Savage Beauty

The natural world can be very sobering.  It is full of glory and miracles.  But the miracle of nature includes ghastly violence; survival for one animal may mean death for another.  Even in my most unjudgmental mood I can get caught up in feeling sorry for the underdog.  This is a human trait I suppose.  We see moments like this from an intellectual perspective rather than from the perspective of the greater good.  It is a habit that is hard to break.

Last week we listened to eastern coyotes, often referred to as coywolves, bellow at night in unprecedented long and ceremonious chorusing.  The commotion was almost beyond description.  To the untrained ear it sounded like several dozen coyotes.  They howled in almost never ending wails.  They yipped and snarled.  The cries would stop briefly and begin again from an adjacent hillside.  This went on for four nights in a row.  As I listened to the long, drawn out bawling each night my hair would stand on end.  Sometimes it was in the distance and sometimes it was only a few hundred yards away.

I first heard wailing coywolves late in the night.  The howling was so loud and intense it woke me from a dead sleep.  I lied in bed listening to the coyotes.  The noises were loud and diverse.  The initial calls were howls stretched out through hollow time.  Intermittent yips acted as the backup singers, while the main melody was carried in elongated and mournful cries.  At first my groggy mind could not discern if this was real or a dream.  Cooper the bloodhound came to the side of the bed and licked my face to wake me up.  This is his warning that something is not right.  A little more coherent after the slobbery adornment I listened as these wild animals sang.  It sounded as if they were within a hundred yards, perhaps to the southwest in a side hill stand of eastern hemlocks.  The howling lasted for about twenty minutes.

The next night I was sitting in our living room.  It was about 9 PM.  The television was on, and over the sound of the basketball game I could hear what I thought was a siren in the distance.  I muted the sound.  I waited.  About a half a minute passed and the crying began anew.  This time it was from the north.  I went out on to the deck.  The night was clear and full of stars.  A half moon hung in the sky. The howling sounded like it was coming form a high tension line about 700 yards to the north of our house.  On this night there was no yipping.  Long, sad cries cracked the stillness of the night.  A chill ran down my spine.  The howling continued for more than half and hour.

The very next evening I was out getting cord wood from our woodpile.  As I threw split logs onto the sled I heard coyotes crying in the west.  They sounded as if they were miles away, but were most likely within a half of a mile.  A breeze was blowing and it was starting to snow.  I pictured hot breath exiting from the coyote’s raised mouth as their cry shattered the dark night.  On this night the chorusing was the full orchestra; wails, howls, yips, and barks.  I stood there listening and wondered how many animals it took to make this much music.  It sounded like it was the full symphony but was more likely a quartet.  The sounding eventually stopped with a few rapid barks.  My dogs howled inside the house in response to the cry of the coywolves.

This is breeding season for the eastern coyote.  There is likely posturing going on to reaffirm the alpha male and female in the pack.  Only these two will breed. New packs may also form from older coyotes that strike out on their own.  Perhaps they have found new mates and are celebrating life.

The eastern coyote also celebrates a kill by howling.  In these deep snows deer hold up in hemlock groves, particularly on south facing slopes.  A pack of coywolves can take down healthy deer.  Some of the white tails may be lucky and escape.  But the deep snow slows them and uses precious energy.  Stressed deer make future fodder for a hungry coyote pack.  A few years back I came upon a bloody scene in a hemlock stand to the south of our homestead.  It was shocking and brutal to see the carnage.  I had to put my mind into the objective mode and remember that this was nature at its finest. That these deer lost their lives so another could survive holds a wonder that transcends emotions.   Savage beauty some might say.

Unlike their western cousins, coywolves hunt in packs much like their ancestor the gray wolf.  The pack may split up and one set of eastern coyotes may push prey towards another pair of coyotes.  On long chases they change leaders so that the others can get their wind.  The pack thinks as one.  The objective is food and survival.  They are very effective and efficient killers. They are also gruesome killers.

On the fourth night I went outside to get some firewood just before I went to bed.  It was about 10:30 PM.  Two groups of coyotes called back and forth to each other from one hillside to another. They seemed to call back and forth to each other in some sort of primordial communication. I wondered if this was some sort of purposeful communication or if they were just howling into the wind; perhaps calling to coyotes of the past and the future.  Nature knows no time line.

I believe the coywolf is here to stay.  It will hopefully wail the night away into eternity.  I hope my descendants can hear these cries in distant years.  Perhaps they will call back as I often do.

Written for in February 2011.

  • Wild_Bill

    The behavior that you have witnessed, hanging around where domestic dogs walk and being near residential areas, is more apt to be associated with a coywolf (or as they are more often referred to Eastern Coyote). This hybrid has the coyote ability to live and around humans effectively and successfully. Wolves typically will avoid human contact. They do not do well near civilization.

    That being said there are exceptions to every rule. Some individuals will behave differently than the norm. This could be particularly true with a “lone wolf” one that is separated or rejected by its pack.

    Here is what I would do. Get your hands on a trail camera that works both on infrared and motion detectors. Set it up where you know it habituates. Try to set it up where the photo will be taken next to something that can later be measured so you can guage the size. When you set it up descent yourself and wear rubber gloves and rubber soul shoes. This is very important. You could even use bait if it is legal in Illinois. Once you have some good photos you will know. You can send them to me and I will try to help you out. There are real physical differences that can tell us which it is.

  • Shirleytracz

    good idea. would we be able to buy one at a place like gander mountain,and is that what we would ask for- a trail camera? I’ll see if my husband can send you the pictures we have so far. theyre not the clearest, it was taken with a zoom lens and its an older camera. but hopefully you could get an idea of what it look like. would we send them to

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