Cry in the Cold Night

It was 11 PM and I was walking along a dark wooded path with one of my two blood hounds.  Adia had led me out here to answer the call of nature.  It was cold; minus 22 degrees to be exact.  I found myself  trying to hurry her along but she is very fussy about finding just the right spot.  Goodness knows what her criteria are but this is not a simple ordeal.  She waded into the snow that covered more than half of her body, stuck her nose into the fluffy cold environs and smelled the earth beneath it all.  Most locations do not suit her when it comes to doing her business.  We have done this countless times in the past and eventually, on most occasions, she finally finds a location to her liking.

The frigid air bit at the skin on my face in areas not covered by my thick beard.  The moisture that was expelled from my nostrils froze instantly on my moustache.  The weight of the ice pulled at my upper lip.  The woods were lit by a moon almost full.  The air was still.  There was no sound.  The quiet was soothing but somehow eerie.

As I wandered along the path with my furry friend we came to a large mound of snow near a wooded cabin that sits just off an access path on our property.  Adia investigated the mound with her bloodhound instincts and I could hear a muffled  scurry beneath the snow.  She plunged her head into the snow and rooted around with her muzzle.  When she pulled her snout back up it had a four inch pile of snow precariously resting on the long bridge of her nose.  These types of distractions typically make our “call of nature” journey drag on.

The silence struck me; no breeze to interrupt the quiet, no barred owls calling, and no mournful wails from distant coywolfs.  The natural world was in some sort of survival mode waiting for the arctic air to pass.  Energy conservation equals survival for most wild animals under these conditions; the calories burned by looking for food far exceeds any potential energy gained from a meager harvest.

Adia eventually found just the perfect location, conducted her business, and we were on our way back to the warmth of the hearth and woodstove.  I grabbed an armload of wood on the way into the house, filled the stove, shut down the damper and went to bed.  As I lied in bed waiting for sleep to end my day I thought about the cold, dark forest.  A forest full of quiet is not empty.  The void created by silence can be filled with imagination; my last thought before drifting off.

Two nights later at 10:30 PM I was outside with my male bloodhound.  Again nature called.  Cooper will not wander off and so does not have to be leashed.  I waited outside in the zero degree temperature while he rustled about in the bushes.  The moon was full.  Lunar light filtered through the branches above.  Moon shadows danced on the white snow as a gentle breeze brought in a chill.  As I stood there I heard a howl; then a chorus of howls.  The night was brightened by a symphony of wailing coywolves.  It sounded like there were 100 coywolves but was more likely four or five individuals.  They sounded like they were celebrating a fresh kill; most likely a fallen deer; food enough, perhaps, to last three or more days.

As I stood there in my shirt sleeves waiting for Cooper I was torn by emotion.  The death of a deer meant life for the coywolf pack.  As grisly as it sounds this is part of the beauty of nature.  Death, no matter how violent, is the intention of the natural world.  The end of a life of one species brings sustenance to another.  This is the way it has been since the inception of biological time.

The coywolves reminded me that the natural cycle is evolving in eastern North America.  For those that pay attention we can witness evolution before our very eyes.  A hundred years ago the timber wolf was extirpated from New England.  It left a gaping hole in the web of life.  Large predators are hard to come by.  Skilled, systematic hunters that can bring down animals as large as moose are particularly difficult to replace.  Man and wolves are not compatible.  Our penchant for land clearing and altering the wilderness is in direct conflict with their need for a solitude environment.  They simply cannot tolerate our species.  As a result the wolf retreated to remote areas of Canada.  The bitter cold was much less an enemy than humans.  Even the hordes of biting insects were preferable to the hordes of people that invaded the wilderness to the south.

But European colonists were not satisfied with the northeast.  They yearned for something bigger, even better, that they could explore and alter to meet their needs.  Humans in search for something they did not have, nor would they ever find, traveled west.  They settled in the prairies.  They busted sod and turned thick layers of grass roots into tilled fields where grain crops could be raised.  There they encountered another canine, the coyote.  The coyote was a different sort of dog.  It was wily and was content to work around the edge of human endeavor.  They were not easily intimidated.  They learned quickly to live at arm’s length to human activity.  Always in the shadows they found a niche to hang on to and that they could take advantage of.

