Coyote, courtesy North Carolina Wildlife Commission
This past week, I was in the short rows as they say, with just a few miles remaining on a 100 km Permanent Populaire. I was in Johnston County at the time on Jackson King Rd making my way toward the Wake County line. I'd just passed over a creek and had traversed a marshy lowland when it happened. Just as the road tilted slightly upward, I was distracted by a rustle in the woods off to my right. Assuming I'd startled a deer, I glanced in the general direction of the disturbance, expecting to see a white tail bounding deeper into the woods. Nothing.
The reason I didn't see anything was because my line of sight was directed too high and too deep into the woods. When my gaze turned back toward the road, I glimpsed a huge canine directly on my right at the edge of the road barreling straight at me!
The jury is still out on who was more surprised upon meeting---canine or cyclist. Only a few feet away, I witnessed the already fast-moving critter accelerate and lope directly across my intended path just a few feet below my handlebars and even closer to my front wheel. From my catbird seat, the object of my attention---a good-size, ruddy and gray furry critter like the one pictured above---proceeded to dash off into the undergrowh on the opposite side of the road where it disappeared, leaving me to wonder at the time what it was: lupus, rufus, dufus?
The incident occupied my mind for the remainder of my ride. The creature was obviously canine. But that leaves much room for speculation, given that the family of Canidae includes the gray wolf (Canus lupus), red wolf (Canus rufus), and dog (Canis lupus familiaris), but also the coyote (Canis latrans), something I had not considered at the time but would be compelled to later.
The question occupying my mind: Was it a wolf or a dog? I leaned heavily toward the former, judging by its size, coat, coloring, and demeanor.
But I soon realized that there was a serious problem labeling the animal in question a "wolf" based on well documented geographic distribution patterns of wolves. In short, it is probably safe to say that there are no wolves living in or near Johnston or Wake counties, whether gray or red. Gray wolves inhabit the northern portion of our continent, while red wolves are an endangered species in North Carolina restricted to a few eastern counties.
So where did that leave me? It led me back to the dog. But I wasn't so sure. Based on my split-second behavioral analysis, the animal did not appear to exhibit any of the usual dog behaviors.
Close cousins, wolves and dogs do display many of the same behaviors. But it depends on with whom they are cavorting. Simply put, dogs are comfortable with humans, while wolves are not. During my brief encounter with the animal in question, there was no hint of inquisitiveness, playfullness, comradeship, or docility. Only singularity of purpose. This is telling. In an Aesopian-like fable, a talking wolf might boast that the dog can be bested by taking advantage of its distractable nature.
Returning to the nature of the beast in question, I was at an impasse. It seemed neither wolf nor dog, yet a little of both. Luckily, there was another possibility---the most plausible, if not correct, answer. The animal in question was more than likely a coyote---which saved my hide, since you don't want to get labeled as someone who inappropriately cries "wolf."
Coyotes are no longer just westerners. Like chipotle and mesquite seasonings, coyotes have steadily migrated east. Numerous sightings have been recorded all over the state, including Wake County. The North Carolina Wildlife Commission states that coyotes are found in all North Carolina counties. This is because the coyote is extremely adaptable and, unlike the wolf, is capable of living near, while at the same time avoiding, humans. The red wolf on the other hand assiduously avoids humans and all sorts of human activity, which limits its range. Coyotes have expanded their range because they have benefitted by co-exisiting with humans and can be pests.
What ecologists refer to as a "top carnivore" locally, coyotes prey upon just about every animal: insects, crustaceans, lizards, snakes, mice, squirrels, rabbits, fox, deer, but also domesticated animals---cats, dogs, goats, sheep, baby cows, chickens, and turkeys. Coyotes will also eat "road kill" and human garbage. Primarily carnivores, coyotes will also eat fruit and vegetables. Indeed, the critter I met last week was "well fed."There was nothing lean, gaunt, scrawny, skinny about him as the popular cartoon images portray. Even so, I imagine its VO2max to be "off the charts" compared to humans.
That the coyote can be easily confused with either or both the wolf and dog is understandable, since they are all closely related. Interestingly, interbreeding can occur between the three groups and results in several types of hybrids, including the coydog, coywolf, and wolf-dog.
Coyotes have little interest in interacting directly with humans. My Wile E Coyote friend I'm sure had little interest in me. Abused by the natural odorant wafted by the superior wicking properties of lycra draped to my moist skin on that hot, humid June day, I'm sure Mr. Coyote's keen olfactory apparatus vaulted into uberload. He was probably thinking, "Good riddance!"
In retrospect, this was not my first coyote sighting while cycling this year. I spotted one last month near Stedman, NC. At the time, the first thing that popped into my mind was "fox," but the label just didn't stick. The creature in question was just way too big to be a fox and not red enough. Only for a split-second did I entertain the idea that it could be a wolf, which actually made more sense to me at the time. But rather than abuse myself thinking about it, I put the incident out of my mind.
National Geographic provides a nice short video for kids of coyote cubs playing as well as a recording of the sounds of coyote calls which can be seen and heard here. Just click on "Video and Sound" for the video and click on the arrow with "Listen to this Creature" for the coyote calls.
Make no mistake about it: the coyote is here to stay as long as there is a food source. And for the present there appears to be an ample one.