Call From The Wild

There are howls out there in the dark, inky night. They devour my sensibilities and allow my mind to wander into a quagmire of wonder, mystery, and trepidation. The howl is singular. Its pitch is low. The howl is similar to that I hear in the far northern regions of Quebec. It often is in response to the late night howling of eastern coyote packs. Their voices are shrill and less melodious. Their voices are many. It is not uncommon to hear packs of coyotes sing back and forth to each other in the deep New England woods. Typically one band of coyotes howl over a kill and another band will respond. They howl back and forth and interestingly the two melodies never seem to emerge. But this is different. The coyotes howl; yipping and crooning wildly, but when this low, long drawn out howl responds the coyote pack goes silent as if they do not want their location to be known.

Both my wife and I have noticed this over the last year or so. I have spent many hours trying to sort out the possibilities in my mind. My instinct says it is a gray wolf, but my more rational side says no. Wolves were thought to be extirpated in New England over 100 years ago but one was killed two years ago in Shelburne, MA while killing sheep only two towns away from here. The carcass was sent out west by Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife folks and despite the fact the Fish and Game people initially denied it was a wolf, the DNA revealed that it was 100% gray wolf. No, not the hybrid between wolf and coyote known to inhabit this region called the Eastern Coyote which can contain from 10% to 80% gray wolf DNA, but a real wolf. It was a fluke they said, unlikely to ever happen again. It was a rogue male that wandered down from a pack in southeastern Ontario (and had the exact DNA to prove it) precisely where it is believed that the coyotes that migrated eastward stopped and picked up their wolf DNA some 50 years ago. Curious minds, like mine, keep wondering and wandering.

There have been claims about the presence of wolves in Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. The documentation is mostly anecdotal. At least two “wolves” killed in interior Maine contained a fraction of coyote DNA, not pure wolves but very close. The wilds of interior Maine are vast and unpopulated by humans. There are reaches of these deep woods that seldom see humans. It is entirely possible that the gray wolf has found its way back into these wilderness areas, but to the best of my knowledge, unproven. The White Mountains in New Hampshire and The Green Mountains in Vermont have similar, but not so vast, wild areas.

I have learned a few things over the more than three decades that I have been an ecologist. The first, and the most important lesson, is to not make assumptions. The easy answer is not always the correct answer. In fact it has been my experience that the easy answer is seldom the correct answer. And so my mind keeps considering and reconsidering the possibilities.

With as much time as I spend in the woods it is amazing how little real data I was able to find with regards to his mystery. Nearly zilch. Almost nothing, Essentially nada. But every once in a while I get lucky. Last autumn I put out some trail cameras on the western edge of our land where I had noticed some deer sign. A mature buck had made a scrape and I wanted to see what the buck looked like. I located a trail camera about 20-25 feet from the scrape in hopes of getting a good picture. If you are not familiar with these trail cameras they are pretty sophisticated. The trigger of the camera is tripped by motion detectors and infrared sensors. If an object is moving and warm the camera will take a photograph. The time of day doesn’t matter. Night or day these cameras are active and effective. Two or three days later I returned to retrieve the data card from the camera. I had my male bloodhound, Cooper, with me and he started crooning and running back and forth as we approached the area. I assumed a deer had been through and took the card out of the camera, replacing it with another one. I went about my merry way and Cooper and I visited a couple other trail cameras that I had located over about 100 acres of woods.

That evening I was going through the pictures. They were interesting, but mostly photographs of the same three or four female deers that run around in these woods. When I put in the SD card from the camera where Cooper had gotten excited I hoped to see a buck visiting the scrape. As I scrolled through the pictures on my computer monitor there were a couple of does, in fact the same ones that I had seen in other locations. And then their was a picture of what I thought was a coyote. It was stocky, and seemed fairly large. I didn’t notice anything too unusual until a couple of pictures later there was a picture of me and Cooper standing in almost the exact same location. Something immediately caught my eye and so I scrolled back to the photo of the canine that had visited the scrape. And sure enough, I had more information on the canine beast that has mysteriously been wandering these woods. In fact I had actually photographed it!

Large wild canine. Autumn 2011.