The European invasion traveled west, crossed huge mountain ranges, encountered wolves again and nearly leveled these western populations to extinction.  Again the timber wolves retreated north.  A few in the deepest, darkest recesses of the Rocky Mountains managed to survive without migrating.

In the meantime abandoned farms and fields back east began to reforest.  The human population dwindled in rural areas.  Sometime in the mid twentieth century coyotes under pressure from humans in the northern west began to migrate east, some over the top of the Great Lakes, and some to the south.  As the northern branch of coyotes migrated east they occasionally mingled and bred with wolves.  A new species was being born; a miracle of nature.  Some call this species the eastern coyote, others call it the coywolf.

The coywolf is larger than the western coyote.  It is beefier, has a wider head, and has the jaw strength of a wolf.  It remains a pack animal and has the strength to down a white tail deer.  This proved to be perfect timing.  The white tail deer population in the northeast was burgeoning.  From a low point at the beginning of the twentieth century the deer numbers had reached an all time high since the colonist days by the end of the twentieth century.  Enter a new, effective predator ready to fill the niche.  The coywolf is now the master predator of the northeastern United States.

New England was also invaded from the west by the coyotes that traveled east south of the Great Lakes.  These coyotes maintained their coyote pedigree during their journey.  They are presently mingling and breeding with the coywolves.  It seems that eventually they will be one, perhaps separate, species.  A recent study in the State of Maine revealed that of 100 coyotes collected in Maine, 22 had half or more wolf ancestry, and one was 89 percent wolf.

The coywolf had one trait that the extirpated wolf did not have; the ability to survive in the presence of humans.  They have the same determination for survival as their western cousin the coyote.  They are capable of living with humans and despite humans.  They are here to stay.  They are a permanent fixture in the northeastern environment web of life.

The wailing of the coywolves on a not so distant hill continued.  It is rare for them to howl for such a long time.  The cry in the cold night seems both joyous and prophetic.  Cooper appeared from the edge of the forest.  His long bloodhound ears bounced as he galloped over to me.  Excited by his cousins in the distance he sat beside me and answered them with a long howl of his own.   After his long bay Cooper looked up at me and leaned against my leg.  He accepted his evolutionary canine role in the natural world and it was clear he accepted the coywolves rights to their new domain.  And in the deep dark night, where the skies were sprinkled with the light of a million stars, I wondered if we humans were really prepared to do the same.

  • Dana

    Nice job. Your writing is exquisite. I love coyotes and now I love them more.

  • Commonweeder

    A beautiful evocation of Heath’s winter nights. Is it coywolves we hear on our side of town – even in response to the noon whistle?

  • Anonymous

    Pat

    Yes, based on my experience in our area we have a predominance of coywolves. They are large, strong jaws, and take down deer on a regular basis. I recently tracked a single coyote that killed a deer in the Catamount area. Quite a feat for a lone canine without the aid of a pack.

  • Sandy

    Now you have me wondering what we have here. They certainly are smaller than the wolves out in Oklahoma, where I grew up. But they are colored a lot more like them. I will see what I can reports done here in Maine, just to see what areas of the state were involved.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Dana. Coyotes are wonderful, wonderful animals. Our version, the coywolf, is filling a huge niche that was left open when the gray wolf left ages ago.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Sandy

    I saw coywolves last year in the area near Aziscohos, northwest of the Rangely, Maine area. Beautiful animals. The locals also say the wolf population is returning to the wild areas of Maine (and in other areas of Northern New England). There was a confirmed gray wolf kill in my area just last year (confirmation was done by the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife).

  • http://www.anniespickns.wordpress.com Annie

    Beautifully written, as all your stories are. Sadly, I would say the answer to your last statement is “I don’t think we are”.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Annie

    I’d be really happy if we just learn to tolerate the coywolf. In many ways we really have no choice. Like coyotes they breed prolifically when populations are threatened. A hundred years of trying to manipulate the coyote populations in the west and midwest have not effected the numbers one iota. I suspect it would be the same for the coywolf.

