Bobcat’s Tail

Staring into the Eyes of the Eastern Coyote

A complicated story and a complicated canine

  • This 1953 postcard from the author’s camp in Cherryfield, Maine, says that the game warden is holding an 80-pound female timber wolf, “the first wolf killed in Maine in over 100 years.”

    This 1953 postcard from the author’s camp in Cherryfield, Maine, says that the game warden is holding an 80-pound female timber wolf, “the first wolf killed in Maine in over 100 years.”

  • And from the author’s game camera, this Eastern coyote is among a pack from the hills of Hancock that is navigating the seasons, taking advantage of late-winter snow conditions to take deer. As vegetation greens up, the coyote’s opportunities and diet will change accordingly.

    And from the author’s game camera, this Eastern coyote is among a pack from the hills of Hancock that is navigating the seasons, taking advantage of late-winter snow conditions to take deer. As vegetation greens up, the coyote’s opportunities and diet will change accordingly.

  • And from the author’s game camera, this Eastern coyote is among a pack from the hills of Hancock that is navigating the seasons, taking advantage of late-winter snow conditions to take deer. As vegetation greens up, the coyote’s opportunities and diet will change accordingly.

    And from the author’s game camera, this Eastern coyote is among a pack from the hills of Hancock that is navigating the seasons, taking advantage of late-winter snow conditions to take deer. As vegetation greens up, the coyote’s opportunities and diet will change accordingly.

  • eric aldrich

    eric aldrich

  • This 1953 postcard from the author’s camp in Cherryfield, Maine, says that the game warden is holding an 80-pound female timber wolf, “the first wolf killed in Maine in over 100 years.”
  • And from the author’s game camera, this Eastern coyote is among a pack from the hills of Hancock that is navigating the seasons, taking advantage of late-winter snow conditions to take deer. As vegetation greens up, the coyote’s opportunities and diet will change accordingly.
  • And from the author’s game camera, this Eastern coyote is among a pack from the hills of Hancock that is navigating the seasons, taking advantage of late-winter snow conditions to take deer. As vegetation greens up, the coyote’s opportunities and diet will change accordingly.
  • eric aldrich

It was a bright Saturday afternoon in March when my son and I were driving home from a fairly remote spot in Hancock. We were on our way back from pulling a disk of images from my game camera.

We turned a corner and saw standing in the road a light blonde canine staring back at us. For the few seconds that it stood in the road, we could see it was big, maybe over 50 pounds, with front legs tight together and ears thick with fur.

And then it turned and confidently strode into the woods, brisk but unhurried.

“Was that a dog?” Ben asked.

“Nope,” I said. “That was a coyote. A nice, healthy one. And a great view of it.”

When we got home and checked the game camera images, I saw more coyotes staring at me. It didn’t take long for me to see that the camera had photographed three coyotes over the past few weeks. There were shots of all three together, and many more images of each individual.

Tawny, Scruffy and Healthy

After a few more weeks of setting up the camera at this spot, I got to know each coyote a little. I could see their individual characteristics, a little personality and patterns of behavior.

There’s the tawny one, generally shy, who stopped appearing in late-February. I’m not sure, but I theorize that Tawny could be a female who’s now with pups in the den.

There’s the scruffy one, who’s smaller than the other two, with a bad coat and loss of fur at the base of its tail. Scruffy’s problematic coat could be mange, malnutrition or both.

Scruffy seems to take risks, doesn’t have rigid timing patterns and appears less confident than the others. Maybe I’m wrong, but Scruffy could be an 11-month old who has remained with the parents as a pack.

And finally there’s the healthy one. This coyote is bigger than the others, appears at predictable times and seems cautious and confident. Healthy has a nice, shiny coat, a bushy tail, and a black streak between its bright yellowish eyes. I think Healthy is the elder male, and he is very handsome.

The Advantage of Crust

My camera can’t follow this pack everywhere, but if it could, it might show their den, typically just a small hole in the ground that goes back into a larger chamber. On a cold mid-winter night, you might find all three in there. By April or May, it could also be holding Tawny’s litter of four to eight pups.

The past few weeks before snow-melt have been tough on coyotes. This omnivore has few dining options during a good chunk of winter. But by late-winter, the snow gives coyotes an advantage. This winter was a good example. The snowpack of 1 to 2 feet can form a crust that coyotes can navigate easily, but deer cannot. While deer are near the end of their rope by late-March, coyotes — whether single or in a pack — can take down even the healthiest buck.

I saw this recently when a neighbor showed me a deer that had just been killed by coyotes. This healthy buck had a puncture wound in the neck, and its back end had been eaten.

The thought of coyotes killing deer is just too much for some deer-hunters to bear. A vocal set of deer hunters say killing more coyotes will help the deer herd, thus improving the hunters’ chances of tagging a deer in the fall.

Despite the good intentions of helping both deer and hunters, this misguided approach doesn’t work. Coyotes that dodge the bullet tend to respond to increased mortality by having larger litters.

Cold Eyes from a Postcard

We’ve learned plenty about Eastern coyotes in the past few decades, and there’s plenty more to learn. The Eastern is a lot bigger than its western cousin. We know it hunts in packs, though not as often or as organized as wolves.

And we know that the Eastern coyote is part-wolf (some refer to it as coywolf). We know it appeared in New Hampshire in the mid-1940s.

This point about the Eastern coyote’s emergence into New England touches home with me by way of a 1953 postcard that’s tacked to the kitchen wall at my family’s old camp in Cherryfield, Maine. It shows a Maine game warden inspecting the carcass of a big canine. On the back, the caption says that this was the “first timber wolf shot in Maine in over 100 years.”

Sure, maybe so. Or maybe not. Also possible that the mysterious canine was actually one of the first coyotes to be seen in that part of Maine. Part coyote, part wolf. A complicated story and a complicated canine.

The eyes of the coyote in that postcard are lifeless and cold. Nothing like the bright, alert eyes of the blonde, healthy coyote that glanced at me and my son a few weeks ago. And nothing like the eyes of Tawny, Scruffy and Healthy, whom I’ve come to admire over the past few weeks.

I hope to get to know these coyotes a bit more in the coming months.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

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