Coyotes … have you heard 'em?

Wild Things Column


It's been awhile since I have heard the howls and yips of those wily night creatures, coyotes. My next-door neighbor concurs; it's been a couple of years at least. So I decided to ask around the neighborhood to find out if anyone else hears them at all. It turned out that my location is an exception.  

I got affirmative answers from a couple of residents of Oxbow Road less than a mile east of here. Oxbow dead-ends into steep forested slopes where a band of coyotes could have a comfortable getaway after visiting the human habitations for whatever they can find, be it a wandering chicken, cat, mouse or vole. Peter Mortenson, a chicken owner on Oxbow (with a high fence and large dogs), says, "Barely heard them when I first moved here in '96 ... seems more now. Probably due to less hunters and trappers in the woods. Always love to hear their celebratory yapping! Kind of raises your awareness a notch." Mortenson has noticed that their presence is related to prey availability. "Last year we had a boom in the bunny population and I knew it was just a matter of time before the coyotes heard the dinner bell."

To the west, even closer by, Tim Gay on Upper Cherrytown Road told me that he occasionally hears them "late at night, somewhere up the mountain behind [my house] along Sapbush Creek." Behind Gay's house, the land rises steeply toward the Vernooy Kill as it flows down from the falls, all state forest land. My house is also at the foot of that rise, but around the other side of it. Maybe coyotes avoid our side because, since the pandemic began, there are more humans living up on top of the slope above my next-door neighbor and me. The Upper Cherrytown side is still wild, so the coyotes must feel more at ease hanging out there.

"We also hear them in the woods to the south," said Gay's husband, Bob Gibbons, adding, "It's a call for a kill." I must disagree, Bob! It wouldn't make much sense to advertise that you are about to kill something – that would alert your prey, or that you have killed already – that'd be an invitation to other predators. Their vocalizing is basically territorial in nature. Coyotes mate for life (a short life usually, just a few years) and establish a family dominion, which they defend from others of their kind.

Gay and Gibbons believe the coyote population is increasing and/or there are more people living up here to hear them. It's interesting to reflect that the coyotes are here as a direct consequence of the fact that  the wolves and mountain lions who used to roam the forests of the Northeast were so efficiently killed off by settlers. The coyotes are filling an ecological niche, migrating into New York state from Canada starting around 90 years ago. They apparently have ways of coping with humans that the species they replaced did not. They reproduce faster than wolves. And like many successful creatures, they are not picky eaters. If they can't find a juicy mouse or vole (or chicken, or small dog, etc.), they'll eat insects, nuts and berries

Or long-dead carrion. Years ago when we first moved here, a dead fawn materialized at the edge of the yard next to the road. What should we do with it? We decided to dig a hole and bury it. This was a learning experience. First of all, to dig a deep hole in the Catskills with nothing but a shovel is almost impossible, as any of our neighbors could have told us. After much struggle with rocks, we had a not-deep hole. Finally, we dumped the fawn in there but its four hoofs ended up sticking out of the ground.

It stayed buried for a couple of weeks, as I recall. Then one morning the hole was empty; part of the carcass was nearby. More disappeared overnight. After three or so days there wasn't a trace left of that fawn. It could have been a bear, but I don't think so. Coming back to eat the carcass over several nights doesn't seem like a bear's style. It must've been coyotes ... but it almost felt as if a nocturnal spirit animal had been there. 

Maybe above all, they survive because they know how to be invisible. I know not everyone wants them around, but not being a chicken or pet owner, I get a pleasurable electric thrill along my spine when I hear coyote voices, out there somewhere in the night, the sound of pure wildness and the sheer joy of being alive.