Two summers ago I reached one of those milestone birthdays that I didn’t want to think about.
“Don’t bother celebrating my birthday,” I told my family.
“But Mom,” our son Dave protested, “I’m going to give you coyotes for your birthday.”
I was skeptical that he could do so even though our adventure with coyotes had begun the previous week on the Fourth of July. As the fireworks reached their climax at a nearby amusement park in the valley, Dave reported hearing coyotes howling on Sapsucker Ridge.
Three days later Dave again heard coyotes howling, this time in the early morning.
In the meantime, I was getting more and more frustrated. Although I had had several glimpses of single coyotes over the last four years, I had never heard them howl. Dave, who tends to be wandering the mountain at night and very early in the morning when coyotes are most likely to be abroad, had heard coyotes howl a few times.
Then, while sitting on the veranda the following afternoon, my husband Bruce and I heard the start of a fire siren down in the valley which was abruptly drowned out by coyote howls again coming from Sapsucker Ridge. We wondered if they were protesting the noise or trying to compete, but we later learned that a siren, a clap of thunder, or even the barking of a dog may encourage howling. But later, at 7:15 p.m., stimulated by no other human-made sound, the coyotes howled even closer as we sat finishing our dinner on the front porch.
Both times Bruce and I were thrilled to hear those wondrously wild cries that sent chills of delight down our spines. Hearing the “song dogs” on our mountain, just as we had many years before while camping in the West, was a wish come true.
The day before my birthday, I was out shortly after 8:00 a.m., picking blueberries on Laurel Ridge, when the coyotes howled again on Sapsucker Ridge–wild, ululating music that ebbed and flowed and then died as suddenly as it had started.
That afternoon Dave climbed up Sapsucker Ridge and poked around in the thick vegetation below the ridgetop. There he practically stumbled on two coyote pups. One stood only 15 feet away from him. Neither showed any fear and studied him calmly before moving casually off into the underbrush.
Dave was certain they had a den in the area but, according to Gerry Parker’s EASTERN COYOTE; THE STORY OF ITS SUCCESS, by July pups are no longer in their natal dens. Instead, they are at rendezvous sites where they are left by their parents to rest, play, and take short, exploratory excursions on their own while the adults are either resting nearby or hunting for food for their youngsters.
Whenever an adult returns, Parker says, they announce their arrival with a brief howl which sends the pups into a frenzy of howls, yips, yaps, and barks. No doubt that was what we had been hearing, although coyote pups also practice their howling at this time according to other researchers.
Dave was confident that he could show me coyotes on my birthday, but I was not so sure. I knew that coyotes constantly move their pups, especially when they are discovered by humans. Surely the adults would have scented Dave, realized that a human had found the rendezvous site, and moved on.
Nevertheless, early the next morning I followed Dave silently up Big Tree Trail and down Sapsucker Ridge Trail. Just as he was ready to head downslope into the thick vegetation where he had seen the pups, I gasped. There ahead of us on the trail were three pups trotting purposefully along.
I whispered the news to Dave who had been moving with his eyes on where he placed his feet. Through my binoculars I had beautiful views of them before they ranged out of sight.
“Happy birthday,” Dave whispered. He had promised me coyote pups and he had delivered.
I sat down on a rock to take notes while Dave returned home. Then, ten minutes later, a fourth pup emerged from the underbrush and followed the same trajectory its siblings had taken. All of them were beige-colored and lanky and reminded me of teenagers in search of adventure.
I sat listening to a singing black-billed cuckoo, red-eyed vireo, and scarlet tanager against the steady drone of traffic from Interstate 99 below the ridge before continuing along the trail. Although I was constantly on the lookout for the pups, all I saw was an overpopulation of chipmunks running throughout the forest.
I even went down off the ridge into the forest from which they had emerged, but I found no sign of them. Finally, I checked out the string of small vernal ponds that often provide water for animals as large as black bears, but most were almost dried up and there were no coyote tracks, only deer tracks, in their muddy margins.
The Far Field held the usual singing birds–indigo buntings, field sparrows, eastern towhees, American goldfinches–but no coyotes. Still, I was content with what I had seen and ambled back along the Far Field Road.
