Howl in the Silence of Night

100_1543From my doorstep in this western New England town I can hear the lonely wail of an eastern coyote.  It is about 10 PM and the moon, nearly full, is bright enough to make the trees cast shadows into the field to the east of our homestead.  The sound is somehow chilling, and yields a feeling of quiet solitude.  I am content to sit hear and wait for the next howl.  This coyote is not alone, another coyote answers in the distance.  The howls do not come in rapid sequence, but rather one at a time, perhaps several minutes apart.  The howling continues.  Each time the two different cries seem to be getting closer together.  There is a long pause.  And then a yipping like sound can be heard.  I know from experience that the two partners have located each other.  They yip back and forth greeting each other ending a period of separation.


My first up-close experience with coyotes was in Wyoming some twenty years ago in 1972.  I was camping with a friend near the Green River.  As dusk approached the howling in the distance began.  A large pack of coyotes howled in chorus, the many different pitches creating a tune.  I’m sure to some it would have sounded cacophonous to many, but it was music to my ears.  I remember a chill that ran up and down my spine.  The song began with a single coyote, then one, and then another joined.  Eventually a score of coyotes joined in the song, filling the evening air with some sort of strange joy.  Like this night, the moon was nearly full, but the terrain in Wyoming is much more wide open than can be found in the wooded hills of these parts.  Wide open spaces give the appearance that objects and sounds are much closer than they really are.  There was still enough light to see the shadowy figures of the coyotes, probably 100 yards away.  They stood directly in front of an island of pines.  The conifers provided good shelter during the day for the stealth coyotes.   The coyotes would dart back and forth between the open prairie and the pine stand.  Coyotes are weary beasts, for they have been hunted, especially by humans, for centuries.  Each time they ventured out into the field they seemed to edge a little closer to our camp site.  The coyotes were fully aware of our presence.  They were not threatening, but I believe that they wanted us to know that they were here first, and that it was us who had invaded their territory.  After about an hour of watching them, with the dark quieting our vision, the largest individual coyote went over and stood at the far edge of the meadow near the edge of the Green River.  He gave a few quick yelps and the entire group swept across the field and down a path towards the river.  They were gone, probably to hunt where they would not be disturbed.


The eastern coyote is quite a bit larger than its’ western cousin.  Some biologists think it a separate species, although this remains a topic of debate.  The eastern coyote, absent for decades and decades, has returned with a vengeance.  We can only guess as to why it reappeared.  Some believe that the return of large forests to the northeast have created favorable habitat for the coyote.  Others believe that it is a new species to this area, a descendant of the western coyote that as it spread east through southern Canada, bred with wolves and dogs along the way creating a slightly larger animal with some different behaviors.  There is some thought that the motivation for this migration eastward originated from the intense pressure on its range in the western states from farming and ranching.  No matter what the reason, the coyote is here to stay, and it is certain to have major impacts on the eastern ecosystem.


Good research on the eastern coyote is spotty, at best.  More myth surrounds this effective predator than actual fact.  There is little to fear with this beautiful canine.  In general, it does its’ best to steer clear of humans.  It will kill small livestock when it is easy to do so.  The coyote’s primary will is to survive.  It has no death wish that includes deadly battles with humans.  People should not bait or feed these animals.  This human behavior can decrease the coyote’s fear of humans and produce unwanted behaviors that people perceive as a threat. 


Coyotes are sly and they are one of nature’s great survivors.  For over one hundred years man and coyote have competed for the use of the same open range in our western states.  Man has tried to trap, poison, and hunt the coyote to extinction.  If anything the coyote has increased in numbers despite the fact that thousands and thousands are killed annually.  The coyote may have survived due to its great memory.  Seldom will a coyote make the same mistake twice.  If it survives an error, it will most likely not be repeated. 


Coyotes mate between late January and early May.  They have a two month gestation period. And produce litters of three to twelve pups.  During this time the coyote stays in a den that can take several forms.  The tow most common types of dens are dens excavated in the earth, and the use of fallen, hollow trees.  The earthen dens are two to six feet deep.  There are most often two entrances, so one can be used for escape.  The dens can be excavated from the dens of another animal, such as a ground hog, or it can be dug from scratch, solely for the purpose of raising pups.  Both parents participate in raising the pups and often bring fresh kills to the den allowing the pups the best portion of the meat.  Like most canines, the coyote is a true omnivore, and gets a large part of its diet from fruits like blackberries, blueberries, apples, and other fruits when they are in season.  As a predator it is very versatile hunting everything from mice to deer.  Rabbits are among its favorite foods.


Two winters ago while returning in my truck from a long, cold hike in the forest on the east side of a mountain I spotted two coyotes in a thicket along the side of the road.  They were trying to drag a fresh kill deer carcass into the woods.  I decided to drive up the road a little bit and pull over so as to not disturb them.  Using binoculars I marveled at their strength and determination.  The two coyotes worked in unison, rarely working against each other as the moved the deer off into the thick forest.  The next day I went back to the site and trailed their movements in the bloody snow.  They had moved the carcass a good distance.  The carcass had been entered from the rear, the meat pulled off the bones all the way up to the shoulders.  There may have been a scant meal left that they likely consumed the following night.


The coyote population in New England seems to wax and wane.  It certainly rises when hare and mice populations are superior.  It probably declines when those populations suddenly drop, and during times when the mange runs through the coyote packs.  Judging from my knowledge of the western coyote it is likely a never ending cycle that reflects the balance of nature.  Although humans may think that it is necessary to control coyote populations, in reality there is likely no real way of controlling the populations of coyotes once they have become established in any given area.  Coyotes seem to breed more prolifically and have larger litters when their populations are threatened making any human effort futile.


So, tonight I sit on my deck and listen for the howl of the coyote.  If I am lucky I will hear another coyote howl in the distance.  While the coyote may be calling to locate its’ mate, or simply to hear itself sing, I will be left to my own thoughts and solitude.   With each howl I hear I will be thinking about how lucky I am to share the earth with this wonderfully resilient animal.  



This story was originally written in July of 1992 and entitled “The Lonely One”.  It was recently rewritten in 2009.

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