The dominant canine of the region is an adaptable predator, well suited to both our mountain forests and the populated edges of the Whites.
Words by Matt Maloney, Tin Mountain Conservation Center.
Photography by John Rondeau, Fern Hill Originals
Anyone who ventures out in the snowy woods of winter will, probably sooner than later, stumble upon wild dog tracks. Many, if not most, of these tracks are made by the eastern coyote. If we forward the season to summer, the snow is now long gone, leaving the forest without that impressionable sheet of white that serves as the canvass betraying the coyote’s presence. But the coyote is still here with us throughout the year, of course—an apex or top-of-the-food-chain predator, a creature of great stamina that travels long distances in pursuit of prey and other sustenance
The eastern coyote is approximately two times as large as the western coyote, weighing between 30 to 50 pounds and measuring 48 to 60 inches long. Coyotes have long prowled the open prairies and plains of the vast western states, but have only more recently migrated into the eastern states. There wasn’t even a verified account of an eastern coyote in New Hampshire until 1944 in Grafton County.
The coyotes that live in this area have a fascinating story. Aspects of this story involve wolves, extirpation, migration, and a bit of interbreeding.
All these facets are behind the presence today of the eastern coyote in the Mt. Washington Valley and White Mountain Region. A coyote may expose its presence to you through a quick glimpse in the glow of car headlights at night or even be seen with a quick and fortunate glance at midday. However, for all of their abundance in these woods and valleys of our region, for the most part, coyotes stay well hidden from the eyes of humans.
Coyote Distribution - Canis latrans
At least 19 subspecies of coyote roam North and Central America, from California to Newfoundland and Alaska to Panama, occupying a broad range of habitats. Coyotes play an important ecological role helping to maintain healthy ecosystems and species diversity. As the top carnivore in some ecosystems, coyotes provide a number of benefits, including regulating the number of mesocarnivores (such as skunks, raccoons, and foxes), which in turn, helps to boost biodiversity.
A map of the distribution of the 19 known subspecies of Canis latrans plus Canis latrans “var,” the eastern coyote, a hybrid between the coyote and wolf.
- Mexican coyote (Canis latrans cagottis)
- San Pedro Martir coyote (Canis latrans clepticus)
- El Salvador coyote (Canis latrans dickeyi)
- Southeastern coyote (Canis latrans frustor)
- Belize Coyote (Canis latrans goldmani)
- Honduran Coyote (Canis latrans hondurensis)
- Durango coyote (Canis latrans impavidus)
- Northern coyote (Canis latrans incolatus)
- Tiburon Island coyote (Canis latrans jamesi)
- Plains coyote (Canis latrans latrans)
- Mountain coyote (Canis latrans lestes)
- Mearns coyote (Canis latrans mearnsi)
- Lower Rio Grande coyote (Canis latrans microdon)
- California Valley coyote (Canis latrans ochropus)
- Peninsula coyote (Canis latrans peninsula)
- Texas Plains coyote (Canis latrans texensis)
- Northeastern coyote (Canis latrans thamnos)
- Northwest Coast coyote (Canis latrans umpquensis)
- Colima coyote (Canis latrans vigilis)
- Eastern coyote (Canis latrans “var”)
One of this author’s best looks at a coyote in full daylight was while in trail-less woods atop a small ledge. Looking down from my perch, an unsuspecting coyote, moving with great directness sauntered underneath my gaze, perhaps on the subtle scent of potential prey. The first thing that caught my attention, and a great distinguishing feature of coyotes in general, is the big bushy, black-tipped tail. Along with a pointy nose, and direct and purposeful movement, all of these features can help identify the coyote, although it should be mentioned that all wild dogs (as opposed to more playful and curious domestic dogs) tend to move with a directness that affirms their continual pursuit of prey scents to follow.
The original alpha canine of the White Mountains and New Hampshire was the wolf. Wolves lived throughout the United States, with different subspecies in different regions of the country that developed from years of breeding pools within these regions. Eastern wolves are now recognized as distinct subspecies, and these are the wolves that have contributed some DNA to the eastern coyote over time. Coyotes moved into the east to replace wolves after they were extirpated from eastern states due to hunting and persecution. The current eastern wolf subspecies probably gets most of its DNA from the red wolf. Red wolves can mate with coyotes, forming “coywolves,” which have developed into our larger subspecies of eastern coyotes. Red wolves, as a subspecies of wolves, are identified as being distinct from other wolves in that they have coyote DNA in their genetics. (NY Times, Carl Zimmer, 6-27-2016). A small percentage of coyote DNA sometimes contains some domestic dog genetics as well. Though the vast majority of coyote DNA is contributed from other coyotes, the larger size of eastern coyotes is probably due, in part, to the small percentage of wolf DNA found in eastern coyotes that had ancestors who mated with wolves in Canada as they migrated east to replace the extirpated wolfs.
