Coyote America, by Dan Flores

Here is a review of the book Coyote America which I wrote for the November/December 2016 issue of The Gnatcatcher, published by the Juniata Valley Audubon Society:

If you, like me, are a fan of coyotes, this book will both delight and sicken you.  Subtitled A Natural and Supernatural History, Flores covers every aspect of coyotes’ lives, present and past, the Native American fables and stories that feature Coyote, and the western settlers as well as present day Americans’ approach to these amazing and resilient creatures.

coyote-america-coverTheir story begins in the American Southwest 3.2 million years ago when coyotes split from gray wolves.  While wolves crossed into Asia and Europe, coyotes remained here and eventually became the heroes of Indian folk tales.

Early American explorers called them “prairie wolves” and seemed to admire them.  But the farmers, ranchers, and hunters of the late nineteenth century demonized them along with larger predators such as wolves.

Our “Hundred Years War,” as Flores calls it, against these animals, has been subsidized by taxpayers beginning in the early twentieth century up to the present day.  Unlike wolves, which are pack animals and were easy to kill with poison bait, coyotes are known for what scientists call their “fission-fusion” adaptations in which they can be either pack or solitary animals, depending on outside pressures and are not as easily drawn into bait.

Despite killing more than six and a half million coyotes from 1945 to 1971, the Animal Control Board, renamed the Division of Wildlife Services in 1997, under the Department of Agriculture, has continued their war against coyotes, most recently killing 512,710 coyotes from 2006 to 2011. But coyotes can adjust their population, having as many as 20 pups if they are persecuted or as few as two if they are not.

They also began their incredible expansion to the East and as far north as Anchorage, Alaska and lately have discovered the safest places to live are cities where they are not hunted and there is plenty of food.  So while a coyote requires 10 square miles of territory in the country, it only needs 3 square miles in a city.

Flores covers the many human heroes in Coyote America as well as the villains.  Mammalogists such as Olaus and Adolph Murie, who studied coyotes in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Yellowstone back in the 1930s.  Olaus concluded that coyotes were not arch predators of game animals but omnivorous generalists that mostly ate mice, gophers, and hares and that only fed on elk carcasses.  Adolph agreed and added grasshoppers and crickets to their diet as well as the weakest mule deer fawns and antelopes.  But coyotes are opportunists and in the cities they not only prey on the occasional pet, especially cats, but they also eat the eggs and young of Canada geese and white-tailed deer fawns.

Still, despite the championing by informed mammalogists, the killing continued unabated.  It took an unlikely person, namely Walt Disney, to begin a sympathetic portrayal of coyotes that reached the general public.  In 1961 Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color ran a six-part series entitled “The Coyote’s Lament.”  At the time federal poisoners, bounty hunters and state trappers were killing between 250,000 and 300,000 coyotes a year.  Disney ended his series with, “When the time comes when you can’t hear the song of the coyote, the West is going to seem a mighty dull place.”

Since then more and more people are opposed to the war on coyotes.  Still, that war has brought bigger coyotes to the East.  Scientists now claim, based on genetic studies, that coyote hybridization with gray wolves began 550 to 950 years ago in the Great Lakes region and have resulted in as much as 20% wolf genes in Great Lakes’ coyotes and 40% in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park.  They also claim that the South’s red wolves are a hybrid of southern gray wolves and coyotes that began 290 to 430 years ago.

And so the coyote, fact and legend, has become larger than life.  As we know here in Pennsylvania our so-called eastern coyotes are bigger than those of the West.  They continue to evolve and adapt to us and our ways.  For instance, studies of urban coyotes find that fewer and fewer are killed by cars every year.

But, as Flores wonders, will we adapt to them, stop killing them and allow their populations to stabilize?

Unexpected Encounters

turkey henTo encounter the unexpected is why I go out day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, walking the same mountain trails. But I rarely have a Discovery Channel moment. At most, I might find a new wildflower, an unusual butterfly, or a rare bird.

Still, I’ve had my moments. Take the day in mid-April when I heard a turkey gobbling near the Far Field Road. Immediately, I lay down against the road bank, clad in my usual jeans and navy blue jacket and, grasping my Lynch’s Foolproof Turkey Call, I rendered my poor imitation of a clucking hen turkey.

