There’s a creature that lives in Vermont that you don’t see very often. But a lot of Vermonters recognize its unmistakable call.
It comes across the night in a cacophony of howls, yips and barks. Some attribute the sounds to coydogs, others to coywolves, still others to plain old coyotes. And everyone is right.
This month on Brave Little State, VPR’s people-powered journalism podcast: the fascinating canine that goes by all of those names.
‘What do we really know?’
The question driving this month’s inquiry comes from Sam Libby.
Sam grew up on a quiet road between Richmond and Hinesburg, and went to Middlebury College. (Full disclosure: Sam and I were in the same class there.) He now lives and works in Boulder, Colorado.
“But I still get back a couple times a year,” he says, “and still hear the coydogs in the summertime.”
The coydogs. Creatures that have fascinated and mystified Sam since he was a young boy.
“I grew up listening, in the summer evenings, or sometimes in the wintertime, to coydogs howling, you know, just a half-mile behind my house in the woods," he says. "I was always told they were small and carnivorous, but for rodents and not for children, so, I was never really afraid of them.”
Now that Sam lives out of state, the coydogs are a sound of home.
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“They’re just kind of this mystical noise, at night, that was a very haunting, howling that was going on,” he says. “And going home and hearing coydogs at night is a very comforting sound, to know that the landscape hasn’t changed enough to push those animals out.”
Sam wanted to know more about these animals, so he came to us with some pretty basic questions: “Where do they live? What kind of hunting do they do, what do they eat, and what do we really know about them from kind of a naturalist’s perspective?”
A question of taxonomy
So, Sam calls it a coydog. Is that the right word for the animal he grew up hearing?
“Well, he was actually hearing eastern coyotes,” says Kent McFarland, a conservation biologist with the Vermont Center for EcoStudies, and co-host of the VPR program Outdoor Radio.
McFarland says the word “coydog” is kind of a New England colloquialism.
“And, you know, there’s a little bit of truth to that name, just like all colloquial names,” he says, “but there’s also a big misconception that comes with that nickname, too.”
The misconception is that a coydog is a cross between a coyote and a domestic dog. This theory goes back to the 1940s, when the first coyotes starting showing up in Vermont. They’d come from out west, and on the way they bred with wolves. And when they got here, and they were a lot bigger than any coyotes that people had seen before.
“And so, there was just this assumption that, ‘Oh, they must have hybridized with dogs,’” McFarland says. “And like I said, there is a little bit of truth to that.”
And just a little bit of truth can make things very complicated: Kent says the gene pool of the eastern coyote actually has all three species in it.
“Depending on where you sample in the Northeast, it's somewhere around 60 to 80 percent of their gene pool is made up of coyote genes, somewhere around 10 to 25 percent is wolf genes and something less than 10 percent ends up being domestic dog genes. So we're talking about an animal that is mostly coyote, a bit wolf and a tiny bit domestic dog.”
“It’s very interesting,” says Bill Kilpatrick, the Howard Professor of Zoology and Natural History at the University of Vermont. I met with Kilpatrick in his campus office, which looks like how Wes Anderson would imagine a 1970s zoologist’s den: old books and field specimens crammed into floor-to-ceiling shelves.
Kilpatrick says that coyotes and dogs and wolves are similar enough that they can still get together and make babies.
“That means they can interbreed fairly easily to at least produce viable offspring,” he says.
Viable, that is, in the short-term.
“They have some problems continuing the line,” Kilpatrick says, meaning they have issues with their teeth, and their reproductive schedule gets thrown off.
“It’s not something that biologists believe can establish a natural population,” he says. “So it’s kind of misnomer to refer to them as coydogs.”
Bottom line: Interbreeding is possible, but that lineage doesn’t go very far.
But even though the family tree is complex, we can say some simple things about what coyotes are like.
Getting to know you
1. They eat everything.
“I mean, everything from deer down to mice,” McFarland says. “They eat roadkill. They’ll eat apples, for pete’s sake, if they have to.”
Voles, grouse, snowshoe hare, fruit such as grapes and beechnuts, choice items from garbage cans and dumpsters ... The list goes on.
2. They live everywhere.
“You can find them in Central Park. I mean, you can find them anywhere now,” McFarland says.
Anywhere from dens in the woods to the mean streets of Boston or Chicago.
"Even here in Vermont, they're in your downtowns, or around your yards," McFarland says. The Vermont Center for Ecostudies helps maintain a citizen-powered record of coyote sightings called the Vermont Atlas of Life, where Vermonters can record their observations of coyotes and other creatures.
Coyotes live in small family groups, and they range over 10 to 15 miles. Our question-asker, Sam, had said he was glad the coyote hadn’t been pushed out of Vermont. In fact, its population is actually super stable.
“And that's the brilliant thing about this species or subspecies or whatever you want to call the Eastern coyote, is that it really is incredibly adaptable,” McFarland says.
Adaptable, because it’s smart.
3. Scientists use some serious adjectives to describe this animal: cunning, secretive, uncanny.
“I've seen the coyotes moving across the field where we live,” Bill Kilpatrick says. He lives in Fairfax.
