Some of us have been trying to keep it quite, but the sly and shy coyote that Western ranchers hate so much has moved East.
Until relatively recently coyotes rarely were seen east of the Mississippi.
Now they are solidly established in the Midwest and Eastern Canada and have moved into the Eastern mountains from Maine to Virginia. A number have been sighted in North Carolina, and eventually they no doubt will range throughout the Southern highlands. Along the way some have mated with dogs, resulting in a "coydog" that is larger and meaner than Canis latrans.
"It's good news," said one wildlife biologist who has been following the process of the coyote for several decades. "At least it was good news until the news began to spread. Coyotes are mainly rodent and carrion eaters, but they are beginning to play a role in culling the whitetail deer population, which is being horribly mismanaged."
The biologist didn't want to talk about coyotes, and didn't want to talk about coyotes, and didn't want his named used, "because there are only two reactions to coyotes: irrational and political. Once enough people become aware of their presence it will be seen as a 'game management problem.' The coyote is managing very well by himself, thank you, and is adapting to an ecological nche that has been vacant since we killed off the wolves and mountain lions."
Nobody knows how many coyotes and coydogs there are in the Washington region, but local trappers have been taking them regularly for years. They've been seen inside the Beltway and even in Rock Creek Park, but most people take them for stray or feral dogs; in many cases it's a close question whether a given animal is more coyote or more dog.
"It's my impression that coyotes and coydogs are fairly distinct populations," the biologist said. "You see coydogs in suburban settings, because they seem less instinctively shy of man. They are larger and shaggier and somehow coarser, both in body structure and movements. You seldom see a true coyote that stands as much as two feet high at the shoulder or weighs as much as 40 pounds.
"In fact you seldom see a true coyote, they are so alert and intelligent. Color is not much help, because they vary from cream and mellow to almost black, although I think there was a strong selection in favor of darkness as they moved from the desert and plains to the Eastern forests. Generally, if it looks the least bit like a dog it is a dog, or a coydog; a coyote looks like an overgrown fox."
But if the woods are full of coyotes, how come we don't hear them howling?
"I don't know," the biologist said. "I've got a cabin in the Blue Ridge where I spend maybe three months a year. I know there are coyotes established there because I have seen them many times, but I very seldom hear them howl. Howling is an important part of their social intercourse in the West and North, and it's hard to believe they could shuck the instinct in the time it has taken them to expand their range south along the mountains, which amounts to an evolutionary eyeblink. Good for them if they have, though, because it sure wouldn't pay them to advertise their arrival in the East."
I saw my first Eastern coyote on Bull Run Mountain six years ago. He came trotting -- almost mincing -- in broad daylight past the tree in which I had been sitting for several hours watching for deer. He was not following any of the game trails that crossed near the tree, but was zigzagging along and across them, nose near the ground.
Earlier two foxes, first a gray and then a red, had come by the tree, but their movements had been very different, with frequent pauses to look and listen. Both had stopped dead for a moment when they caught my trail, by then quite stale, had looked around for a moment and then trotted off.
The coyote read the ground much faster. He zigged for a moment where a doe had crossed, zagged back to his general course, and did the same twice more as he cut the trails of the foxes. He was finding out all he needed to know in a heartbeat. At my trail he paused for the first and only time, sniffed a couple of times in the direction I had come from and then pranced stifflegged toward my tree. A few feet short of it he looked up, saw me and took off like a scalded cat.
It took some time for me to accept that what I had seen really was a coyote, and I assumed it was a pet that had gotten loose. Since then I have seen four others I am sure of, including one last November that was eating a dog carcass along the Beltway near Connecticut Avenue, and have talked with others who have had similar experiences. Most hoped I wouldn't write about it, for fear that somebody would be moved to "do something" about them.
But now even the New York Times knows about it, and the game commissioners in Maine and other states are trying to "deal with the problem," which is that coyotes, especially coydogs, kill deer.
"It isn't a problem," the biologist said. "The deer they take are old, sick, starving or wounded, plus an occasional fawn. The only deer problem is that there are too many deer, because of 'bucks only' rules, short seasons and one-deer limits. Our deer management amounts to encouraging such overpopulation that hardly any dummy with a gun can walk through the woods without stumbling over one. The deer suffer every winter, and starve by the thousands, and it's playing hell with the gene pool.
"And anyway there's nothing anybody can do about coyotes. They've spent millions trapping and poisoning them out West, which is like scratching impetigo; they're just spead. But they'll divert a lot of money and manpower that ought to go into something sensible."