Lime Hollow Nature Center
Covered Bridge at the Lime Hollow Visitor Center

From My Sit Spot

by Pete Angie

CoyoteOn a chill night I sat out against an oak with a spotlight in my lap. Desperately I was hoping to glimpse a flying squirrel gliding from one high branch to another, but each time my light blazed in the blackness it illuminated only dry falling leaves floating down and tapping branches, making slight sounds. So complete was the dark that my ears took over from my eyes, seeming to grow on the sides of my head—late fall's crickets' chorus, katydids, and infinitesimal rustling noises gave dimension and life to a black void. I tried to imagine the sources of the small disturbances—a mouse, snake, mink, or something larger—and shined my light occasionally, seeing only trees.

Listening comfortably in the dark, closing my eyes, was an engaging and peaceful sensation until a sudden and loud thud made my body jump. My instinct was to hide, and I used the darkness as a blind. In a moment I had transformed from delighted observer into prey. I recognized that the thump was probably a dead limb at last giving way and coming to earth, and my heart slowed down again. But my focus had shifted to the drama of survival that goes on in these woods every night, and to one predator who had been on my mind.

The coyote was who I had been hoping to hear from on this quiet night. The voices of coyotes have been the most graceful, jocular and memorable features of many nights spent camping. They've touched my ears while getting firewood on my porch late on winter's nights, and when hiking through a snow covered field with my wife at sunset. They were so close that evening, right down the hill. After one started it was thrilling to hear how many join in, in a frenzy of howls, yips, yowls and calls. Their singing came with a sense of magic, that there was so much seemingly passionate life present in what had appeared to be a still, placid forest.

It hasn't always been this way here. Originally being at home in western North America and Central America, coyotes gradually increased their range as wolves became extinct in most of North America. This expansion occurred despite being hunted and poisoned for generations. They have adapted to life among farms, in forests, deserts, even in cities, and are now found throughout all of the continent. They arrived in New York state in the 1920's. They are clever survivors, eating vegetables and other food scraps out of trash cans behind restaurants and in alleys, while their cousins stalk and pounce on frogs, snakes and mice, or gobble up birds' eggs and insects in pristine wild places.

Maybe one will come trotting along tonight, I'd thought, sniffing at the creek sides. My ears searched for the sounds of its padded feet. Maybe a mother guiding pups on a hunt. They would have come a long way since their birth in a den. From two to up to ten pups are born in each litter, and this high birth rate has been a key to the species' success. Born with eyes closed, they nurse on their mama in the safety of the den for up to four weeks. During this time papa or other adults babysit to give mama breaks. To help wean the pups mother and father regurgitate for them—warm, nutritious wild baby food. Soon after, adults bring injured prey —a bird or a mouse perhaps— for the pups to play with and kill. As they grow they chase grasshoppers and anything they can catch in the warm, plentiful days of summer, and start accompanying their parents on hunts at about eight weeks old. All this play and practice is vital, because by winter their survival will depend on their ability to hunt. They won't be hunting alone, though. Cunning pack animals, coyotes often work in groups. One may frolic to keep the attention of a turkey, until another lunges at it from behind. Chasing rabbits, and even deer, they may operate as a relay team until the animal is exhausted and
overcome.

Something by the creek moved and I shined the spotlight at it. The eyes glowed so brightly yellow and were so close they startled me. Not a coyote, but a deer was coming my way. I turned the light off and hoped it would keep coming, but when I spot-lighted it again it had moved fifty feet away, almost without making any sound—moving nearly silently in darkness. The deer had honed its survival skills too. The forests and fields at night are a dynamic world of trials, births, deaths, and canine family reunions usually unfolding while I lay asleep, tucked in my bed or sleeping bag, oblivious. But sometimes a breaking limb or a howl brings it all to mind.

References:

Chambers, R. 2006. The Coyote in New York State. SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Www.esf.edu [1].
Lee, S. 2007. Coyotes. Chanhassen, MN. The Child's World.
Swanson, D. 2002. Coyotes. Milwaukee, WI. Gareth Stevens Publishing.