“In the daylight hours, they don't usually move across the field in a group. They move across it one at a time, and fairly spread out,” he says. “So, you know, if something attacks one of them, the other one can flee.”
Think of the theme music to The Pink Panther.
“Not moving across it running, but fairly slowly,” Kilpatrick continues. “This is a corn field, and so it had piles of manure in the wintertime, and so they would go behind those piles of manure for cover at times as they were moving across the field. Very secretive.”
For a lot of coyotes in Vermont, secrecy means survival. That’s because this state has an open season on hunting coyote. Which means that 365 days a year, they can be killed.
Open season on coyotes
Just like other kinds of hunting, coyote hunting is a special hobby and a tradition for some Vermonters. How many Vermonters, exactly, is difficult to say - and numbers aside, the practice has some strong opponents.
The state’s open season means that coyote hunters don’t need special permits, and aren’t obliged to report how many animals they kill, or "take," as the state puts it. This makes it difficult to know exactly how widespread the activity is.
Vermont also has a regulated season for trapping coyote, which runs from Oct. 28 through Dec. 31. The Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that there are between 800 and 900 licensed and active trappers in Vermont (though there's a range of animals that trappers might be trapping). In the last 10 years, the average annual trapping “harvest,” according to Fish and Wildlife, has been 265 coyotes per year. Reporting isn’t mandatory for trappers, either, although the department is working to change that rule this year.
Some people hunt coyotes with their dogs; this is called “hounding.” In 2012, when he was a college student (also at Middlebury College), John Wyman made this documentary about one hunter, Joe LaRock, of Orwell.
“It’s not about killing them — I just like the chase,” LaRock says in Wyman’s documentary. And I’ve been known to let ‘em go.”
This open season is controversial. In Addison County, landowners have complained about hunters on their property, saying the hunters are trespassing and hunting irresponsibly. Joe LaRock told me recently that he’s actually given up hunting, because more and more property was getting posted, and he said he wanted to avoid potential conflicts.
And there are some who say that open season on hunting coyotes is ethically wrong.
“In short, this open season is just really reckless killing that in the end serves no purpose,” says Brenna Galdenzi, the founder and president of Protect our Wildlife, which is based in Stowe.
Galdenzi's group takes issue with what she called “wanton waste” — when coyotes are killed and then their carcasses are simply left to rot. She also objects to the way that year-round hunting can orphan pups, and how it is sometimes turned into a competitive sport. Galdenzi also thinks that hounding (a practice not strictly limited to hunting coyote) unfairly exhausts coyotes.
Protect Our Wildlife also collects screenshots of social media posts shared by coyote hunters. They show coyotes surrounded by dogs, and carcasses piled bloody in truck beds, with comments such as “Good job! Stackem [sic] like cord wood !” and “kill them all.”
“It's very hard to look at, and it definitely causes me lots of sleepless nights,” Galdenzi says. “Not only because of, you know, just the inhumanity of it, but what makes it equally as frustrating for me is that it's legal.”
Galdenzi goes on: “I think it's such a critical step in order for Vermont to catch up to the 21st century sensibilities of stewarding our wildlife to curb some of these things that are happening.”
But Louis Porter, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, believes the state’s regulations aren’t out of line with the rest of the country. And he says the regulations might be different if the coyote population were being jeopardized by hunting.
“The fact of the matter is that we believe that hunting doesn't have that much of an impact on the coyote population over the long term,” Porter says. “There may be local, regional impacts from it if there's extensive hunting pressure, but there certainly isn’t enough pressure across the state to do anything to jeopardize the coyote population or put it at risk.”
And this is a crucial — and complicating — fact about coyotes. Hunting has absolutely no impact on the size of their population.
“The evidence is pretty clear. The more you kill them, the more quickly they reproduce,” says Bill Kilpatrick, of UVM. “And so predator control has actually very little impact."
This doesn’t sway the thinking of many hunters, who believe hunting coyote is crucial for protecting the deer herd and farmers’ livestock. According to Commissioner Porter, some even resent the restrictions that do exist on hunting coyote, such as limitations on shooting from the road or from cars, or on hunting with the aid of artificial light.
“We would never advocate for the eradication of coyotes in Vermont. There are people who disagree with us about that,” Porter says.
The dynamic of possibly more concern, Porter says, is the way in which coyotes relate with humans. He says that without some hunting pressure, the animals could become a nuisance.
“I really do think there's a risk that without management, they will be not afraid of people and they will become to be viewed as a pest that should be eliminated rather than as a valuable natural resource that can provide hunting opportunity and provide fur,” Porter says.
For her part, Brenna Galdenzi says the population stability is only part of the story. She says killing coyote can lead to pack instability, for example, and possibly more aggression.
“There's lots of things at stake here. We have the issue of these animals who are enduring tremendous violence and being killed recklessly. But then we also have the bigger issue of how this reflects on our state, how this reflects on hunting as a whole,” she says.
“It's not just about numbers,” Galdenzi continues. “It's about doing things in a humane way … You know, we always hear [about] what's best for the numbers, what's best for the herd, but we very rarely ever hear about what is best for the individual species, for the individual animals. And certainly what's happening right now with coyotes is is not for the benefit of the individual animals.”
