Coyote Settles the South

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Author John Lane of the book Coyote Settles the South.
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"Coyote Settles the South" Book Cover

Coyote Settles the South (The University of Georgia Press, 2016), by John Lane is a personal story and real life observation. Traveling through the South of the United States, Lane begins to understand the perplexing animal that is the coyote.  

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Prologue: Redemption Song

The coyote is a coyote anywhere you find him.

—J. Frank Dobie

We first heard them behind our house in upcountry South Carolina on a warm Halloween night after we thought the trick-or-treaters had passed. My wife, Betsy, looked up from reading and said, “It sounds like the hounds from hell out there.”

Standing on our back deck, we listened. The predictable stirrings of October on the edge of our upcountry suburb swaddled the evening—lingering insect thrum, a slight wind rattling the autumn leaves, a neighbor’s dog barking. Then it started again—a tumult of high and low yips and whines. I tried to locate the source of the foreign sound, but all I could see was a smudge of dark trees and a commuting plane with blinking red and white lights passing in the southern sky. I listened again to a chorus of mottled voices from two directions, only a few hundred yards distant.

“What is that?” Betsy asked.

“Coyotes,” I said. And then, like the little blond girl in Poltergeist, I added, “They’re here.”

Our place has no shortness of wild animals. There are minks, beavers, muskrats, otters, and raccoons in the creek and floodplain behind our house, and we’ve seen them all. Betsy has even glimpsed a bobcat on a walk at dusk along the creekside trail. On several nights I’d once seen a gray fox crossing the road near our house, headed back into the floodplain. A wood duck raised a brood in a hollow oak nearby; Canada geese honk over each morning and evening on the way to and from their foraging on the local golf course; and a pair of red-shouldered hawks once nested in a large oak practically in our front yard.

There are tiny ring-neck snakes in the flowerbeds and a resident black rat snake or two, and a persistent population of king snakes feasts on them all. Betsy likes seeing the mammals and birds, but the snakes are a harder sell. She says they give her the creeps, so I don’t always tell her what I’ve seen or where. I definitely kept my mouth shut when a large red-bellied water snake took up residence in our small frog pond outside the bedroom window.

One afternoon walking our beagle, Murphy, we saw a four-foot copperhead coiled on the edge of our backyard. I called a herpetologist friend I teach with, and he caught the snake with a set of large aluminum tongs. It was an old snake, the largest he’d ever caught. He studies the movement of copperheads in the wild, and he wanted to plant a transmitter in it and return the snake to the floodplain, but we decided against our wild yard serving such a science experiment.

We live in the suburbs, but I have always been comfortable with nearby nature. In my mind I inhabit a dream republic, a cross between Ernest Callenbach’s 1970s utopian novel Ecotopia and the television show of my childhood Wild Kingdom. I like the people who live nearby, but I need wild animals as neighbors too, and I’ve always known a landscape calls for something even bigger and fiercer than the secretive bobcat Betsy saw. What we needed was a top-of-the-food-chain predator in the big woods behind our house. It was inevitable. We’d be lucky if in our lifetime we could see black bears on the edge of our backyard, but instead, the coyotes surprised us with their arrival.

But not everyone likes a healthy mix of wild and domestic. Far west of us, coyotes are a species Homo sapiens like us have been at war with for more than one hundred years. It might not be any different here. Just this morning in the local paper a teaser photo on the top of a-1 featured a coyote trapped in a county below ours. I looked closely. A deep terror flickered in that coyote’s eyes, but there was also a fierce will to live, a stoked-up fire of survival. Its mouth was wide open in defense as the photographer approached. Its teeth reflected all the suburbanite Goldilocks fears the fairy tales play on. “The better to eat you with,” those who look at the picture might hear the coyote snarling, fangs bared.

