A sharp yip travels across a dark field by Lamington Road. More yips, then howls, then yip-howls follow. People in a nearby lot freeze, car keys in their hands, as the canine version of a devil's fugue increases in tempo. The sound moves west, following a line of woods one hundred yards distant and not nearly distant enough.
"What is that?" someone asks.
"Coyotes," a woman ventures.
"Coyotes? No way," a man replies. "Those are dogs."
The yip-howls stop abruptly. Laughing uneasily, the listeners climb hastily into their cars and drive off. The raucous animals move on, leaving behind a profound silence and the question of their existence.
"No doubt they were coyotes," says Tom McFadden, Outdoor Recreation Planner at the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, the next day. "We've got them here. I've heard them at home. They're everywhere."
Indeed. Wiley Coyote might already be in the neighborhood. The Eastern Coyote (Canis latrans var) has been spotted in every county in the state. Over thirty years New Jersey's coyote population has grown exponentially, from less than 100 to an estimated 3,000 animals. In northern New Jersey, the most concentrated populations have been found in Sussex county and the western halves of Passaic, Morris and Warren counties.
Remarkably, few people notice the wild canine in their midst. Their myopia stems in part from coyote's resemblance to a shy dog. The size of a small German Shepherd, the Eastern Coyote measures four to five feet in length. While larger specimens reside in the Adirondacks; the smaller New Jersey coyotes typically weighs thirty-five to forty-five pounds. Their shaggy fur ranges from a blond-gray to a dark brown that appears almost black. Most people get little more than a quick view of the tail end disappearing into cover, which provides the only clue to the creature's identity; unlike a dog, the coyote carries its droopy, bushy tail downwards.
The Eastern coyote's appearance has sparked to an ongoing debate: are Eastern coyotes part dog, part wolf, or pure coyote? Coyotes can mate with dogs, but usually don't. When coyotes and dogs do breed, the coy-dog pups arrive in the winter. The males don't stay to help and the pups usually die. Survivors seem to keep the reproductive cycle of dogs, with the same unfortunate timing and results. Even so, DNA evidence seems inconclusive. At Leg Up Enterprises in Lovell, Maine, owner Bill Graham ran a DNA test on his coyotes in order to register a product line of deer-repellents. "The test showed no difference between coyote and dog," he recalls.
Many biologists, however, suspect a genetic link exists between the Eastern coyote and Canadian gray wolves. As open country and farmlands created wildlife corridors, the Western coyote apparently traveled north and east until it met up with its kissing cousin. If the theory proves accurate, the Eastern coyote sprang from a truly dysfunctional relationship. When it wasn't busy toying with the coyote gene pool, the gray wolf competed with and preyed on the coyote. Eventually, coyote kharma won the day. When habitat loss and development pressure decimated the gray wolf population, coyotes found a whole new world to exploit.
An opportunist to its core, a coyote will eat almost anything, from rodents to road kill. In the fall it gobbles up grasshoppers. It consumes garbage and amphibians. It loves blueberries and raspberries, but above all it loves ample food, and people provide regular windfalls. Human development - with its accompanying refuse and disruption of habitat makes surprisingly good coyote habitat. If, in a northern forest, a coyote might claim a territory as large as 62 square miles, a suburban coyote can thrive in a territory that measures a scant five square miles.
It was only a matter of time before coyotes ambled, swam and leaped in to New Jersey. If the eastbound lane had closed down, they would have arrived on the southbound. Both Pennsylvania and New York estimate their coyote population at about 30,000 animals: 30,000 wily, highly adaptable, long-ranging animals. Increasingly comfortable with humans and not averse to travel, coyotes have swum to islands off Massachusetts. One was caught in Manhattan. Northern New Jersey must have been a no-brainer, like falling in love with the attractive neighbor.
And yet many New Jerseyeans (like that cute neighbor) seem clueless to the coyotes' interest. Coyotes tend to operate under the radar. Busiest during nighttime and the edge of the day, when they are less likely to meet humans face to face, coyotes work farmlands, picnic spots and backyards. A surprise viewing of a coyote jogging through Clinton occurred at four in the morning.