The clue that I had noticed when looking at Cooper and I standing at the scrape was that the “coyote” was about the same size as Cooper, perhaps just a tad larger. Cooper is a big fellow. He stands over 28 inches at the shoulder and weighs in at over 130 pounds. This is twice the size of a large eastern coyote; the hybrid between coyote and wolf that inhabits this area. In fact, a 65 pound eastern coyote would be considered huge. This discovery was beyond lucky. The odds of my actually getting a photograph of this canine seemed infinitesimally small. But sometimes luck just comes your way. And now I knew why Cooper was so excited on that day we picked up the SD card out of the camera.

Note Cooper's size, a 130 pound bloodhound that stands 28 inches at the shoulder.

Months passed. I spent hours and hours in the woods looking for tracks in the snow. I was looking for larger solo canine tracks. I found lots of tracks this past winter, and lots of coyotes, but none that were alone and large enough to be the animal I sought. The cameras stayed in the woods but to no avail. It seemed my luck had run out and I was at a dead end. Sometimes a little of information is more frustrating than no information at all.

And then one day in late winter while at home at about nine o’clock in the morning our female bloodhound, Adia, started growling and asked to go out onto the deck. I was upstairs on the computer and my wife, Maureen, yelled for me to come downstairs. She was on the deck with Adia and she said she had just seen a very large coyote on the other side of the field. And then she looked at my with wide eyes and said “Really, really big!”

I asked her which way it was traveling and she pointed north. I looked north. I waited. Suddenly there it was, on the other side of the road, emerging from a gully and scrambling up a hill in the hardwoods. It was tall. It had long legs. It was tawny and thin. It was bigger than eastern coyotes ever get. I only had a few seconds to see this wonderful animal before it disappeared.

Adia was beside herself with excitement. She tried jumping the railing on the deck. Maureen held her back and shuffled her inside back through the sliding plate glass doors. I stood there looking, hoping to get one more glimpse. It was not meant to be.

I went down to where Maureen had first seen the canine. She told me it was moving steadily, but not running. Only after Adia barked did it break into a quicker pace, still not a run, but a faster gait with longer strides. The tracks in the snow could not have been fresher. There was no distortion from melting. What I witnessed, photographed, and measured was astounding.

Canine track length almost four inches.

The footprints were three and three quarters inches long and nearly three inches wide. The strides were measured from the furthest front foot forward to the furthest back foot and were from 57 to 60 inches! By comparison, Coopers tracks are four and a half inches by three and a half inches; his paws are enormous by dog standards. His large feet are meant to keep him afloat on mud and wetlands when tracking in wet territory. Adias tracks are three and a half by two and three quarters inches and she weighs about 120 pounds. The normal fast walking stride of both Cooper and Adia is about 54 inches, some six inches less than the canine Maureen and Adia saw in our field.

Canine track width just under 3 inches.

I tracked the animal for a ways but lost it as soon as it crossed an open field where the snow had melted. By now it was at least a mile away. I stopped to think how unbelievably fortuitous it was to have seen this magnificent canine. I live amongst thousands of acres of woods and these animals have territories of tens of square miles and it just happened to cross our field in a place where Adia would smell it and Maureen would call it to my attention. Again, what are to odds?!

Canine stride, front to back during normal gait, five feet!

So what do I know? I know there is a large wild canine that wanders this forest. It has a very low pitch howl. I have a photograph of him (or her). I have seen it with my own eyes and because it was much thinner than the photo cannot even be sure it is the same animal. There is little doubt that the cold winter months and difficult hunting conditions could easily account for weight loss though. I have measured and photographed the tracks and the gait. And I can only be sure it is a very large wild canine. It could be an eastern coyote, like those in Maine, that are over 90% gray wolf. Or it could be a wolf.

I just don’t know.

Tonight I hear those low howls once again. They sound like they are from an era long ago. They are wild and send chills down through each vertebrate of my spine. They call to me.

Cooper and Adia, now by my side howl back.

The call from the wild brings them back through the ages to their primordial roots. And, for the moment, they wish to be free. They wish to run wild. They wish to be what they came from.

As do I.

Written for www.wildramblings.com in April of 2012.

  • walt

    This is interesting.  Seems odd that there haven’t been more wolf sitings if they are around.  Also, how do you know that a coyote can’t get to 130 pounds?  

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Thanks for stopping by Walt.  If, and is still an if, there are wolves in New England they are likely a recent arrival.  That would mean there hasn’t been much opportunity for people to see them.  Plus, gray wolves, unlike coyotes and eastern coyotes are not very fond of humans or their activity.  They stay will hidden. 