  • EG Wow

    I enjoyed reading this very much. I knew about the coyote/wolf mix but didn’t realize the name coywolf was a new term. There are now many coyotes here in southern Ontario. Maybe they are actually coywolves!

  • Anonymous

    I should be clear that many experts don’t like the name coywolf, and prefer eastern coyote. One of the reasons is that most, but not all of the canines are more coyote than wolf. I have a different opinion. Given the animal is not all coyote, and is part wolf, and behaves partially like both animals and has traits from both lineages I have no problem with the moniker coywolf. Seems good to me.

  • http://swamericana.wordpress.com/ Jack Matthews

    We are cold here, but not minus 22 degrees. Wind chill brings us to zero today. Bill, that your emotions were torn by the Cry in the Cold Night as the coywolves (new term for me) got their prey is a spot I find myself in a lot out here. We have the coyotes, several packs of them about, and other animals that follow the cycle you mention — death and survival. I feel and think much the same way as you when the coyotes howl — one species dies for another to live — and that interpretation has to do, it just has to. I do like your narrative about Cooper and Adia. When I walk our Lottie (schnauzer I got from my mother when she died), I have to constantly bring her to slow down. Today she has been a German snow plow in the drifts. Cooper howls with the coywolves — good boy. Accepting species in our world? Accepting the role of other beings? Cooper and the coywolves is an example of that tolerance. I don’t want the web of life to lose any species. I accept and tolerate other species, even the invertebrates and they can really be a nuisance, but I’m not using broad-gauge methods of control. In the stables, there’s a rake and tub and I’ll port the horse manure to a far pasture and spread it, not using powerful insecticides. Finally, Bill, I like what ecologists do, what you do, in taking an individual species and looking at its history and total connection in broad ways. It is a science that shows us the connections that we all have, the relations we must not break with the other. Fine piece, Bill, and I’ll be coming back to it to read the connections that you have in the great Northeast and how the web strands it way West.

  • http://swamericana.wordpress.com/ Jack Matthews

    Like the photo of Cooper (I don’t see a leash).

  • http://writingsfromwildsoul.wordpress.com/ Wendy

    Years ago when I lived closer to wild space my neighbor looked out her family room door one night and saw what she was sure was a wolf. I reassured her we didn’t have wolves in Missouri, that it must have been a coyote. The next day I saw the large gray coated creature and had to agree it looked very wolf like. Just this last December a hunter shot what he thought was a coyote up north of here someplace while out deer hunting. The animal weighed in at 104 pounds and tho the Conservation Department insisted it was a coyote (which rarely weigh more than 50 pounds, I understand), many are doubtful it didn’t have a lot of wolf in it. Wolves do occasionally get this far south roaming down from Michigan. The coywolf may be arriving in Missouri. Wolves carry such mythic weight in our minds while our little wild dog/coyotes are often considered mere pests. I miss seeing them more often. In those old days a pack of coyote lived across the creek from me and often set up a happy howling at night. Sometimes they’d wander thru the yard in broad daylight. I loved knowing I lived at the edge of this wildness, that my tracks crossed theirs, that we sniffed the same air. Thanks for the winter night stories and summoning the memories, Bill.

  • http://findanoutlet.wordpress.com/ Debra Argosy

    Many coyotes here in Arizona, packs hunt in the high desert behind our house. Plenty of rabbits and small animals, and your pet cats too if they venture into the desert. I have the same emotions every time I see a hawk or roadrunner tearing apart some soft furry creature but understand everyone needs to eat. Javelinas and coyotes are predators of each other here, both fierce and hungry. At night the coyotes’ yips and howls are the most beautiful primitive sound I’ve ever heard, but then I’ve never heard a real live wolf.

    It’s good that the coywolves can take down a deer, as we saw so many starving in Connecticut. But I have a question—why do coyotes breed prolifically when threatened? Do you mean threatened by the prospect of starving or threatened by humans? Doesn’t that oppose the laws of nature, and the reason why species become extinct?

    Wonderful and educational story, thanks for all you do in your work and life.

