Screaming Coyotes, Our Nightly Lullaby

 For reference: orchard cam triggered by coyote below; Al in same spot above.

For reference: orchard cam triggered by coyote below; Al in same spot above.

Last fall after a summer of incredibly peaceful and fairly uneventful camping out in our new orchard, Denise and I discovered what a wild pack of coyotes sounds like at night. It's very different than what I was expecting, although I'd never heard coyotes before. It is nothing like the howling of a wolf, or the barking of a dog, instead it’s a wild cacophony of high pitched yipping, yowling, and screeching. Imagine the sound of 3 wounded dogs, 5 hyenas after a successful kill, and a full bachelorette party trying to call a cab after a long night out.

This sound is really something remarkable, making folks that grew up like us in the suburbs realize that they are actually in the woods. It's also a demonstration of an auditory illusion referred to as the “beau geste” effect, named for the novel “Beau Geste”, in which French troops prop up their dead in an effort to make the opposing army believe they have a much larger force than they really do.  This coyote chorus gives the impression that there is a large group of very healthy animals very close by.  The rapid changing in pitch and overlapping of starting and stopping blends together to seem as if it could only be produced by a very large group.  As I now know, this orchestra of yowls is produced by a mated and territorial pair of “alpha” coyotes, with the male howling while the female intersperses her yips, barks, and short howls.

Now, if you’re anything like us I know what your thinking… NOPE!  And that was kind of our first gut response as well as we found ourselves running into our tent and into our sleeping bags.  When your only reference points are “White Fang” and the hyenas from “The Lion King” the immediate response is that this is dangerous.  Mix that in with a recent purchase of 125 acres and the commitment that you’ve shared with everyone that you are about to plant an orchard and attempt to “Help Revolutionize American Cider!”  (insert fast rapid air horn blasts) there forms a bit of inner conflict.  “I have to make this work but I may also get eaten.”  So, I started talking to neighbors and reading every article I could about coyotes.  Turns out they aren’t blood thirsty wolves with a taste for human flesh or mischievous animals voiced by Whoopi Goldberg.  The conversations proved to everyone around that yes, all people from Massachusetts are in fact soft city kids that are afraid of coyotes.  Sorry Massachusetts, I promise I’ll make it up to you.

After some reassurance that we were over-reacting quite a bit, I started to delve deep into the debate over wild animal control in proximity to humans and whether or not coyotes really should really be even considered “wild” or “indigenous”.  This debate is something I am extremely under-qualified to speak about and has very impassioned arguments on both sides.  During my research and among the conversations I had I encountered a huge swath of opinions ranging from: “The only good coyote is a dead coyote.” to  “They are the best deer deterrent an orchardist could ask for and you are extremely lucky to have them around.” (deer love to destroy orchards).  These opinions are difficult to sort through, have deep philosophical roots and depend on the individual’s personal relationship with those animals.

For Denise and me, since that first night we’ve heard them fairly often.  The group tends to come by to visit for a handful of nights every couple weeks then they seem to venture somewhere else for a while only to return a few weeks later.  Two weeks ago was the last time we heard them and it was very different from the first time.  I was still running but this time it was outside so I could listen.

-Al

Next Week’s Blog: “So Your Planting a Bunch of Apples You Can’t Eat?:  The Science of What Makes a Cider Apple a Cider Apple”

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