Article and photos by Joe Mish
February fourth, late afternoon, marked a close encounter with a gray ghost I have been chasing for decades. Face to face at eighteen paces, the apparition materialized out of the river’s mist. So close, our eyes met as I looked unavoidably through the lens of its honey-brown/yellow eyes and into its soul.
Just as an opening act raises the energy of the audience, three terrified deer ran past moments before on the same trail and I do not use the word ‘terrified’ lightly.
I quickly picked up the camera in anticipation of more deer running through the constricted pass. I was sure there would be a second act, though had no idea what it might be.
To my amazement, shock and awe, a coyote appeared. I always wondered if I could tell a coyote from someone’s pet dog. Well I’m here to tell you, the recognition was instant and left no doubt which canine version stood before me.
The eyes, the yellow eyes, commanded full attention at that close a distance. The coyote’s mottled gray fur blended so perfectly into the leaf covered ground, its eyes appeared as two gleaming orbs hovering, unattached, in the air, above the ground.
The eyes, those yellow eyes, were a personal invitation afforded to me as a momentary portal through which to view the heart of a wild spirit.
The coyote is a mythological character come to life whose reputation for intelligence and adaptability is well documented in ancient tribes’ oral histories. Amazing, our interaction with coyotes in ancient times has continued unabated to this day. The coyote appropriately goes by any one of several aliases, yotes, song dog, brush wolf, prairie wolf, so fitting for a reputed trickster as described in the myths of many early cultures.
Originating in the west, coyotes have migrated east on their own, as well as spread by intentional redistribution. The first documented sighting of a coyote in NJ is reported to be 1939 and today they have been reported in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties. Song dogs have been legal game in NJ since 1998. Many states have been conducting genetic studies on coyotes and some, like NJ require the killing of a coyote by legal means or roadkill, be immediately reported to the state division of fish and wildlife.
The eastern coyote is generally much larger than its western cousin. The largest coyote has been reported at 55 pounds, though they average much less. DNA sampling has documented coyotes and wolves have mated, which may explain the larger size and the color variation in their coats. Coyotes will, on rare occasion, mate with dogs and are referred to as coydogs.
Coyotes are now well established in our area and often, a red or gray fox will be mistaken for a coyote. The visual differences between the two species are dramatic, size and coloration the most obvious.
Coyotes have always been at the center of controversy, especially in the west where livestock depredation is a concern. Their adaptability includes a diet so varied as to take advantage of whatever fare is available. That menu may include pets, insects, plants or poultry. Coyotes have been trapped, poisoned and shot and yet persist in viable populations in close proximity to man, thus have earned a ghost-like reputation. Someone once said of a coyote, ‘if you turned a coyote loose on a tennis court it could disappear behind the net!”
In the court of popular opinion, defenders stand opposed.
A doctor I know was nonplussed at my excitement of encountering a coyote. He regularly sees them on his property and one often comes to play with his 110-pound German shepherd.
Another strong proponent and defender of coyotes is Geri Vistein, who has written a great book, “I Am Coyote”. Geri also has a website and Face Book page, “Coyote Center, Carnivores, Ecology and Coexistence”. Geri explains that coyotes are an indispensible part of our living web of life and points out coyote management errors that add to the problem of negative human/ coyote interaction.
However you view coyotes, this wild and untamed spirit, wrapped in gray fur, is worthy of admiration. If you love dogs, it is not a leap to extend that feeling to their wild cousins. But be warned, not everyone shares that love.
It is quite a feat for any species to have flourished in times gone by and still maintain genetically viable numbers in the midst of an expanding human population and chronic loss of natural habitat.
The coyote remains more of mythological character of dubious existence, as it is rarely ever seen; you are more likely to hear a chorus of melodious howls on a cold and still winter night than to ever see a coyote. As with any sound in the night, its source and location are left to pure speculation which only deepens the mystery of the gray ghost’s existence. Doubt creeps in when your eyes fail to confirm what your ears hear.
For more information on coyotes see the link on the NJ Fish and Wildlife site.
Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.