  • Montucky

    This is a very interesting piece! I heard of coywolves a long time ago, but at the time thought it mostly a myth. It’s fascinating to lear that there is such a thing and that they are thriving. To my knowledge we don’t have them in this region; plenty of coyotes though (I saw the tracks of a large pack today who seemed to be hunting snowshoe rabbits) and now a pretty healthy wolf population in the state.

    It occurs to me that besides (or perhaps because of) the aptitude to make a living in close proximity to man, the coywolf may have another distinct advantage over the wolf: people may not be as afraid of it as they are of the wolf. My assessment of the huge controversy about wolves in the western states is that human cowardice is the leading factor creating the anti-wolf sentiment. The coyote doesn’t participate in that sentiment, and hopefully the coywolf will not either.

  • Anonymous

    The wolf/human conflict is interestingly complicated. There is very little evidence that wolves are a threat to humans, although livestock may be a different issue. For thousands of years we have competed for the same habitat. Wolves were forced to areas that humans preferred not to inhabit. Now searches for precious minerals, oil, gas, etc have changed some of these boundaries. We want their territory again. Reminds me of the way the Europeans treated Native Americans-seize what you want at all costs.

    Coyotes and coywolves live on the boundaries of human civilization because they can. They have learned to take advantage of our way of life. They hunt land we clear, in some areas they even consume our cultural by-products.

    We have an ethical responsibility to respect all of this planet’s creatures. It is as simple as that. And until we can learn this absolutely necessary fact we are limiting our own days.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Debra

    Evolution is an unpredictable entity. During a couple hundred years of humans trying to extirpate them he coyotes that bred frequently were the ones that survived. Now it is part of their genetic code, or at least part of the genetic code of the majority of the species. The coywolves were fortunate that they inherited it from their cousins. Quite a survival technique and one that has served their species well. Thank you for reading.

  • Anonymous

    Wendy

    You were very lucky to have experienced this. Most people only read about these creatures and never get to see them or live with them. At 104 pounds it is very doubtful that the animal was all coyote. Although their always is the genetic abnormality, look at Shaquille O’Neil the basketball player (7’2″, 360 pounds). If the person that has this still has the pelt he could have a DA analysis done to find out if it was all/part gray wolf. Last year a gray wolf was shot while killing sheep in Massachusetts. Fish and Wildlife insisted it was a coyote until the DNA tests came back. It was 100% gray wolf. So if it can happen in MA it certainly could happen in Missouri!

  • Anonymous

    Nope, we only leash Cooper when on a public road, now Adia, on the other hand, is gone like the wind at the first sign of a scent. Not a good thing, we have spent scores of hours retrieving her.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your wonderful comments Jack, I really appreciate your support. I think the most difficult lesson for humans to take in is that death is part of the miracle of life. All parts are integrally related and cannot be separated. The whole system is beautiful and we shouldn’t just admire the most pleasant parts. I love the term “Web of Life”, it is descriptive. It gives us a visual image that we can hang on to.

    I’ll bet you love your little schnauzer. Part of your mom came with her, something you can hold on to for a while. Nice!

  • http://writingsfromwildsoul.wordpress.com/ Wendy

    The article I read said he had taken the carcass to the Missouri Department of Conservation which did a DNA analysis and determined it was all coyote, but people who saw the animal or saw the weight were really doubtful it didn’t have some wolf. Maybe a canid Shaquille.

  • Barb

    Hello Bill, It was wonderful to read your essay about your cold-night forays with the dogs. Animals and children are the best teachers of patience! It has been bitter cold here in CO – last night the temp was minus 35 with a windchill of minus 45. It will stay in the minus range all day. This morning when I awoke, I saw fox and coyote tracks circling the house. The foxes sometimes jump the deck rail and look in the low back windows. Unfortunately, I think someone in the neighborhood is feeding them. Keep warm!

  • http://swamericana.wordpress.com/ Jack Matthews

    Yes! It’s that simple.

