspect the cat variation of pet will be quick learners”

    If they survive! My niece lives in Clifton Park, what used to be old farm country now an urban wasteland and becoming more of one as the years go passing by. In her neighborhood you become very aware of “Missing cat” posters on poles. One night towards tennish she heard a noise outside her sliding doors in her backyard. She turned her light on, looked out her curtains and saw her beloved 13 year old cat being carried off by a coyote. A big coyote! A learning experience? One would hope. In her case yes though she hasn’t had a cat since. She put up a fence around the perimeter of her yard since…too little too late.

    You may hear rumors in areas where cats are disappearing, and you may take those rumors to be true or false, but when you see firsthand, you come to really believe…coyotes like cats! Ever since then, whenever I see “Missing cat” posters, which seem to be very common in many parts New York and Vermont, I think of coyotes right off the bat, and most probably I am right. Of course if the animal never comes home how can we really know its fate. Pets should be kept indoors! If this simple, rational, common sense rule were followed by all pet owners, there’d be less cat victims at the very least.

    • Boreas says:

      Charlie – small dogs as well. At least some cats can climb trees! My trail camera behind my garage picked up a ‘yote a couple months ago. This was a beefy (and well fed) animal – easily the size of a German shepherd with slightly longer legs. Could be keeping the fox population in check as well. Not nearly as many turkeys as last year… I can only hope he will enlist a few of his buddies to thin the starving deer herd in my area.

    • drdirt says:

      We’ve lost several cats over the 40 yrs. here. Always told the kids they were lost and someone else probably was taking care of them. .,.,., I knew it was either cars, coyotes, or raptors.

      My neighbor had a coyote in his gunsights out back in the farmfield but misfired .,., he thought the coyote gave him a very dirty look.

  14. Charlie S says:

    ” At least some cats can climb trees! ”

    I didn’t know this until after this event Boreas…. I was visiting my niece one day and her husband told me that a few nights before that coyote ran off with her cat, that the cat was up in a tree in the yard and wouldn’t come down. He thought it was the most curious thing! He had to get a ladder, go up the tree and fetch that cat. Right away I knew that that cat would not come down from that tree due to probably this same coyote coming into the yard prior to the night it was snatched up and carried away. There is no doubt in my mind. It made it up that tree the first time around but not the second…unfortunately. Surely that coyote was lying-in-wait knowing her cat was there from prior encounter….unbeknownst to the feline.

  15. Martin says:

    As a farmer in St Lawrence Co I’ve seen over half my sheep and goats taken by coyotes (around 60 animals) in one year. We had to get guard dogs to keep the coyotes at bay. They have killed calves, downed cows and other livestock. Geese, ducks and chickens are defenseless against them. Their depredation on deer is significant. We used to see fox in our area and never a coyote. Now wee see coyotes constantly and seeing a Red or Grey fox is a rarity. We also don’t see many Cottontails or Grouse and Pheasants don’t make it through the winter anymore. Between coyotes and cats, the song birds have a tough time. It’s pretty much shoot on sight up here.

  16. Ann Reeves says:

    I have 2 coyotes in my back yard, they are beautiful animals, also have a family of foxes and beavers. I live in Kansas City, Mo. I enjoy the wildlife.

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