If one is used to seeing the smaller coyotes that roam the large open expanses of the west, a sighting of one of our local coyotes can make one think they are seeing a wolf. To this author, having seen coyotes in South Dakota before, it does seem our eastern coyotes are quite broad and stout in comparison to the smaller western coyotes. Like wolves, coyotes are social creatures and will often travel with, or associate with, packs. Perhaps the most fascinating way to experience firsthand this social interaction is through the communal howling that coyotes will engage in—and that can eerily fill the air during a night of camping in the White Mountain National Forest, or anywhere for that matter, within the wilder areas of the Mt. Washington Valley. Most sides of a mountain or areas along creek drainage have a resident coyote territory nearby, and on certain nights, often with a bright full moon above, coyote howling will fill the air for short intervals. The howls come suddenly and unexpectedly and usually start with one coyote yipping or yapping before breaking into a full guttural howl. Soon another coyote joins, and then another … until the whole pack of coyotes is wailing and howling, a wild sound if ever there was one!
I have often heard coyotes while camping in the area and have some specific recollections of times when there has been dead silence at my tent site only for the still air to suddenly be pierced with the nearby howl of a coyote, where before, I never would have guessed the creature was so close to me. Humans need not fear coyotes though, as they don’t see us as prey. So one can enjoy their sounds and appreciate the wildness it represents without fear.
Another source of the coyote howling in unison is a kill site. Many a time I’ve come upon the carcass of a deer that has been killed by coyotes. Carcasses become the source of a communal meal, with howls and rabid appetites sated. Wild creatures live by both their instincts and physical prowess, and the social cohesiveness of coyotes is yet another way of surviving and defending territory from other coyotes and predators. If you see a bone-picked carcass of a deer or other creature in the forest, coyotes are often behind it.
Q&A Eastern Coyote
Where do coyotes live?
Coyotes originally lived out on the plains and deserts of the American West. Eastern coyotes are highly adaptable creatures that can successfully forage and hunt for food in forests, rural areas with farmland, suburbs, and even cities. They live in every part of New Hampshire.
What do they eat?
Coyotes are predators like all wild canines, but they eat an omnivorous diet that includes just about any potentially available food source. Coyotes will eat rats in cities, Canada goose eggs, young or unhealthy deer, rabbits, snakes, and even berries and nuts. Their wide-ranging diet makes them both adaptable and important to a healthy ecosystem.
Can they harm you?
Coyotes pose little risk to people. In wild areas, they typically run away from the presence of humans. In more urban environments they can get habituated to humans, especially when they lose their fear of people, or rely on people who leave food. Attacks on people are exceedingly rare, though. There have only been two recorded deaths by coyotes in the U.S. and Canada combined. (Humane Society of the United States: www.humanesociety.org/resources/coyotes-people-encounters)
What is a coywolf or coydog?
They are coyotes. Many share a few traces of DNA with wolves.
Is there a hunting season for coyotes?
In New Hampshire, there is a year-round open season on coyotes with a hunting license. Poisoning coyotes, however, is an illegal control method.
How do you avoid coyotes around your house?
Don’t leave food and birdseed lying around. Cover trash cans that attract the small mammals coyotes prey on.
Do coyotes have families?
Coyotes are generally monogamous and maintain pair bonds that can last for life. The breeding season runs from late December through March, and pups are born in the early spring.
Coyotes will eat just about anything, though, from mice, rabbits, birds, frogs, snakes, fruits, nuts, human foods, right up to deer. Here in New England, I once talked with a long-time animal tracker who told of following coyote tracks in the winter to the sight of a frozen water snake on the snow surface, apparently dug out from its hibernating place! They’re also known to prey on rattlesnakes in extreme western Vermont, something I saw for myself in Florida once when I saw a road-killed coyote with a large rattlesnake still in its jaws.
There are no rattlesnakes here in the White Mountains, but coyotes clearly are adaptable in what they can eat, and thus, the habitats they can inhabit. One could see a coyote deep in the wild Pemigewasset Wilderness and hear the howling of many on a star-lit night of backcountry camping, or even see one wandering through North Conway. (Coyotes have been known to wander streets in Boston and New York.) Anything is possible when these wide-ranging predators search for sustenance on our local landscape.
How big are the coyotes in the White Mounatins?
Eastern coyotes typically weigh 30-50 pounds and are 48-60 inches long, approximately twice the size of their close relative, the western coyote.
Comparing coyotes size
We’ve all come across what appears to be a coyote—or was it a … ? It helps to compare the eastern coyote to other familiar critters, such as the fox, as well as our domestic dogs and cats.