    Coyotes don’t normally get anywhere near 100 pounds much less 130.  I suppose there could be a Shaquille O’Neil of the coyote world, but siting that would be even more rare.

    Hope to hear from you again.  Good questions!

  • http://crazymountainman.blogspot.com/ Out On The Prairie

    Really amazing capture. I love to listen to the howls, there is a primitive thrill in being part of it.Sometimes I think our conservation people hold back on sightings as to not cause a lot of fear and people going out to shoot the poor critter.I saw fresh signs of a cougar today and our county people don’t want to say yes to it.Our deer population has drawn them back into the area.

  • Teresa Evangeline

    The howl of a wolf is spine-tingling and so primordial. I haven’t heard one for many, many years. A lot of coyotes yipping but no wolves, although they have been sighted within a half an hour from here. Which kind I don’t know for certain. One was killed about an hour from here and the photo was posted on FB of the hunter holding him up, blood and all, weighing an estimated 250 lbs. It was Huge. It broke my heart to see him dead and held up as a trophy.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Wolves are good medicine and it is unwise to kill them senselessly.  I
    don’t understand the humans species sometimes.  Don’t get me wrong.  I
    eat meat.  I hunt for sustenance.  But I would never kill for the sake
    of killing.  It is very creepy and extremely sad.

    It may sound
    odd, but it is worthwhile to have a broken heart over a senselessly
    killed wolf.  On some karmic level it shows true human concern and helps
    the animals spirit to carry on.  You, in effect, make up for those less
    aware, less sensitive.

    And for that I would like to say something.  Thank you Teresa.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Wolves are good medicine and it is unwise to kill them senselessly.  I
    don’t understand the humans species sometimes.  Don’t get me wrong.  I
    eat meat.  I hunt for sustenance.  But I would never kill for the sake
    of killing.  It is very creepy and extremely sad.

    It may sound
    odd, but it is worthwhile to have a broken heart over a senselessly
    killed wolf.  On some karmic level it shows true human concern and helps
    the animals spirit to carry on.  You, in effect, make up for those less
    aware, less sensitive.

    And for that I would like to say something.  Thank you Teresa.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Yes, I agree that our government wildlife people may hold back information in hopes of protecting a species but people aren’t stupid and they know what is out there.  They’ve seen it, they’ve heard it, they’ve tracked it in the woods.  These government employees that play these games end up looking like they don’t know what they are doing which lessens public confidence in their abilities.

    And by not acknowledging the truth they do a disservice to all; the animal, the public, and the environment.  In fact these acts may perpetuate urban myths and falsehoods about these sensitive species.  Better we should no the truth, and understand that there is no danger; in fact there are beautiful benefits. 

    I just don’t get where they are coming from.

    How lucky that you found cougar sign.  Quite an accomplisment in my estimation!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Yes, I agree that our government wildlife people may hold back information in hopes of protecting a species but people aren’t stupid and they know what is out there.  They’ve seen it, they’ve heard it, they’ve tracked it in the woods.  These government employees that play these games end up looking like they don’t know what they are doing which lessens public confidence in their abilities.

    And by not acknowledging the truth they do a disservice to all; the animal, the public, and the environment.  In fact these acts may perpetuate urban myths and falsehoods about these sensitive species.  Better we should no the truth, and understand that there is no danger; in fact there are beautiful benefits. 

    I just don’t get where they are coming from.

    How lucky that you found cougar sign.  Quite an accomplisment in my estimation!

  • http://alsphotographyblog.blogspot.com/ Al

    That is awesome – the trail camera photo is incredible. I’ve sometimes wondered about setting up a camera in my yard, as we’ve had bears, coyotes, foxes, and who knows what else that I haven’t seen. One time I was out in the middle of the night and there were coyote howls from every direction, it was one of the eeriest things I’ve ever experienced.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Actually coyote howls are more eerie than wolf howls in my opinion.  So high, so many, so haunting.  The price of trail cameras have come down a lot in the past year.  The ones that I use are top flight and aren’t that expensive.  But, you can pay big bucks and get a lot of features I don’t have.  In either case they are very effective.  I have hundreds of photos taken with these.  One word of warning.  If you have black bears get bear cages for the cameras.  I’ve lost two to bears.

  • sandy

    I ran across some coyotes this winter that definitely looked more like wolves than the coyotes  I grew up with in Oklahoma. You may have seen this shot, I posted it somewhere, but now can’t find it. Earlier, I had been out taking photos of the frost, and after coming back to the house, noticed a pair sniffing around where I had been standing minutes before. It makes me wonder how often I am watched as I walk the woods trails.

    coyotes | Flickr – Photo Sharing!