Something is pornographic about the local paper’s willingness to publish a photo of a trapped animal. The paper wants a quick emotional reaction. It wants fear to sell like a tonic. I’ll admit I was pulled in, party to their smut. I turned the page to read the story. The same photo was repeated in a smaller version at the top of the Upstate section. The title in bold print called coyotes a county nuisance, and the lead offered a rural dweller’s absurd complaint. The coyotes kept him up at night, so he paid a trapper to come catch thirteen of them on his property. One of them is in this photo, dead soon after the camera snapped. Now the man can sleep at night. The story plays on dark fears. The coyote might eat your dog or cat. The coyote is definitely eating the deer local hunters should be shooting. The coyote might snatch your child, might even eat you.

After we heard the coyotes that first time, the sound became our nightly music. Three weeks after we first heard the yips and barks, the first classic coyote howling began. They rang high, quivering cries strung through space like a clef of ascending notes held too long, a little lonely, but with a strange beauty. The howls were intermingled with the familiar ensemble of spooky yips, but it was the howling that filled the dark space of trees and water below the ridge with a dense sonic mystery.

Sometimes they’d sing early in the evening after sunset, but mostly we’d hear them deep in the night at three or four in the morning. Often a distant siren would trigger the ensemble of high- pitched coyote barking. Other times they’d open up for no discernable reason. The males, I learned, were the ones with lower tonal range, the females higher. Some people have compared this choir of complaints and grunts and yips and yodels to violins in smoothness; others say it sounds like more animals than the choir ever does, each individual at a slightly different pitch of song.

Hearing the nightly sounds of the coyotes created a complex reaction in me, part curiosity, part what E. O. Wilson calls “biophilia,” a love for the living world. After hearing the first choruses, I read whatever I could find about wild canines—popular natural history books about wolves by Barry Lopez and Rick Bass, books about mostly western coyotes by Hope Ryden and J. Frank Dobie. Soon I knew that many who have pondered the lives of the canids start with their hunting, but sitting on the deck, I first imagined them tending a nearby, dark productive den. I preferred settlement to describe these coyotes’ arrival, and I imagined a pair of them moving freely up and down the floodplain on the edge of our suburb looking for the best suitable real estate for their family, digging a burrow, maybe altering and lengthening gaps in piled gray concrete edging abandoned in the construction landfills across the river, or finding spots where berms of hardened red clay block sight lines from dirt access roads, or where errant boulders are cantilevered into rock shelters, and dumps of piled oak stumps trucked from suburban construction projects form warrens of air pockets, and clots of dirt dangle like pendants from the ceilings of these inaccessible spontaneous caves.

From my perch above the southern woods, I pictured this pair of neighborhood coyotes slinging fresh dirt behind them in winter, adding right angles to their entry tunnels so that no one but they could enter, and then for months later, circling back to where their newborn pups waited to suckle. My eyes need the light, unlike theirs, and so in reality, it was only in my mind’s eye what goes on where the sun never shines. To really enter coyote family life I would have had to dig them out, so instead I simply conjured smells clinging to and swaddling boulders and rubble. I constructed what softness the cool earth offers, conforming to the bodies of the returning adults (for both male and female tend the litters), what sounds were emitted by the small, downy snowballs born with floppy ears.

It was even harder for me to imagine the pups huddled in their dark, secret winter dens when their tiny eyes open at ten days and their ears grow erect the first time. With a little more reading I learned a litter can contain anywhere from one to nineteen pups, but only half of them likely will grow to adulthood. At three weeks (here in South Carolina, maybe in January) they would emerge from the darkness and begin to explore the neighborhood outside their den. At five weeks they would be fully weaned, after which both parents fed the pups on regurgitated food, quarry killed and scavenged on hunting forays.

It was easier for me to imagine these coyotes as mysterious young adolescents. At six months (in early summer) the adolescent males would leave the den to explore, and the young females would stay behind, forming the basis of the family group. Autumn is when the new generation would venture out to establish territories of their own, to live, but mostly to die. Both males and females, if they survive, reach full growth and sexual maturity at about a year. They are observed as tawny-coated teenagers dispersing, spied from deer stands, from speeding cars, eating pears in October from a suburban tree planted in a backyard, appearing suddenly in midday across the street from a downtown car dealership, glimpsed at a street’s end on the outskirts of the old Victorian neighborhood a block from the town square. They circumvent camera traps and snares, recognize individuals who want to harm them, and learn to avoid tree stands; they raise their young,  they hunt, they move like wild night marauders through our neighborhoods and yards, like special ops teams with the best gps receivers in their pockets, out for an easy mission in the woods.

