They might be watching you on a bike lane or hiking trail at dusk. Maybe one of them ate your cat. Some people find it hard to believe that they are even there.
They are coyotes. In the Eastern United States and Canada they are growing bigger thanks to abundant food and some unexpected cross breeding with Great Lakes wolves starting in the 1920s.
Designated as eastern coyotes, this emerging species often grows to over 50 pounds and has larger skulls and jaws than the coyotes of the West. The August 2010 issue of National Geographic reported on this new coyote type that is thriving in New England and Eastern Canada. According to the article, the DNA analysis of eastern coyotes shows them to be more coyote than wolf. They retain the sneaky and adaptable nature of coyotes, which helps them survive amid large human populations, plus they now benefit from pack-hunting behaviors inherited from their wolf kin.
The recent National Geographic article "New Beasts in the East" failed to mention the obvious presence of these bigger wolf-style coyotes in the Midwest. Last summer I moved back to my native Michigan after living out West for 14 years. Not long after returning to Michigan I saw a dead coyote on the side of Interstate 94. The animal looked large, and I immediately recognized it as a coyote. Having lived in Northern California for a long time, I knew what coyotes looked like. That lovely fur that blends almost every color was unmistakeable.
A quick search for coyote video on YouTube easily delivered results. Some videos were from hunters, who enjoy hunting these elusive predators. Then I found some videos from YouTube member IrenaScott created for the enjoyment of observing wildlife. The land in her videos looked like the Midwest, and, upon contacting the videographer, IrenaScott confirmed that the coyotes were filmed in Central Ohio.
IrenaScott's video embedded below contains many images that should fascinate people curious about eastern coyotes in the Midwest. Please forgive some of the grainy and indistinct quality resulting from filming during dusk and at a distance. The video begins with some delightful images of coyotes frolicking in a field at the edge of a woodland. Farther into the video there are thrilling sounds of yipping and howling in the dark woods. In the last couple minutes you will see a close up view of a dead juvenile coyote along with some commentary about wolves. You will see from the size of the juvenile coyote roadkill that it was on its way to becoming a large predator. The video ends with some excellent shots of a gorgeous adult coyote in red summer coat hunting small animals in a field.
(Many diverse wildlife videos are available at IrenaScott's channel.)
Why are coyotes thriving in a region once so thoroughly rid of large predators?
When North America was conquered and settled by Europeans, the forests were cut and the wolves hunted into oblivion. People settled into farms, towns, and cities and progressed into well-lit lives filled with technology and pollution and a safe sense of forever being free of Nature's lurking dangers.
But the woods grew back.
Wherever bulldozers and saws stopped going, the trees sprouted and grew, filling in the gaps between the forlorn rotting stumps. The back woodlots of countless old farms preserved little remnants of wild secret places where the trees grow tall and the brush is thick on the edge of the fields. Enough people also gradually realized that it was wrong to utterly destroy the natural world, and laws were passed to protect plants and animals. Lands were set aside and often kept from the pitiless jaws of industry.
Coyotes now occupy these spaces. They also trot under cover of night into woodsy suburbs where gun-toting hunters rarely roam.
Coyotes have also adapted to our civilization. They slip around and between the immense footprint of human society. They hunt and scavenge and raise their young.
Catherine Reid's heartfelt book Coyote: Seeking the Hunter in our Midst provides abundant insights into the success and evolution of eastern coyotes.
-- Reid cited many facts about the difficulty of exterminating the species once it finds suitable habitat. For example, in Michigan from 1935 to 1970, the state spent nearly $1.9 million in coyote bounties to hunters and the kill rates never went down.
-- Interestingly the successful eradication of wolves from Eastern North America has allowed coyotes to fill the role of top predator. Without the competition traditionally provided by wolves, coyotes can expand into that vacant predator niche, access more food, and grow bigger.
-- Coyotes integrate into our society. Our food trash supplements their diets along with a steady supply of guileless small pets.
Human beings like to consider themselves the masters of Nature. We can certainly do a lot of damage, but ultimately we cannot subjugate it all. When we're not looking, Nature keeps dealing the cards, and some of our fellow animals will pick them up and play with what they get.
Coyotes are known masters of exploiting opportunities, and I wish them success. I realize they will, on rare occasions, be dangerous to people, but we would benefit from an awareness that Nature is not safe. We need to be careful. When I take my small children hiking, I make sure they walk in front of me, never behind.
Nature isn't Disney. It doesn't make all the animals fuzzy and benign. The spirit of the hunter always takes shape sooner or later. The intelligence and supremacy of the hunter are irresistably admirable traits. The rules of thou shall not kill or thou shall not steal do not apply to coyotes. Thou shall survive and thou shall get away with it are more likely parts of their code.
Consider yourself warned that there is something out there in the woods. You are being watched.
If anyone has any links to photos or videos of eastern coyotes, please share them in the comments.