A tom turkey strode into view and walked past my outstretched legs as he peered around for the clucking hen. Although he passed a mere 15 inches from my feet, he didn’t seem to notice me. I found that surprising since turkeys are supposed to have superb eyesight.

Pausing about 20 feet beyond my left side, he spread his tail feathers and puffed his side feathers in and out like the inflating and deflating of a balloon. Then he thrust his neck forward and gobbled loudly. I had the turkey call resting on my chest and using my right hand, which he couldn’t see from his vantage point, I was able to whine and cluck with it.

For nearly half an hour he gobbled and displayed, all the while looking up the bank, below the road, and directly at me. I answered his every gobble with whines and clucks, most of which were poorly executed, because the rotten rubber band holding the scraper to the box had snapped after my first cluck. But the sometimes odd sounds I made did not seem to matter to that turkey.

Finally, he walked within five feet of me to gobble and display and I had a superb view of his six-inch-long beard, his bright eyes, and his magnificent tail feathers. He often appeared to be looking directly at me, but I never moved. Several times, he also emitted a rattling sound like castanets, which is described by researchers as a threat call before turkeys begin to fight. Was he seeing me as a male rival or, more likely, a female that he hoped to vanquish and then court? Apparently, he was more interested in what I sounded like than what I looked like.

wild turkey at close range

At last, he strutted past me again and climbed the bank above my head. Still gobbling, he tramped around in the woods, sounding like a heavy-footed human. I answered him with the call for several more minutes until he drifted away, his gobbles receding in the distance.

Only then did I move, because mindful of the upcoming spring gobbler season, I didn’t want him to associate a human with the noise he had heard. On the other hand, I doubt that any self-respecting turkey hunter would make the noise I had made. And I did wonder if I had called up the proverbial “dumb turkey.” Still, he had given me a never-to-be-forgotten encounter with a wild creature on his own turf with no blind or camouflage between him and me.

Despite being surprised by the turkey’s reaction to me, I had, to some extent, set him up by using a turkey call. That was not true of my next encounter.

On a late spring day, I was showing my husband Bruce invasive and native shrubs I wanted him to photograph for a talk I was scheduled to give. After photographing invasives such as Japanese barberry, multiflora rose, and privet on the former clearcut, I headed for a place where I knew the native red elderberry shrubs were already bearing fruit. Bruce was in a hurry to get back to his work at the computer, so I rushed heedlessly along our trails intent on finding the shrubs.

As I descended a steep section of the trail slightly ahead of Bruce, suddenly I spotted little coyotes ahead of us. I froze and so did Bruce. Instead of running away, they proceeded to silently wrestle with one another a mere 40 feet from us. Occasionally they looked up, and once a pup sniffed the air, advanced toward us, and then retreated. Altogether, I counted five little ones.

We inched closer, Bruce clicking his camera, as they continued wrestling and tumbling about, sometimes paired, sometimes threesomes, and sometimes all five piling on. They had reddish-brown coats and black-tipped tails. Their legs seemed too long for their bodies and their pointed ears too large for their faces. Although they were as cute as any puppies, their bodies were rangy rather than puppy-plump.

coyote pupsEventually they ran up an old creek bed and played a few rounds of “king of the mountain” on fallen trees before they slipped beneath two large, old tree trunks in a sea of hay-scented ferns, which effectively hid their den entrance. I waited, but they didn’t emerge again. Still, I had had the longest, closest look ever of young, playing coyotes.

And those red elderberry shrubs I’d been searching for? Once the coyotes disappeared, I found the shrubs along the same stretch of trail where we had been watching the pups. As I neared the largest of the shrubs, a male rose-breasted grosbeak landed on it and ate all the berries, a sight that would have ordinarily made my day but had been upstaged by the coyote pup sighting.

micrathena dorsal viewLooking for one thing and finding another is also the theme of my third unexpected encounter. Early on a warm August day I was watching female spined micrathenas spinning their daily webs. Because there are so many of these webs across our trails in August, I had been studying them. The spiders were said to bite their prey first and then wrap it in silk, something I had previously observed them doing. I had also been listening for their low-pitched buzz, which is supposed to be audible to humans two feet away. While the females are large and showy with spiny abdomens, the males are tiny and have flattened elongated, whitish abdomens.