  • http://swamericana.wordpress.com/ Jack Matthews

    I have come close to violating the “rights” of a rancher that put kill on his fence along a highway between Desdemona and De Leon. (The rancher has died, his heirs, I think, selling out.) It is downright evil to display the kill like that, much less even bring death to a family of coyotes that take a stray chicken or sick animal. I had thought when Lilly was not getting up like she needed to at night, what would I do if I came down in the morning and found the pack. Without hesitation, I knew what I would do. Even with a horse I have lived with for eighteen years, I would fire a few rounds in the air to scare them away and take her to the pit. I would not put my grief on them as they harvested her in order to live. It is the nature of things and it is my nature to do it that way. We put Lilly down, gracefully, before this terrible ice storm that hit us lately.

  • Anonymous

    There are quite a few people around here who hunt coywolves for sport. They claim they are protecting the deer herd when in fact they may be hurting it. I hunt for food but will not kill an animal solely for a pelt and certainly not for sport. Life is precious and I was taught to revere all that is wild. Almost all the red meat I eat is venison. I try to always say a prayer and thank the animal I take for the sustenance it will bring me and my family. I see it as part of the cycle of life.

    I thought about Lilly just yesterday and wondered if you understood the wisdom of your decision. It is clear now that you do. She would have suffered terribly in that weather.

  • Anonymous

    Whew, that’s pretty darned cold! Are you at a really high altitude. I have one niece that lives in Telluride and another that lives in Golden. Absolutely gorgeous country and lots and lots of wild critters to enjoy. In this area the coywolves kill fox and eat them, have you seen any of that behavior in your area?

  • http://swamericana.wordpress.com/ Jack Matthews

    Brenda and I talked about Lilly yesterday and said that what we did was the right thing. She would have really suffered terribly with this ice and 8 degrees. I know that. That you should think about her helps me make it through and beyond the event. Thanks, Bill.

    Yes, a prayer. I agree, Bill, on everything you say. Eloquent and succinct. What respect you have for life.

  • http://colorofsand.wordpress.com Cirrelda

    So glad I came here and read your post and all the replies. This is the kind of exchange I need – with talk of respect high on the list. We here in NM have the reintroduction of the Mexican Wolf experiment as total affirmation of what you are speaking of here, Bill. There is so much “in-your-face, we-don’t-want-the-gov’t-telling-us-what-to-do” behavior by humans in the Gila, going beyond simple disrespect to this endangered species. Your statement here rings true here, for sure:

    “Man and wolves are not compatible. Our penchant for land clearing and altering the wilderness is in direct conflict with their need for a solitude environment. They simply cannot tolerate our species. As a result the wolf retreated to remote areas of Canada. The bitter cold was much less an enemy than humans. Even the hordes of biting insects were preferable to the hordes of people that invaded the wilderness to the south.”

  • http://colorofsand.wordpress.com Cirrelda

    Who knows the game called “Oh Deer”? In the Project Wild handbooks. Kind of like Red Rover and Bass and Minnow, with a long line of Deer on one side, a long line of Habitat symbols on the other. At the start call, each chooses a habitat symbol of water, food and shelter (shown with hands) and has to keep it running to the other side to find its corresponding Habitat piece. If there is no Habitat piece to match, then the Deer dies and becomes Habitat. Quickly the participants see that Habitat runs out and huge populations of Deer occur. There is a Cougar waiting on the edge after a few rounds. Cougar gets to run in from the side and take a Deer, which then becomes another Cougar. With the Cougars, the Deer population never gets to be as out of control. This simple game can relate the reality well!

  • Anonymous

    Hi Cerrelda

    I’m curious about the reintroduction of wolves in NM. Are those red wolves (which many believe to be a gray wolf/coyote hybrid)? I’d like to learn more about this and will research it. I love New Mexico, I went to UNM for a semester. Very beautiful, especially north and west.

  • Anonymous

    This sounds like a great game! I’ll have to check it out, might be a good tool, especially with youngsters! Could be very effective in getting them familiar with the importance of the web of life and food chain. Thanks for that tip.

  • Nature-Drunk

    Wow, beautifully written and profound, to say the least. Before reading your post (and I am a little embarrassed to admit) I had not heard of a coywolf. Thank you for the learning experience today. Blessings to you and yours, including the amazing creatures residing in their woods, near your home, which are one in the same.