Coyote hate is a common theme of Facebook posts, hunters’ chat boards, and news articles, and coyote fear is growing across southern cities and the country. But I don’t hate or fear them, though I know they can be dangerous. Nationwide, in the time I have been following the story of coyotes, there have been dozens of coyote attacks and at least one death. At night when I hear the coyotes in three directions and the serenade goes on a long time, it occurs to me that there is no sound more American than this, a coyote howl, and so to hate it (and them) is to hate myself.

Now when I hear the coyotes howl and yip, I always put aside my computer or book or worries and crank open our windows, or crack the door, for however long it takes for the floodplain to pass into silence again. You could say I am attending to the songfest of wildness on the edge of our suburb. I even turn on a small recorder and enter the latest canine cantata into my inventory of aural encounters. I listen to these recordings over and over and play them for friends as if they are part of a wild symphony I need to acknowledge, like the latest pop song.

I’ve listened long enough now that I believe I can sort out individual voices. I am really hooked, over the edge. These canine cousins have become real to me—individuals, beings with the rights and privileges of presence. They are no longer abstractions.

A month or so after we first heard them, I had my first face-to-face encounter with a real southern coyote. After we heard the music, I was determined to see one, so I walked every morning down to the creek with Murphy. Finally, one morning I looked down the trail, and trotting away from me was a single coyote, downwind about a hundred yards distant. Coyotes can be grayish brown, like the one I saw, or even yellowish gray, and sometimes black, while their throats and bellies are often a buff or white. Their forelegs, sides of the head, muzzle, and paws are reddish brown, backs tawny with long, black-tipped guard hairs that can form a black stripe on their backs and even a dark cross on the shoulders. The coyote I saw saw me as well but simply looked back and maintained a leisurely pace down the trail. In that first brief coyote encounter I saw some promise of wildness returning to our region. I saw the redemption of our landscape wounded and scarred by hundreds of years of human settlement, a hope that may be hard to explain to my friends and neighbors.

Or maybe the wildness had never left us, was with us in some altered form. One night as I listened to the coyotes, Murphy awakened from sleeping on the couch and tuned in as well, and I wondered about his perspective as a domestic dog, the most successful of the canines. As

Hal Herzog puts it in Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, “Hooking up with odd-looking and hairless creatures was a strategy that worked out well for Canis lupus familiaris.” Murphy’s girth and comfortable spot on the couch only underscored Herzog’s point.

Murphy was tuned to a frequency more ancient than his kind. Domesticated or not, his ears are often alert, the edges slightly erect and ready. In his wrinkled brow I could see a little confusion. His eyes showed uncertainty. Would he join this chorus unsettling the night air or simply listen? His wolf ancestors parted ways with coyotes a million years ago, and yet here they were, together again. Would he join the sing-along? Only recently did coyote and dog genes start mingling again, as coyotes pioneered eastward and wolves and dogs added some genetic baggage to the canid inheritance.

“Murphy,” I said. “They would eat you in one gulp. You would make a good coyote Happy Meal.” After a moment or two, Murphy joined in the chorus, curiosity (or genetics) more powerful a pull than fear. His response was full of passion, but maybe slightly off key with the surroundings, as he greeted his new neighbors singing for life in the floodplain below.

Now that the coyotes behind our house have settled in, I ponder Mark Twain’s pronouncement of them as “living, breathing Want.” I have my own human desires. I want to encounter them, to understand the outline of their presence in my suburban backyard. I want to understand—if possible—what it was they want, and thus I embarked on a project to see the world both from my point of view and theirs. Immigrants from elsewhere, do the arriving coyotes simply want to settle new territory? Or do they want more? Do they want only to hunt, to eat, to mate, and to breed? They are here now, but will they stay around, and if so, what will my—and by extension, our—relationship with them become?

Reprinted with permission from Coyote Settles the South, written by John Lane and published by the University of Georgia Press, 2016.

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