- The eastern coyote is most unique by its distinctive black-tipped tail
- The average Golden Retriever is twice the length of an eastern coyote
- The average fox is much smaller than coyotes found in the Whites.
- Our pet cats are unfortunately but most definitely prey
As mentioned earlier, wolves were the pre-eminent canine predator before coyotes. They can often reach 150 pounds, more than double the weight of a coyote. (NH Wildlife News) As the vast forest of the Mt. Washington Valley and White Mountains were cleared for farmland, wolves gained a reputation as predators of livestock, and thus, were often shot on sight. Populations declined greatly as bounties were paid out for dead wolves. The last bounties paid on record were for two wolves killed in 1895. (NH Wildlife News, 2022, Eric P. Orff) By the 1940s and 50s, coyotes gradually filled in a missing niche in our local ecosystem, taking on the role of a large predator, an efficient hunter at the top of the food chain, helping keep wildlife populations, from deer to rabbits, in check.
Tin Mountain Conservation Center Presents Beyond the Valley Adventure Fest: Stories from Caves, Climbs, and Crevasses
September 16, 2022 – Ledge Brewing
The Beyond the Mt. Washington Valley Adventure Fest: Stories from Caves, Climbs, and Crevasses begins at 5 p.m. on Friday, September 16, at Ledge Brewing Co., where ticket holders will enjoy adventurous stories and slides from Josh Laskin, who will share his backcountry snowboarding adventures in Kyrgyzstan. Sarah Garlick, author, climber, and film director will share discoveries only climbers can reach. And more!
Explorer, National Geographic writer, and book author, Mark Jenkins anchors Beyond the Mt. Washington Valley Adventure Fest on Saturday night at Kennett High School with his “Vietnam Underground: The Viet Cong, Spelunkers and the Biggest Cave on Earth” presentation. Mark was invited to join an expedition to descend into what would turn out to be the largest cave ever discovered, Hang Son Doong. The acknowledged Mt. Everest of caves, Hang Son Doong is so vast, a skyscraper can fit inside. In this presentation, Jenkins takes the audience across Vietnam, culturally and geographically—its violent history, remarkable recovery, and vibrant present—and down into the dark belly of the earth.
Also on Saturday evening, Enock Glidden, an explorer, and climber from Maine, who was born with spina bifida, leaving him without the use of his legs, will share his philosophies, perspectives, and his climbing adventures in “How Can I? My Ascent of El Capitan.”
This fundraising event supports Tin Mountain programs. Every year, Tin Mountain provides hands-on environmental education to thousands of children through in-school, after-school, and home-school programs. Hundreds more attend summer camp and the year-round nature programs, and naturalist-led field trips reach adults and families who live in or are visiting the Mt. Washington Valley. Tin Mountain also conducts a variety of conservation research programs. Tin Mountain Conservation Center is headquartered in Albany, NH.
Join us for the Beyond the Valley Adventure Fest and help Tin Mountain foster future generations of environmental stewards and responsible outdoor enthusiasts.
Beyond the Valley Adventure Fest 2022
Friday, September 16: 5 p.m.; Ledge Brewing Co., Intervale, NH; tickets $20
Saturday, September 17: 7 p.m.; Kennett High School, North Conway, NH; tickets $40
Combined ticket for Friday & Saturday, $50
For tickets and to learn more about the speakers, visit www.tinmountain.org or call (603) 447-6991.
Other wild canines besides the coyote that reside in this region include the red fox and grey fox, and we also have one common wild feline, the bobcat. Of these canines and felines, coyotes seem to be the dominant creature when it comes to holding a particular territory. If a coyote roams a territory on a regular basis, it will usually deter these other predators from its hunting territory. Coyotes will even kill a fox if they can in order to protect their all-important hunting and foraging grounds. The same is true of bobcat and coyote interactions. Coyotes truly are a dominant predator, as they are larger than the foxes and bobcats—and fierce defenders of their territories.
New Hampshire Wildlife Coalition
NHWC is a group of New Hampshire natural resource professionals, hunters, wildlife advocates, and other outdoor-oriented people who have come together with a singular vision to form the New Hampshire Wildlife Coalition. NHWC works to:
• Strengthen the Fish and Game Department by broadening its governance and financial base
• Advocate for the responsible conservation of predator species
• End wildlife killing contests
• Promote an ethos of “Fair Chase” sporting practices
For more information visit www.nhwildlifecoalition.org
The eastern coyote, in a sense, is the new wolf for our region, the alpha predator of the White Mountains and the surrounding valleys. An adaptable and successful predator that has persevered, migrated long distances, incorporated wolf DNA in the process, and fiercely defends its territory.
This creature’s presence on our landscape should give us pause to contemplate all that wild creatures must do to survive and thrive. Remember as you enjoy the local wildlife to also admire and respect what all that is wild represents.