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In This Place

Coyote Myths Debunked

I’d like to briefly shed the feathery mantle of the Weekly Bird Report in favor of a furrier piece. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about coyotes, those ever present, ever mythologized wild dogs with whom we share this suburban peninsula.

I’ve been thinking about coyotes because I just installed one of those motion detecting wildlife cameras used by hunters, and increasingly by suburban homeowners. I generally tell people to expect that coyotes are in their neighborhood every night whether they know it or not. I say this because, as a wildlife biologist, I know their tracks, and their tracks are everywhere, always – every beach, every trail, every road. I see their tracks whenever it snows, as they follow the small local powerline cut through the back of my yard.

Still, I’ve often wondered if this “every night” assessment was a bit much, at least until the camera confirmed it for me – every single night but one, at least one coyote has passed through my yard, sometimes two together, sometimes several times a night. I was surprised how often they were there at 5:30 or 6 PM, a time I am typically out with my hapless, limping, 11-pound Chihuahua. Obviously Timmy is walking between the raindrops on coyote encounters. But we have seen coyotes a few times while out with little Timmy, and luckily they just walked away, once as he bravely barked at the alleged killer canid. I guess my point here is that you should always assume a coyote encounter is possible when out with your pets, but it’s not enough of a risk to be frozen with fear all the time – you have to live your life.

There are so many myths about this common animal that it’s hard to know where to start. First, many have the mistaken idea that there are two coyotes species on the Cape – coyotes and “coywolves”, but those are just two names for the same animal, like Mountain Lion and Cougar. What we have is a single, variable population of coyotes, most commonly called Eastern coyotes, or “coywolves” if you want to sound more hip. Local coyote researcher Jon Way and others popularized the name coywolf to reflect that northeastern coyotes indeed have up to 30% wolf DNA, the result of past hybridization in Eastern Canada. As a result, our coyotes are bigger and often look more wolf like than the original western coyotes.

Despite the wolf DNA, they don’t hunt in packs, which is another prevalent myth. When you hear them yipping, it’s a family group coming together socially between hunts, not a group kill as I used to assume. Actual hunting is done alone or in pairs. One winter day years ago I was lucky enough to witness the hours-long and admittedly grisly process of a single coyote bringing down a deer, one it had pinned against the shore of a flooded Nauset Marsh. There were actually two coyotes there, but the big one, who had an unusual, pure red coat like a fox, never lifted a paw. Almost certainly a male, he was content to watch from the grass as the female made occasional amphibious assaults on the injured deer as it tried to swim away, a remarkable event I was able to photograph.

I even had the pleasure of being stalked by a coyote one fall day on a desolate North Beach Island in Chatham. He approached me within a few feet, and later crouched in the grass while peering creepily at me from between the blades. He later tried to rip apart my backpack, left briefly unguarded on the sand, to get at my lunch. Like the coyote that bit people in Provincetown last summer, this one had been fed by dopey humans, which is typically a death sentence for the animal. 

A good place to get more information about coyotes are the books by local experts like Jon Way and Peter Trull or the Mass Wildlife website. A bad place is the comment threads under social media posts. There, the wildlife alarmists will assure you the coyotes in their neighborhood are bigger than German Shepherds, they cleverly hunt dogs in packs, and they’re just generally pure evil. Very little you will see will be true.

With only two human fatalities ever documented in North America, I don’t worry about being attacked by a coyote. But after this piece airs, I will be looking over my shoulder for packs of howling mad social media commenters – those guys are truly scary.