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Dogs of Summer

August 18, 2018

SUMMER OF THE DOGS  On August 16, 2018, I heard something in the great outdoors of Florida I have not heard in 43 years of being out there, most days for up to four hours.

            At first I thought the sound was coming from an ambulance or a series of ambulances. It was an eerie, strange sound, and it increased in volume over the minute or so it lasted. What in the world I had I heard?

Turns out it was something called a coyote group yip-howl.

            Coyotes are not new to me. I flushed one only two Saturdays ago in suburbia across the street from the house of one of my friends. Later I caught sight of perhaps the same coyote on the sixteenth hole of our nearby golf course. I have seen them blasting across my path when mountain biking and hiking at least several times a year in nearby parks and on-road and off-road trails.

            But on August 17 (today), I heard multiple coyotes again, two days in a row, a rarity indeed. This time I heard what I call yammering, although it’s really coyote barking and yipping. It just doesn’t sound like any bark we’re used to from dogs, just like when coyotes howl they do not howl like wolves.

            US Fish and Wildlife has identified at least 13 vocalizations in coyotes, but I suspect there are more, because what I read left off one I know – the offspring in distress call, a call used by hunters in the west to bring coyotes to their gun sights. This call brings coyotes wanting to know what the threat is and seeking to protect their young.

Some of the vocalizations identify the coyote. Others are to defend territory. Still other vocalizations are to warn of intruders, like man. But comparatively, the group yip-howl is off the chart as an experience. Or at least the one I heard was.

            Contrary to what many believe, the group yip-howl is not to announce a kill. Coyotes don’t announce kills. Most wild animals don’t. If you let other predators know you’ve killed something, they may show up and try to take it from you.

            Coyote groups generally consist of five to six adults with offspring in a range. In a group yip-howl, this will be the maximum number of “speaking” coyotes. Home ranges of coyotes are usually about 10-square miles, with some overlap. Coyotes were sometimes called “song dogs,” with good reason. The alpha male usually begins the group yip-howl, with the beta female joining in next, followed by the rest of the coyotes. The purposes are thought to be both bonding and announcing their territory.

            Our local coyotes seemingly have no real far of man. They certainly have no fear of me. Several have passed uncomfortably closed to me, three early morning last July on a levee. One ranger in a park I frequent talks of being circled by coyotes. Another reported coyotes hunting in packs.

             Attacks by coyotes on humans are rare, although there are two fatal cases. Coyotes in a Canadian wilderness killed a young man hiking solo. In Southern California, coyotes unfortunately killed a young girl. As far I know, these are the only times coyotes have killed humans, but not wanting to find out if I could be the third victim, I carry dog mace in the woods to ward off the coyotes (and anything else that might need warding). When hiking in bear country, I carry bear spray.

            Please Note: In all the years I have hiked in the wilderness, mostly in Florida and Georgia, the only thing that has tried to attack me were domesticated dogs, one with its irresponsible owner looking on. Hiking and biking in Florida is much safer than many places out west where you might have to face bears and mountain lions.

            Because coyotes have been known to take pets, I recommend cat owners turn their outdoor cat into an indoor cat. Likewise I recommend folks walking their toy dogs carry some sort of defense. Some folks carry umbrellas - and around here golf clubs. We carry dog mace when walking our pup.

            Much has been made in the last ten years or so about so called coy-wolves and coy-dogs. What is really being talked about here is the Eastern Coyote, a separate subspecies from the coyotes seen out west. Unlike the Western Coyote, the Eastern Coyote has wolf, dog, and coyote DNA. When wolves were nearly hunted to extinction in the east starting around 100 years ago, the wolves mated with what they could find, sort of like wild teenage boys.

            There is another reason for coyotes to have wolf DNA: in prehistoric times coyotes spun forth from wolves. There are no coy-foxes because foxes have different DNA. (In Florida you find both gray and red foxes, although there tend to be more red foxes and less gray as you move south from the Georgia and Alabama state lines.)

            Coyotes, dogs, and wolves have all been interbred in captivity. This is not natural of course, and otherwise they would rarely mate if ever. Coyotes breed seasonally, while a female dog can have several liters a year (although not a good idea for the dog’s sake).  

Dog and coyote mothers don’t always take fondly to hybrid offspring either.

            I have not heard enough group yip-howls to know if the one I heard was extraordinary or not. But I will be listening for more. I hope when you are in the woods you can have this experience too. It is not something to be feared.

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