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.