Suddenly, I spotted another coyote ahead of me on the road. Judging from its size, it was probably the mother of the pups because she was not much bigger than them, but she had adult coloration–a black and reddish-brown coat and a black-tipped tail. She looked and sniffed and investigated along the road in search of food for her pups before she veered off into the underbrush below the road and disappeared.
What a treat! Not only had I seen four coyote pups, but I had watched their mother hunting for food. Surely I could ask for no more.
Near the top of First Field, I stood, as I always do, and looked up and down the mown path through the field. There, just below the spruce grove, sat a beige pup on its haunches, scratching its plump, white belly with its front paws. Then it slowly stood up and wandered off over the hill.
That was the last we heard or saw the family. Even though none of the coyotes I saw seemed to notice me, they probably did and moved on that night. Coyotes, after all, are wanderers, usually spending their days sleeping on the ground in a dense thicket or woods and their nights hunting for food.
Here in the East they live mostly in mated pairs. Courtship often stretches from late December until mid-February and the male and female may howl in a duet before mating. During the 58 to 63-day gestation period, the female, assisted by the male, digs several dens in steep banks, mounds, gullies, brushy slopes, or thickets or renovates and enlarges fox or woodchuck dens. The den sites are usually south-facing, easy to defend, and near water. They are difficult for humans to find and are frequently passed on from generation to generation.
In the main den, the five to seven pups are born blind and helpless sometime in mid-April to mid-May. Their eyes open at two weeks of age and they venture out of the den a week later. Then the female, who has been nursing the pups and fed by the male, joins her mate in hunting food that is later regurgitated, partly digested, for their offspring. When the pups are weaned at eight to nine weeks old, the family abandons den life for the year.
Gradually the pups learn to hunt under their parents’ instruction and most leave the family unit in late autumn, dispersing an average of 30 miles in search of their own territory.
The coyote’s scientific name is Canis latrans which means “barking dog.” Although their howling is distinctive and includes at least 11 different vocalizations, the eastern coyote adults I have seen look like German shepherds. DNA studies of the eastern coyote found that it is a new animal, but these studies could not find a genetic marker that distinguished coyotes from wolves or dogs. As one researcher put it, “There is more difference between different breeds of dogs than between dogs and wolves.”
Most researchers agree that our coyotes moved East from Minnesota across Wisconsin, northern Michigan and southern Ontario. There they probably mated with Algonquin timber wolves, tentatively explaining why eastern coyotes are larger than their western counterparts. Eastern coyote pups are also more sociable than western coyote pups–more playful, less agressive and less dominant in their behavior–all wolf-like traits.
Other researchers hypothesize that their larger size could be attributed to habitat. As Penn State’s Richard Yahner writes in his new book FASCINATING MAMMALS: CONSERVATION AND ECOLOGY IN THE MID-EASTERN STATES, “Mid-eastern and northeastern states typically have diverse and abundant food resources, such as high deer populations, a variety of smaller forest and farmland prey, and food associated with humans (e.g. farm animals, garbage) compared to the drier, less productive areas of midwestern or western states…” These “enhanced nutritional opportunities…” result “in an eventual gradual increase in body size of eastern coyotes over successive generations.”
Coyotes are omnivorous opportunists. A two-year study in Pennsylvania from April until August 1991-92 found that over half the prey of 310 coyotes consisted of live or carrion white-tailed deer, followed by mice and voles, cottontail rabbits and woodchucks. They also ate some insects and birds. Plant materials, especially wild fruits, were as abundant as deer in their diet.
Other studies have shown that when coyotes are present, smaller predators such as opossums, raccoons, foxes and even bobcats decrease. Biologists in Michigan found that the success of ground-nesting song sparrows increased when coyotes moved in and hypothesized that the coyotes were killing the raccoons that preyed on ground-nesting birds.
Whatever the studies may show, I have found no reduction in either prey or predator species on our mountain. Neither have I heard nor seen another coyote since that birthday two years ago. Maybe they are waiting until I reach another milestone birthday!