That habitual shyness creates an image problem. The coyote seems doomed to be woefully misunderstood. Animated cartoons depict it as the idiot savant of the animal kingdom: as conniving as Machiavelli and as dumb as dirt. It chases its prey only to fall off a cliff. Adding insult to injury, the phrase Coyote Ugly has entered the lexicon of social encounters, a resonant tag used by anyone who's learned firsthand how a night time strategy of drink till s/he's cute can go terribly wrong.
If the animal kingdom teaches us anything, it is that beauty exists in the eye of the beholder. Coyotes enjoy a pair bond that modern humans can only envy. Divorce rates? Coyotes generally mate for life. The adults will settle into a den, where anywhere from four to eight pups bound forth in the spring. Both parents raise the young, sometimes with the help of older offspring who stick around until they must establish their own territories.
Allan Sampson, a farm manager who takes care of several hundred acres in Somerset and Hunterdon counties, has worked around coyotes for eighteen years. Of the vocal group that has staked a claim along Lamington Road, he says only "they've been behaving themselves. They mind their own business. They're not causing any problem, like bothering livestock or chasing pets or people." He pauses. "Coyotes get a bad rap. Just recently they were blamed for killing sheep. It didn't sound right when I heard an ear was chewed off. Turned out it was the neighbor's dogs. Every time the dogs got loose they made a beeline for the sheep."
To be sure, not all the bad press is unwarranted. In the spring, when they've denned up, coyotes will protect their territory. They might cede part of their range a yard to a large dog, but small dogs run the risk of being attacked. Some coyotes in northern New Jersey have killed sheep, poultry, and the occasional pet. However, this only puts them in league with bear, bobcats, dogs, great horned owls and many cars.
If predation brings grief, it also offers benefits. Coyotes help restore the natural order. As the New Jersey Audubon Society points out, coyote predation of feral cats helps migratory songbirds. They eat Canada Geese eggs, and are among the few predators left in the state that hunt and consume deer. They happily feed on road kill and gut piles left by hunters, and will kill fawns and sometimes adults. They care little about property lines; the Bedminster group dragged a deer down in a field behind Black River Road, waking their human neighbors with sounds more often associated with Africa than with the garden state.
At Leg Up, Bill Graham has learned to take advantage of coyote predation. The company sells 100% coyote urine, a product with a smell like a punch to the head. Coyote Ugly? Coyote Stinky might be more apt. Mr. Graham collects the urine from domestic, penned coyotes who through a system of rewards learn to pee in a certain area. Healthy, meat-fed coyotes release pheromones that scare off deer. Sprinkled around the perimeter of a garden, Leg Up's coyote urine helps gardeners protect their plants. Still, as Mr. Graham points out, "it is not a perfect solution. Deer adapt quickly. They need the reminder of real live coyotes to keep associating the scent with danger."
The coyote might just be here to stay. According to the DEP, New Jersey can potentially support a population of 5,000. Although wild coyotes have a life span of only four years, hunting has had little impact. Capture of the very clever, very elusive animal, with its superior senses, defeats most hunters. In 2002 only twenty-three coyotes were taken during the various hunting seasons. Coyotes have a remarkable ability to increase or decrease their litter size depending on competition for the food supply. Hunting, perhaps, accomplishes at best the same thing coyote urine accomplishes with nuisance deer: it maintains the fear and respect of one species for another.
Coyote attacks on people are almost unknown. Domestic dogs pose a far greater threat. If anything, as wildlife enthusiasts know, the challenge lies in sighting the wary animal. Only rarely do people get a chance to look into a coyote's slanted yellow eyes. In Long Valley, when snow covers the ground and prey is less abundant, it is possible to sit in a farmer's field and call in fox. A squeaky mouthpiece imitates a rabbit's distress call. Rising from the base of a tree, a wavering, high-pitched cry beckons the hungry. Soon a fox races over the frozen ground, its amber eyes focused on the source of the call. Forty feet off, it skids to a stop. Eyeing the camouflaged bulk under the tree, the fox spins, peers once over its shoulder and races off. At the farthest edge of the field, its coat the same color as the dried grass stems and withered bushes, a coyote watches the fox sprint off. Vanishing into a thicket, the coyote disappears.
If rarely seen, the coyote is frequently heard. In the winter, during the January to March breeding times, listen for nocturnal howls when coyote are at their most vocal. They are happy to tell other coyotes, and the world, their location. Stop and listen. They'll fall silent all too soon.