Log Cabin Chronicles

The wild cry of the coyote


coyote the first time I heard a pack of coyotes yelp and yowl, I was walking home from the neighbor's place on a dark autumn night. It was black as pitch and I was moving slowly over the rough pasture. All of a sudden this ungodly gibbering and screeching started up. It was loud and it was close.

I was still in my twenties, so heart failure didn't strike me dead on the spot as it probably would today. After a couple of panicky minutes, I figured out what the awful sounds were but I couldn't help sprinting the last few hundred feet to the house.

For the next several years, we'd often hear the coyotes running in packs, heading south between our place and the lake. They'd sweep by at about 11 o'clock at night and you'd usually catch them coming back at two or three in the morning, always to the east of the house on the next high ridge.

But we almost never hear the coyotes anymore. And that's because they no longer pass by the neighborhood from time to time - they've moved in.

At our house, a coyote loping along the edge of the woods across the back field is a common sight at dusk. At night they circle in close. Sometimes when we drive into our dooryard after dark, a couple of them slink away through the apple trees just behind the house.

I'm glad we no longer keep a flock of sheep. We lost three to coyotes 10 years ago when the predators were just passing by. Now, unless we had one of those nine-strand, high-tensile, high-voltage electric fences, we'd be running an ovine mortuary. Even with the high-tech fencing, I'd still put some money on the coyote. They really are wily critters and your average sheep is no roadrunner.

Coyotes eat anything that moves. A big part of their diet is mice and moles. You'll see them hunting the little rodents through the snow cover on bright winter days. And they'll take anything else they can get - rabbits, cats, sheep, even deer. Lots of those around these parts these days.

The coyote isn't a native of this area, though. Scientists say that the animal is an immigrant from western North America, arriving in Vermont only in the late 1940s. The presence of an intelligent, efficient predator like the coyote in a new environment like ours has a predictable effect. It reduces biodiversity. And it's not the sheep (or the deer) that we miss so much as the other small predators, especially raptors. There's only so many mice out there, and they're essential food for hawks and other meat-eating birds and for little felines like bobcats.

Some people think hunting's the answer and I have heard tell of local folks who track coyotes with specially trained dogs and high-powered rifles. A more natural, though equally violent, solution would be to encourage the presence of other large predators that are native to the area. Like wolves.

You may recall a story about Canadian wolves that were trapped and transplanted to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in 1995 and '96. Opponents of the plan worried that the wolves would wreak havoc with the park's elk population and might stray onto neighboring pasture land. It turns out that the wolves are indeed hard on one local species, but it's not the wapiti or the Herefords.

Recent reports say that the new wolf packs have nearly tripled in size and in the process have killed at least half of the Yellowstone coyote population. Scientists agree that the coyotes had it easy for many years with little competition for territory and food. They also predict that coyote numbers will fall even further, but say that this would be a more natural balance of large predators. Biodiversity in the park is already on the increase. The wolf isn't as likely to eat mice as its smaller cousin and the numbers of hawks and eagles are rising.

We hear many reports of wolves moving through the Townships and into northern New England. And sightings in the Stoke Hills of what some are claiming is a cougar suggest that even bigger predators might be making a comeback. The easy pickings for the coyotes of Stanstead County this past decade may be coming rapidly to an end.

Royal Orr is a radio broadcaster and freelance journalist living in Hatley, Quebec.

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