Protect Our Wildlife is currently taking action against Vermont’s open season; it's supporting a petition, created by the Vermont Coyote Coexistience Coaltion, calling for a regulated season on coyote.
Into the woods
Hunters aren’t the only ones who can have close encounters with coyotes. Susan Morse, a nationally-known naturalist and professional tracker, has seen her fair share, too.
Morse lives Jericho, where she has been part of an extended effort to conserve more than 10,000 acres of land she calls Foxrun. She took me out in its woods one morning to search for coyote sign.
It’s early morning and the light is just starting to break into the understory. There’s fresh snow on the ground. Morse doesn’t like this, as it covers up recent animal tracks. (Nevertheless, she manages to point out sign from red fox, bobcat, moose and bear, and of course deer, in just over an hour.)
Morse says that if you want to try to track coyote on your own, just look at a map.
“Pick the softwood habitats, pick the mixed-wood habitats, pick the ridgelines. Pick the riparian edge along rivers and streams and beside wetlands. Pick the wetlands. The wetlands [are] like Hannafords, it’s like a supermarket for animals, especially predators.”
In addition to being a tracker, Susan is also the founder and director of a Vermont nonprofit called Keeping Track. They do work all over the country and in Canada, training biologists and others to gather wildlife data to inform conservation decisions.
She also has a special knack for talking about animals in human terms.
“If any wild animal in Vermont's woods can go to Harvard and get a degree with honors, it's going to be the coyote,” she says. “They're very aware of their surroundings. All of their senses are working full-time, but they do have an uncanny ability to perceive the potential for danger in ways that other animals don't seem to have.”
While we’re talking about all this, she seems to walk me straight to a fresh coyote track.
“Simply said, when you’re trying to differentiate a coyote from a dog, coyotes are much more rectangular in shape, with two forward toes well ahead of the placement of the next two toes, which are what we call the rear toes,” she explains.
Another good trick is that you can draw an X through a coyote track without cutting through any paw pads:
How to speak coyote
Now, tracks are great. But at the end of the day — literally — what most of us come into contact with is that special coyote howl.
And as luck would have it, there is an ecologist who has researched coyote howls to try to figure out what they mean.
Brian Mitchell is an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Vermont. He currently lives in Atlanta, doing work for the National Park Service. But for his Ph.D. research, he spent time trying to figure out what the coyotes are howling about — what they’re saying.
All of the howls in this episode are from field recordings that Brian made out in Logan, Utah. They’re from captive coyotes, but he says the basic structures of the sounds are what you’d hear anywhere in the country.
And there are basically two types of coyote vocalization. The first is something called the “group-yip-howl.”
“The group-yip-howl is probably what most people think about when they think about coyote howling,” Mitchell says.
What’s cool about the group-yip-howl is that it’s an “auditory illusion,” as Mitchell has written in the Adirondack Almanac.
“Many people will say, ‘Oh, I heard a huge pack of coyotes' … and in many cases it’s just two animals that are making that noise,” Mitchell says.
This phenomenon is known as the “beau geste effect” — “beau geste” means “beautiful gesture.” (Classic coyote.)
Mitchell says the group-yip-howl sends kind of two messages at once. First, it says, “We’re a happy family here.”’ Second, it says, “This is our space, and we will defend it.” This gets to the other type of vocalization Mitchell studied: the standalone howls and barks.
“In ecology we call it agonistic,” Mitchell says. “It’s a more of a vocalization used when you’re in conflict with another individual, so if they’re disturbed by someone or feel threatened.”
Mitchell has a theory about these sounds — he couldn’t prove it — that the bark means, “Hey, I’m a little bit annoyed,” and the howl means, “I’m pretty upset here, and I’m feeling threatened.”
“It’s really hard to hard to get inside coyotes’ heads, unfortunately, they don’t talk to us in our language,” Mitchell says.
But of course you don’t need to be able to understand coyote language to appreciate it.
“I think there’s something special about having that predator in our woods,” says Kent McFarland, of the Vermont Center for EcoStudies. “Having that mystery, that spirit in our woods, that I would hate to see disappear.”
Luckily, it doesn’t seem like the coyote is in danger of going away. If anything, it’s living closer to you than you might think.
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Journalism Fund.
A special thanks this month to Peter Lourie, Mike Bernier and Bobbie Summers.
Our theme music is by Ty Gibbons. Other music in this episode:
- "Chauncy" by Podington Bear (used under a Creative Commons license)
- "Crafty" by Podington Bear (used under a Creative Commons license)
- "The Pink Panther Theme" by Henry Mancini
- "Hold Your Latitude" by Ben Cosgrove
Also this month, we say farewell to co-host Alex Keefe, who is heading back to Chicago to work as WBEZ's political editor. We will miss Al very much, and he will miss us. Brave Little State will continue, but we're going to take a little time to regroup. Be brave! Stay tuned!
Clarification 7:55 p.m. 1/6/17 This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Protect Our Wildlife is supporting VCCC's petition for a regulated coyote season, but is not a part of that group.