Hoping to spot a male courting a female in a web, I instead found what looked like an egg sac, hanging from a single silk thread and spinning in mid-air. I fumbled for my hand lens in my fanny pack and went down on one knee, like a petitioner, to try to catch the swaying white sac, which was about a quarter the size of my littlest fingernail, in the lens.

It looked like the egg sac of a spined micrathena, especially through the lens, but I wasn’t certain. I was focusing intently on trying to keep the swinging sac in view when I heard a slight noise behind me. Assuming it was my son Dave out taking photos and trying to startle me, I paid no attention to the sound.

Then something nudged me in my rear end.

In the same instant I dismissed Dave as the culprit, I spun around, still on one knee, and came face to face with a large porcupine. porcupineI stumbled and fell forward as I half turned around and tried to scramble out of its way at the same time, all the while hoping it wouldn’t fill my posterior with quills. My second attempt to get to my feet was successful and I quickly moved down the trail.

But the porcupine seemed to be as startled by the encounter as I was. After all, porcupines don’t see very well and this one had clearly blundered into me.

It turned and shinnied 25 feet up into a fork of a large chestnut oak tree. Its nostrils flared out as it sniffed my scent, and it bared its orange front teeth, full of bravado now that it was out of harm’s way.

These and other adventures in nature I have had over the years keep me out in all kinds of weather like hunters stalking their prey. Only I’m stalking stories that I can tell. Before there was civilization, preliterate humans sat in small family groups around campfires and told stories of what they had seen while hunting and gathering and living out among the wild creatures. Some still do in remote areas of the world. And, as I’ve discovered, some of our hunters are also superb story tellers, not only telling stories of their hunts but of the other wildlife they have watched while sitting in their tree stands.

I admit that many hunters have called in turkeys and may have had similar experiences to mine with the tom turkey. And I’m certain there have been folks who have seen frolicking coyote pups.

But is there anyone out there who has ever been poked in the rear by a porcupine?

All photos were taken by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow, except for the photo of the coyote pup, which Bruce took. The first turkey photo is of a hen in the field, that had small chicks with her; the second is a close-up of a jake (two-year-old male) shot by one of our hunter friends during Spring Gobbler Season in April 2008. The spider is a female spined micrathena.

As a bonus, here’s a video Dave shot with his digital camera last July in the spruce grove.

From the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

Earth Day

I was out this perfect day by 6:30 because Bruce was still sleeping, and it was Sunday–his day to make breakfast. I brewed my coffee, slipped on my walking shoes, left a note for Bruce and was off, coffee mug clutched in one hand.

Bluebirds sang in the yard and field sparrow song reverberated in First Field. But I chose the woods and the moss-covered Dump Trail, even though it seemed disappointedly quiet and empty and no birds sang. Before I reached Laurel Ridge Trail, I stopped and sat on a fallen log to watch a couple white-breasted nuthatches foraging on nearby trees.

Then a deer snorted over and over in the woods beyond Laurel Ridge Trail. I couldn’t see it, but I assumed it had caught my scent. I remained motionless and it finally stopped snorting. Still I sat, and suddenly an animal loped past on Laurel Ridge Trail.

“Coyote,” I thought and after it passed I jumped up and ran to the trail, looking up to where I could see its drooping, long, black-tipped tail and backside disappearing over the top of the steep hill. Judging by its size, I figured it was a male, and realized that it was on April 14, 1999 that a big male coyote had walked silently up to me as I had sat on the Far Field Road Bench, worried about my aging father who had fallen and broken his hip. At the time the long look I exchanged with the coyote had seemed almost like a revelation, and I had renamed the bench Coyote Bench. But it has been several years since I have seen a coyote and again it seemed like a revelation.

I walked on to the spruce grove, and as I started up through the trees, a female sharp-shinned hawk flew out of the treetops protesting in her mild way. She joined the male who was perched on a tree branch at the edge of the woods. So once again, for the fourth year in a row, they are nesting in the spruce grove.

Two wonderful sightings before 7:00. “Sunday, sweet Sunday,” I sang to myself, and then I remembered–It’s Earth Day!

Coyote Birthday

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!