Filling the Niche

With my back against a monstrous red oak tree I could see the wooded valley below.  The tree sat on an outcropped piece of schist exposed by glaciers over twelve thousand years ago. The sheer fifty foot drop provided a view of the woods that allowed me to see a fairly large area while I went undetected.  This is, perhaps, my favorite location in this forest of many thousands of acres and a place where I have spent hours reflecting on life in the wild.

After about an hour I was feeling a little impatient.  I was about to get up and leave when I heard a slight noise on a slope to the south.  Watching intently, I eventually saw a grizzled coyote, tawny and gray, slipping between mature hardwood trees on the mountainside.  The coyote moved without hesitation and I cold see that it had something in its jaws.  A dead animal hung down on either side of the coyote’s muzzle.  The prey was freshly killed.  The dead body of the animal flopped up and down as the coyote negotiated the hillside.  From this distance it was hard to tell what prey the coyote had caught.  Most of the body was hidden within the jaws of the coyote, but I could see a small head and long legs on one side of the coyote’s jaws, and on the other side a short tail and more long legs.  The prey was brown and white and I soon realized it was a varying hare that was in the middle of its color change.

The coyote was a good distance away, but even from this far away vantage point I saw the predator was quite large.  It slowed its pace as it reached a large boulder at the bottom of the hill.  I could hear yips and little barks.  This really got my attention; no doubt pups were hidden behind that large hunk of rock and there was likely a nesting place dug underneath the boulder.

I knew if I tried to get a better look I would be detected.  Resisting temptation, I did my best to feel satisfied with a listening experience.  The sounds were muffled by distance but given the varying pitches of the little squeals and yips they seemed very happy to except a meal from their parent.

The eastern coyote has been a bit of a mystery since it started to reappear in the northeast nearly 50 years ago.  It is much larger than its western cousin.  Many people thought it was a cross breed between feral dogs and coyotes in the early days.  They were referred to as coydogs. Some thought it was a separate breed that was nearly extirpated but now experiencing a revival.  The debate went on and on.  While all that was taking place amongst the human population the coyote population was expanding and filling a predator niche long left vacant by the loss of a wolf population more than a hundred years ago.

With time, and the advent of DNA research, biologists were able to determine that the eastern coyote was indeed a hybrid, but not with the domestic dog.  Rather it was a cross between coyote and wolf.  Studies have been done in New York, Maine, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania to corroborate this new thought.  Some now refer to the eastern coyote as a coywolf.

Eastern coyotes take on some of the best qualities of both species.  The larger size, adorned with a much wider skull, powerful jaws, and a heavy body, allows it to predate larger hoofed animals like the white-tail deer.  Its’ coyote ancestry allows it to be not so fearful of humans.  It can negotiate civilization, largely undetected, and it can live amongst the Homo Sapien population.  Some suggest we are witnessing the miracle of evolution; the development of a new species to fill a niche in the natural world.  To me, this seems to be true.

Other new research has revealed that the Algonquian wolf, the wolf that the coyotes most likely bred with during its migration east, is more closely related to the red wolf (of desert fame) than the gray wolf otherwise known as the timber wolf.  This wolf is smaller than its northern cousin and is found along the great lakes and into southern Ontario. This is equally confusing because some think the red wolf may have been originally a wolf/coyote hybrid.  It is apparent that there is still a lot to learn.

Eastern coyotes are generally in the 30 to 45 pound range, but individuals over 50 pounds are not unusual.  One eastern coyote in the Adirondack Mountains of New York weighed in at over 80 pounds.  These wily animals stay together, at least temporarily, in family groups or packs.  It is not unusual to see four animals together but in reality they are usually witnessed in pairs.  They male and female mate for life and rear the pups as a team.  Both hunt and provide meals for the young and they both participate in teaching the young coyotes to hunt.  The eastern coyote seems to show real affection for other members of its pack.  There seems to be a special affection between a mated pair.

It is difficult not to anthropomorphize coyotes.  They share with humans many qualities.  They are sentient, they have community, they will defend their territory, and they seem capable of love.  Anybody who is a fan of domestic dogs, as am I, knows that dogs can have deep feelings.  Perhaps it is at trait that can experienced by all, or at least many, of the dog family.

I’ve spent hours and hours wondering why there is such disdain for coyotes by so many people.  Is it because we somehow feel threatened; in effect we are defending our territory?  Certainly much of our fear and hatred is misguided.  There is plenty of room for both species, especially if we choose to limit our own habitat needs to appropriate measures.

At present there are thousands and thousands of coyotes in the northeast.  They are even being seen in big cities like New York and Boston.  They have invaded our suburbs because there is forage opportunity.  Humans leave a lot of useable waste behind and we unintentionally create lots of habitat that holds small furry prey, like rodents.  There are even some foolish humans that feed coyotes.  This is a practice that will lead to a coyote defending its food supply through acts of aggression.  Aggressive coyotes amongst humans are usually executed.

I listened to the coyote pups wrestling with their prey for more than a half hour.  Occasionally I could see the tail or hind quarters of the adult coyote on one side of the mottled boulders.  Even this minimalist experience of hearing the coyotes as they dined on rabbit was a wonderful experience.  For a few moments I was able to experience their interactions, even if it was only an auditory observation.

Eventually the noise settled down.  The hare was likely consumed.  Perhaps even the adult got to share part of the meal. As I sat in that quiet forest I wondered what the future would be for this new predator of the northeast forest.  Would it continue to evolve, or had the unfilled niche been completely satisfied rendering new changes unlikely?

And then I wondered if humans could evolve to become a species more accepting of other species.  Certainly there is an important and beneficial niche to be filled on this planet in that category.

Written for in June of 2010.

Coyote Group singing (click on green).

  • Ratty

    This is very interesting. I never knew coyotes and wolves would mate. And I certainly never knew there were hybrids. We also have coyotes here in the suburbs around Detroit. And I think humans will someday eventually learn to accept other animals. We were able to accept dogs in the past, and now they are our best friends.

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