  • Gary

    Yes, Bill, sightings like this, from credible folks who know the woods, seem to be, similar to those fabled 100-year storms, getting more frequent as the years progress. I can think of no reason why wolves wouldn’t repopulate our region with the forest. 

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Thanks for stopping by http://www.wildramblings.com Gary.  I agree that sitings for unusual predators is increasing.  I hear more about mountain lions than wolves (although I’ve never personally seen a mountain lion in the east).  I think its important to make folks aware of the possibilities so that they can keep an eye out when adventuring about. 

    For those of you who like good outdoor writing consider stopping by http://www.tavernfare.com .  Gary is a good writer for sure.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     The photo is a classic western coyote.  Note the narrow face, thin torso, and long back legs.  Much different than our eastern coyote/wolfe hybrid, and certainly much different than the gray wolf. 

    We are all being observed by wildlife when cruising about the woods.  The first line of defense for wildlife is to see and go unseen.  Knowing this can really improve your own wildlife sitings. 

  • Barbara

    Whoa Bill – don’t doubt your suspicions, I’ve learned over the past 30 something years that “officials” will deny all kinds of things that the people who live in an area know for sure are true. Up here in central Ontario we’ve been assured for years there are no cougars (mountain lions), no bears, no wolves… all nonsense. 

    A neighbour had to shoot a young black bear two roads over from me, that was marauding a bee yard – too bad he didn’t wait around for the Natural Resources people to catch and remove the bear, but for sure it was a bear. Mountain lions are regularly seen in some of the more remote or untravelled forests along the ridge called the Niagara Escarpment. One of my closer neighbours saw one many times as did the farmer whose home farm is across the road from me. Finally a couple of officers with Natural Resources admitted that cougar had been sighted and their scat confirmed their presence.And wolves? I’ve not seen this baby, but there was one very close to my drive shed which is 20 feet from my house about a month or so ago… that eerie howl is unmistakeable. The hair on the back of my neck literally stood up. I jumped it was so close. The dogs had been going crazy inside the house, and I went out on the deck closing them in. Holy smoke, I thought, that wolf is close! I’ve heard him/her before but at a distance. Unfortunately there was no snow nor mud to get paw prints in the morning. And likely since my dogs are over 100 pounds with big paws, they would have made a mess of any that I might have found… but wolves in Eastern Ontario and travelling down to Maine? I wouldn’t doubt it for a second. I can’t confirm and have no DNA evidence, but the difference between the yipping coyotes who had been singing moments before and this low and lonely call… just no question what it was.

    It’s exciting for me that nature is adapting.

    So wish I had your camera set-up, and your education to be able to confirm more… what a super story this is about Cooper and Adia helping you both confirm your suspicions… 

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     There are a lot of cougar reports around these parts but I have not seen one (although my wife has!).  Black bears are plentiful here.  They are around on a regular basis.  But wolves would be a whole new layer of predators, perhaps lessening some of the smaller abundant predators. 

    The hounds sense of smell makes them a valuable asset in discovering the natural world.  The trick is paying attention to them and then visually locating what they encounter.  Lots of fun if nothing else!

  • Wendysarno

    Wonderful telling, Bill. Having lived among coyotes in the past I know well the sound of their yipping, singing, high howl. I’ve never heard a wolf tho I’ve been told that if and when I do there will be no doubt. The hackles will rise. It reaches something primal in us just as it does for your hounds. I admire the way you track with both your intuition, your knowledge of the land and your diligent, observent scientist. I look forward to the next chapter.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Thank you Wendy.  I’m hoping to get another photo this spring or warm season, but it will be the luck of the draw.  Right place, right time.  There is a lot of room out there.  Haven’t heard the low mournful voice lately, but it will likely return.

  • Anonymous

    Wow, Bill.  I admire your use of the tape measure and correlating wolf size to your Cooper.  The wolf engenders so much emotion and past narratives of the wild, does it not?  How fortunate you are to have seen one.  I enjoy the coyote packs that howl about here.  

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     This was an amazing experience.  And that I had tracks in the snow to measure and compare gave me solid information that help me to see the whole story.  I’m resetting my trail cameras to areas where there may be a lot of prey in hoping to get another photo.  Much more difficult in the warmer season though!

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