Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol
One recent winter morning, when I awoke at dawn and glanced out our bedroom window, a nervous coyote slipped from the woods – crouching, tail tight between its hind legs like a naughty dog – and walked tentatively to my mammal feeding station in the side yard. The coyote stood for some time, eyes fixed on the woods, before he gathered the courage to chisel bits of meat from the rock-hard deer carcass. Grabbing my binoculars, I hurried downstairs for an eye-level look.
What manner of beast is the coyote? It is the most adaptable, the most intelligent, the most resourceful wild animal in our area, if not all of America. Not only is the coyote a functioning part of the wild Northeast but also it has redefined the roles of many other animals. The coyote eats deer and wild turkey, yet both species thrive. The coyote doesn’t eat red fox or bobcat, yet both predators suffer in its presence. It communes with ravens and train whistles and sirens, and its yipping falsetto gives meaning to a winter night. As a recent immigrant to Vermont, the coyote is neither predictable nor sacred, and is blamed for everything but the weather.
Before Europeans carved up the eastern forests and the heartland prairies, the coyote was more or less confined to desert and scrubland. It lived in regions that either did not support a population of gray wolves, or it lived furtively in the landscape cracks between adjacent wolf packs. Once the East had been cleared and grasslands plowed, wolves were virtually exterminated. Then, coyotes began to make a bold and innovative move eastward.
On October 24, 1944, a fox hunter in Holderness, New Hampshire, shot a coyote, the first ever recorded in New England. Four years later, one went down in Vermont. By the 1960s, coyotes had become established in northern New England, and by the 1990s, a few individuals began appearing in seemingly unlikely corners of the Northeast: downtown Boston and Central Park in New York City. Today, Vermont supports between three and four thousand coyotes in the summer. After mortality and dispersal have taken a toll, the population shrinks to between 1,500 and 2,000 during the winter.
Eastern coyotes are much more secretive than their western cousins. They prefer the woods to the meadows, the night to the day, and do not as often broadcast their exuberance.
Once the day began to lighten, my side-yard coyote hitched his tail between his legs and slunk back into the woods. In his absence, a pair of ravens, which had been visiting the carcass for the past several days, flew in to feed. According to Bernd Heinrich, University of Vermont biologist and author of Ravens in Winter, ravens circling high above a carcass often alert coyotes to the imminent possibility of food; if a carcass is unopened, feeding coyotes chew through the hide, which provides an access point for hungry ravens. In turn, ravens cache pieces of meat, which coyotes often track down and consume.
Fifteen minutes after a pair of ravens appeared on the carcass, a gray fox drove them off. The fox seemed unconcerned that the scent of a coyote littered the area; it fed in daylight and even napped in the open. Although gray foxes appear to be holding their own, eastern coyotes have had a profound impact on red foxes, killing them or driving them out of their home ranges, forcing them to live in the narrow zones between adjacent coyote packs, much the same way wolves pinch the range of coyotes. The opposing fates of the two foxes appears to be a byproduct of species-specific behavior. When threatened, a gray fox climbs a tree or hides in a burrow. A red fox runs. And coyotes run faster.
Eastern coyotes have also displaced bobcats, though not by running them down. Coyotes, by virtue of their catholic feeding habits, are much more common than bobcats, which are strictly carnivores. Before settlement, wolves and catamounts stole prey from bobcats. In the absence of the big predators, Vermont’s bobcat population peaked by the 1930s and 1940s. Since the arrival of the carcass-stealing coyote, bobcat numbers have been in decline.
Make no mistake about it, the eastern coyote is a predator; it kills fawns in spring and early summer and adult deer in the winter, particularly in deep snow. Faced with several thousand hungry coyotes, however, Vermont’s deer herd has steadily grown since the early 1980s. In fact, I believe deer need an effective predator – wolves for instance – to help control their numbers. Until the wolves return or are returned to Vermont and New Hampshire, however, I’ll enjoy my chance encounters with the eastern coyotes - survivalist extraordinaire.
Ted Levin is a naturalist and freelance writer living in Thetford Center, VT.