Monday, February 16, 2009

The Eastern Coyote

It should come as no secret by now that I love coyotes. I have mentioned before that we have them here in upstate New York and that I can often hear them singing together in the woods at night. Just two days ago they came very near the house, practically in our backyard, around 8:30 in the evening. I was upstairs at the time and wanted very badly to see them, so I yelled at my sister to turn on the outside lights. So what did she do? She flashed the floodlight and scared them away! She said she doesn't want them eating Kelsey, to which I said, what are you talking about, at forty-two pounds Kelsey is bigger than they are! No she's not, my sister replied. These coyotes are huge!

Well no wonder. It turns out that the Eastern coyote isn't actually a real coyote!

Coyotes are not native to this area of the country. Mark Twain, traveling West during the Civil War, had never before seen a "cayote" until somewhere west of Nebraska, as described in his travel memoir Roughing It. Unfortunately, he isn't much kinder to the "prairie wolf" than he was to the Goshoot Indians. According to Twain,
The cayote is a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolf-skin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. He has a general slinking expression all over. The cayote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry.

He is always poor, out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him, and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede. He is so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it. And he is so homely!—so scrawny, and ribby, and coarse-haired, and pitiful. . .

He will eat anything in the world that his first cousins, the desert-frequenting tribes of Indians will, and they will eat anything they can bite. It is a curious fact that these latter are the only creatures known to history who will eat nitro-glycerine and ask for more if they survive.

Of course, Twain became disillusioned with the Wild West in general and would sardonically tear down every last myth associated with the American frontier as the journey progressed. But Twain was partially correct in stating that coyotes will consume just about anything, although he errs in claiming that they subsist wholly on carcasses. Not only do they help maintain rodent and feral cat populations, they will also eat birdseed, pet food, fruits, vegetables, garbage, roadkill, leftovers at picnic sites, entrail piles left by hunters, fawns, foxes, geese, rabbits, skunks, annoying little yip-yap dogs, and other small mammals. In short, coyotes "take great advantage of an evolved mammalian trait too often derided by humans as lack of conviction or commitment: mental flexibility, a willingness to live with uncertainty and unpredictability so that more alternative courses of action are opened." Far from mocking them as Twain did, coyotes deserve our admiration. (Coyotes can also be either diurnal or nocturnal and can adjust their litter sizes depending on habitat conditions.) Unfortunately, when it comes to flexibility in humans, this trait is often regarded as cowardly wavering, a disapproving perspective we are all too willing to apply to animals as well. According to the "English poet John Keats [this is a] 'negative capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.'" I am sure Twain would agree.

Not only are they willing to alter their habits, coyotes are apparently happy to modify their physical makeup as well. There is now evidence that coyotes moved into the American Northeast through Canada, where they interbred with Canada's dwindling wolf population and eventually usurped their territory. As a result, the genetic makeup of the Eastern coyote is roughly ten to fifteen percent gray wolf. This accounts for their large size when compared to the normal coyotes who live in their original habitat, Mexico, the American West, and Central America. Shreve Stockton of The Daily Coyote has stated that her Charlie, a pure coyote, weighs around thirty pounds, "despite a diet that any coyote would envy" (they live in Wyoming). Eastern coyotes, by contrast, generally weigh about 35-45 pounds, with some larger males as big as 50-60 pounds.

(Oddly enough, it seems that domesticated dogs may have contributed to the gene pool of both the wolf and coyote in North America.)

The first sighting of a coyote in New York State occurred in the 1920s, and their numbers have been exponentially increasing ever since. To this day, however, I have yet to actually see one even though I hear them all the time at night. Coyotes are notoriously shy, which can only add to their image problem. All too often, they are often seen as "the idiot savant of the animal kingdom: as conniving as Machiavelli and as dumb as dirt." In reality, their elusive nature betrays a sharp intelligence that has helped them become the only large predator to thrive in the modern world.

(To read the article accompanying the first video, click here.


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