Something in the human psyche needs the wolf pack lurking out there in the night to add a bit of terror to our quiet lives, it seems. The wolves are gone, so the villain’s role has been assigned to the coyote.
In the North Country, calling for coyotes in late January is for hunters on the brink of psychosis. All winter month hunters share a craving for, or maybe an obsession with, isolation.
Hidden in the folds of a snow-draped cedar tree and insulated by four or five layers of winter clothing, we spend the short daylight hours watching and waiting and thinking. It’s just us and the woodlands locked together in the bitter cold grip of winter.
These frozen hours in the wild are not as beneficial to the body nor as enlightening to the mind as disciplined Zen meditation, I suppose, but they are less expensive than professional psychotherapy. And we don’t have to talk to anyone. Silence is a requirement.
Bow hunting for deer during the first frosty days of autumn has some of the same attributes as calling for coyotes in the dead of winter. That is a similar time of self-isolation and contemplation. But the woods is full of life and activity in the fall, events in the natural world that spark thoughts and memories for the mind and soul to chew on and digest in a healthful way.
The woods in winter is almost lifeless. Seeing a doe and her grown fawn trudge through the snow-covered terrain is a major event. Most of the bird species have migrated to tropical or semi-tropical lands, and many of the permanent denizens of this place are temporary, intermittent or even long-term hibernators. The rest are huddled in dens or nests on these sub-zero days, patiently awaiting a winter thaw to venture forth to feed and play in the sunshine.
Coyotes and wild turkeys are the exception. (I refuse to talk about the thousands of Canada geese that have ceased to migrate and have taken up permanent residence around every local body of water, open or ice-covered. They used to be symbolic of the change of seasons and life. Now they have become long-necked, web-footed rats with handsome feathers.)
Turkeys are the paranoid clowns of the winter woodlands, gathering in flocks of twenty or thirty or more to strut forth from the woods into the picked cornfields looking for the last of the waste grain. Stand suddenly when one of these flocks is flowing past your hiding place on a hillside and watch the antics of an impromptu three-ring circus. The most animated are the thundering fliers, overweight trapeze artists struggling up into the bare limbs of oak and walnut trees with clumsy wing beats. But my favorite turkey circus act is the twelve-clowns-run-crazily-through-one-small-fence-gap routine.
The wild turkeys are only a sideshow. Calling coyotes, that is what I’m really doing out here on the edge of the tundra.
I say “calling coyotes” rather than “hunting coyotes” because in truth I no longer shoot the ones that respond to my wounded cottontail varmint call and come prowling up the hill to check it out. If further proof of my winter isolation madness is required, the fact that I call varmints but do not shoot them should nail it down.
Part of this reluctance to shoot is a matter of firearm safety. When I first called coyotes in the open country of northeast Nebraska I could see them approaching from hundreds of yards away, and the range land was completely devoid of human habitation. Here in the woodlands of the North Country I almost never see the coyote that is stalking my distress call until it is within forty or fifty yards, has discovered my ruse by scent or sight, and is running as if its life depending on frantic escape, which it does.
I could try to take these coyotes on the run, but it seems to me a very bad idea to wildly shoot even one or two high-velocity, long-ranging bullets from a varmint caliber rifle in country that has a farmstead on every forty or eighty acres, plus the ever-increasing number of houses of those city people who live in the country. (God bless them, each and every one.)
But the real reason I hold my fire, and sometimes do not even load my rifle, is that I do not want to shoot another coyote. I could pitch some macho bluster about the ridiculous price fur buyers pay for pelts these days, and it is true that the $50-$75 dollars I got for a pelt forty years ago, when my weekly paycheck was $185, was a significant part of my winter income compared to the $15-$20 price for a pelt now. But the money is really not a factor.
I have stopped shooting coyotes because I have come to admire and respect them.
Go online and do a news search with the word coyote and you would think they are a greater threat to civilization than Ebola virus and bird flu combined. Coyotes are trying to carry off children from day care centers in Los Angeles almost daily, if we are to believe the reports, and scarcely a pet dog or cat remains in San Francisco since coyotes became urban predators.
Even in the North Country the deprivations of coyotes are the stuff of tall tales. Although I know coyotes can devastate sheep herds at lambing time, and they feast on the remains of calves that die from exposure or hunger in the early spring, the stories about a “pack” of coyotes pulling down a hundred pound calf or hamstringing and then killing a sixteen-hand, thousand-pound horse leave me shaking my head.
Local lore also insists that coyotes kill dozens of deer, hundreds of turkeys, and thousands of pheasants each year. The disappearance of quail and ruffed grouse from this area is also due to, you guessed it, coyotes.
Something in the human psyche needs the wolf pack lurking out there in the night to add a bit of terror to our quiet lives, it seems. The wolves are gone, unless you venture far into northern Minnesota, so the villain’s role has been assigned to the coyote.
Those who observe a coyote in the wild, going about its daily business, do not harbor much fear or hatred of Canis latrans. We have learned that he has gotten a bad rap, which will unfortunately follow him to the end of time, no matter how much factual information is posted by wildlife biologists.
To share a few of my own observations:
A coyote “pack” is almost always a mother with her pups, training them to hunt and forage. Their night song, which is sung to announce their hunting range and intent, lasts only a few minutes and is one of the most beautiful sounds you will hear on a night in the wild.
Coyotes are small. In this part of the North Country a forty-pound coyote would be huge; average size for a male is closer to thirty pounds, a female twenty-five pounds.
The coyote’s most frequent prey is field mice. He is an opportunistic predator and scavenger and will take whatever is most available and easiest to catch, of course, but for every squirrel or rabbit or pheasant I have seen in the jaws of a coyote, I have seen him catch dozens of mice.
A coyote is a beautiful animal. Such statements are always subjective and anthropomorphic, and my appreciation of a well-built bird dog’s physique no doubt skews my viewpoint, but I fail to see how anyone could look at a mature, full-coated, healthy coyote standing alert in a winter landscape and not be awed by its incredible beauty.
Watching a coyote hunt is a fascinating experience. In addition to observing the power and intensity of its sense of smell, hearing and eyesight, you will get a lesson in the skills of the hunt: stealth, focus, speed, quickness, and use of wind and light and weather conditions and lay of the land to stalk and capture prey. I admire this apex hunter, but my real feeling is envy, pure envy.
And the coyotes do not seem to mind the bitter cold of January. An hour sitting in the woods and I am forced to stumble home, shivering and shaking and wondering when my fingers and toes will stop throbbing.
If this is a contest, the coyote is winning. I have to admire him for that, too.
More stories about North Country hunting adventures are published in my collection of essays, Crazy Old Coot, and my novel, Hunting Birds. Both are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.