Coyote—America’s Song Dog Returns to Maine

By Geri Vistein

Who is this singing … yipping, yapping, and howling … in the varied landscapes of Maine, and in your backyard? Coyote! Yes, we can now celebrate the return of this wild canine to the diverse watersheds of Maine.

But who is coyote, and why celebrate coyote’s return? For centuries Native Americans of the Southwest and Mexico called him “Old Man”, and for good reason. Coyote has roamed this North American continent, and only this North American continent, for at least a half a million years. Coyote survived time and again when many others succumbed to extinction.

Myriads of Native American myths were passed on from generation to generation with coyote chosen as lead character in all their stories. No wonder, since they recognized and respected coyote’s intelligence, adaptability, cunning, curiosity and humor in an ever changing world. The ancient Aztecs gave coyote his name, “coyotl”, meaning “God’s Dog”.

But this relationship between the community of man and wild canine was soon to end when the Europeans arrived in North America. Frank Dobie in his classic book, “Voice of the Coyote”, wrote “The English-Americans have never taught coyote any language but that of lead, steel, and strychnine.” But coyote was not alone in his experience. Many of our native wildlife were either pushed to the edge of extinction, or their populations were destroyed – the wolf being one of them. But not so coyote.

Federally supported “predator control” was initiated early in the 20th century, and amazingly has been institutionalized and continues to this day. So your tax dollars and mine support the slaughter of near 85,000 coyotes each year. The tragedy is that most Americans have no knowledge of this “war” on our native wildlife.

Although coyote was and is the major focus of “predator control”, coyote has survived, and beat the odds once more …and then went on to do something amazing. Coyote is like the middle child in the wild canine family: wolf being the larger, older brother and fox being the smaller, younger sister. For centuries coyote lived with wolf, but very cautiously. It was important for coyote to stay outside wolf territory and “live on the edges” if coyote wanted to survive. Living in the deserts of Mexico and Southwest states of the US also gave coyote the vantage point of seeing if wolf was coming. If caught by wolves, coyote would find death for certain.

With the extinction of the wolf in the lower 48 states, the clearcutting of our virgin forests, and the constant scourge of “predator control”, coyote got to thinking: “Let’s go trekking.” So with the change of his habitat, coyote changed his habits. Coyote started trekking … from the Southwest he trotted to Alaska and Canada, and on to the northern Great Lakes states, and into Ontario and Quebec. There in eastern Canada coyote met with the “remnants” of the Eastern Canadian wolf population. Behavior of these wolves toward coyotes was different, as these wolves have suffered severe persecution through intensive hunting and trapping … thus breaking down their complex social structure. Much research has been completed and is ongoing as well, regarding the offspring of coyotes who mated with these wolves. We know that many of our coyotes in the east have varying degrees of wolf genes … but they remain coyotes in appearance and behavior.

Sometime in the 1960s to 1970 coyotes returned to Maine and have settled in very well … from Houlton to Kittery you can hear their song. Yes they have returned. Archeological research has shown that coyotes lived in the East 30 thousand years ago. What caused coyote to leave the East? We do not know.

And so what is coyote thinking up next for Maine? To start, this amazing journey of the coyote back to the East can be seen as part of Nature’s Great Design. For over a century our Maine forests and fields have been without a large canine carnivore. Coyotes are carnivores—they need to kill another animal in order to survive. By doing so, they initiate the system of predation, which works for the health of all species, and drives the entire ecological system. Much research is being carried out around the world regarding the value of carnivores and their positive effect on biodiversity.

Coyotes, unlike wolves, have found ways to live among us. They live in our forests, our backyards, our farms and our cities. Their long history of living on the edge with wolves has enabled them to live along side of us …often unnoticed. When we recognize that not only our forests, but also our backyards, farms and cities are complex ecosystems of their own, then we can begin to understand the vital role coyote is playing as he lives among us.

So coyote is asking us to reconsider our relationship with him and to feel comfortable having “wildness” in settled places. Dell Hymes in his “Fivefold Fanfare for Coyote” writes:

"...Never will he go from this land,
Here always, as long as the land is,
That is how Coyote is in this land..."

Geri Vistein, Conservation Biologist with Project Coyote

Reprinted with permission from Merrymeeting News, the quarterly newsletter of Friends of Merrymeeting Bay.

Photo by Ed Friedman

Copyright Project Coyote, All Rights Reserved. Site Credits