  • Anonymous

    Hi

    As noted below, the more common name for the coywolf is eastern coyote. Given that not all eastern coyotes are full blooded coyotes it seems appropriate to use the term coywolf when appropriate. Many professional biologists disagree with this opinion, although not all.

    We all live in places where there are animals to observe, plants to encounter, fungi to study whether we live in the city, suburbia, rural areas, or wilderness. Many find enjoyment in studying nature and learning from its incredible adaptability. I know you do from your wonderful website. I enjoy Nature-Drunk very much and I recommend it to others.

  • http://zoologirl.southernfriedscience.com Zoologirl

    Brrr. My pup does not mess around when nature calls and it gets below -20, but she’s no bloodhound. Very interesting! I’ve been meaning to read up on coywolves. Up in northern Minnesota I’ve seen and heard both wolves and coyotes, but never a coywolf (that I know of anyway).

  • Anonymous

    Most of the coywolves seem to be east of you in Minnesota but it is hard for me to believe that they don’t exist there. See if anyone has been doing any DNA testing in Minnesota, I’d be happy to hear what you find out. This is a very intriguing topic. It’s kind of like watching the development of a new species, although many would argue with that statement.

  • http://colorofsand.wordpress.com Cirrelda

    Hi, getting back to you finally. I will look for info about the Mexican Wolf for you and post it soon. The Rio Grande Zoo in Albuquerque has a pack in a created habitat. If I’m not mistaken, some of the wolves from that pack were ones that were used in the re-introduction. Be back soon,
    “cc”

  • http://colorofsand.wordpress.com Cirrelda

    This is from the website:http://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/mexicanwolf/ – US Fish & Wildlife Service’s “The Mexican Wolf Recovery Program” – and from their first page there is no reference to the Red Wolf moniker.

    “In 1976, however, a new era dawned for the Mexican wolf. The Mexican wolf, a subspecies of gray wolf, was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, a recognition that the subspecies was in danger of extinction. The wolf was already functionally extinct in the Southwest, and only occasional reports of wolves in Mexico confirmed its continued existence in the wild. It was now incumbent upon the Service, one of two federal agencies responsible for administration of the Endangered Species Act, to lead an effort to bring the Mexican wolf back from the brink of extinction in the United States. The question was, “How?””

  • http://colorofsand.wordpress.com Cirrelda

    it cut the website off – should read
    http://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/mexicanwolf/

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Cirrelda. This is fascinating. My research shows they actually bred some red wolves with coyotes as part of the reintroduction, was not able to completely confirm this though so am trying to find out. Thanks for helping me look into this.

  • http://outwalkingthedog.wordpress.com/ Out Walking the Dog

    Terrific post with great info on the fascinating coyote-wolf hybrids. It s amazing to see such change taking place right under our noses. We have even had coyotes wandering into Manhattan Island in NYC lookin for new territory. The one I saw several times late last winter in Central Park was pretty small (maybe 3-35 pounds?) and appeared more classic coyote than wolf. It’s an intriguing area of study, particularly now that the animals are increasingly moving into suburbs and cities throughout the country, including along the east coast. I love your description of Cooper baying in answer and then leaning against you.

  • http://outwalkingthedog.wordpress.com/ Out Walking the Dog

    Agreed. Whether we like it or not, the animals are adapting to us and are here to stay. We will need to figure out how to adapt to them.

  • Wild_Bill

    The coyote you encountered in NYC was most likely all coyote: a descendant of the bands migrating east south of the Great Lakes. Coyotes are a regular fixture in western cities like Los Angeles California. If an animal can tolerate the madness of human beings, noise, pollution, etc. it will find a niche among us. Even big and small cats are adapting to human environments in North America. I find it all a little scary.

  • http://outwalkingthedog.wordpress.com/ Out Walking the Dog

    Bill, I find it both marvelous and a little scary – but I want to know what is is that YOU find scary. What do you think it means?

  • Wild_Bill

    Sorry it took me so long to respond to this. I missed the ? part.

    It is scary because it tips the balance of the natural world so that animals become dependent on humans in a negative sort of way. I guess one could say it is a wonderful that we are witnessing these adaptations. The problem is there are only a few animals that have these adaptive skills in their DNA. Will the others perish?

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