Not native to the east coast and with no predators there, coyotes have cross-bred with wolves and spread down the eastern sea board. Now, they even inhabit Washington DC's Rock Creek Park.
"Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all!" The cry of a barred owl, deep and mournful, goes out into the treetops.
Swollen silence. Shifting his ebony talons slightly from high up in an old oak canopy, the wide faced owl pauses his territorial calls. He turns his head and stares intently at an unfamiliar shape he has spotted sitting beneath a nearby maple tree. His huge eyes lock, perplexed by the massive eyes that meet his. I lower my binoculars, he relaxes his gaze and gets back to business, calling into the trees.
Sitting in a darkening wood, I watch and listen.
I am sitting in Rock Creek Park, a sheltered patch of wood within Washington, DC. Hundreds of thousands of people are busily going about their evening all around the park as rush hour takes hold. But in this small patch of green there seems to be no hurry. I've found a spot that isn't impossible to get to, only 30 yards off one of the rougher trails where I have yet to have a runner or walker venture pass.
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Robins scurry around, toss the leaf litter and flutter away as the sun quickly lowers its head for the evening. In the distance through trunk and leaves I spot two runners climbing up the steep trail. The leader stops, lowering her heaving chest with hands on her knees. Pointing ahead she gestures to the trail in front of them. Too steep, too much debris. They turn around and head in the direction they came. Tucked in-between upscale neighborhoods, this bit of wild is hard to come by.
I came to Washington in 2004 as a university student and stayed after receiving a job at a large conservation organization. Originally from South Africa, a country of open spaces and wild places, I often need to seek solitude and solidarity with nature wherever I can find it. This is my spot. Owls, blue jays, deer, even the occasional fox pass by, each offering its own rewards. It's around 7:30 PM, dusk, the time when animals feel at their most comfortable, and the night is quickly approaching. I'm almost ready to end my sit when I hear footsteps in the leaf litter coming from the brush to my right. Deer; I think. No, too fast and light for a deer. Got to be a fox. The shape appears, tail down, and comes trotting by at a quick pace. As it gets closer my heart begins to pound as I realize that isn't a fox. It's a coyote.
It follows a well-worn deer trail in front of me, and stops as it hits my scent like a brick wall. Staring directly at me, we lock eyes at 10 yards. It can smell me, but can't make out my shape nestled at the base of the tree. It takes a few more steps, then stops and looks again. I raise my binoculars. Large, even with its winter fur shed, it is an impressive animal. But too quickly the moment is gone, and the coyote continues on its way, readying for the night's hunting. Heart still pounding, I breathe. The woods are silent again. Slowly I stand up to leave and realize there is a wobble to my knees, as there is with all good wildlife encounters.
Coyotes are newcomers to this city as well, foreigners in their own right having never resided on the East Coast. A native of the West, they crossed up through the Great North Woods and above the Great Lakes into Canada. Along the way some coyotes bred with their larger cousin, the wolf, before heading South to colonize the East Coast of the United States. Where the wolf once roamed keeping prey numbers in check before its extermination, the coyote now takes advantage of its absence.
After breeding with wolves in Canada, the Eastern coyote is now far larger and heavier than their Western relatives, easily reaching 50 pounds or more — twice the size of a coyotes found elsewhere in the country. They are flourishing. Most Eastern states have an open, year round, hunting season for these animals, and yet every year their numbers grow as they spread further afield.
First spotted in this city the year I arrived in DC, I've always hoped to see one. These animals have also quickly caught the attention of its neighbors. Although few see them, most have heard about them. Talk of dogs in running off their leash into the bushes only to be silenced and never return to their waiting owners has been going around for sometime. Rock Creek Park, with its secluded woods, offers coyotes an abundance of prey, from rodents to deer. They are smart, adaptable, secretive, and above all, wild.
According to National Geographic, no studies have yet been conducted to see how the wolf-coyote interbreeding has impacted their ability to pursue larger prey, although rumors persist that this new, larger breed is able to take down deer.
What does seem to be clear though, is that these new, larger coyotes are here to stay. Food is abundant throughout the suburbs of the east coast and no natural predators exist to control their spread. Already adapted to harsh northern winters, the relatively balmy climes of the mid-Atlantic offer the coyote few challenges.
As I walk home I can't believe how lucky I am to meet such an animal, such a symbol of cunning and wild. It is a meeting, an introduction, a form of communication and recognition that happens when two species exchange glances. Tomorrow evening I will head out again to my spot, getting away from the noise of the city, and wait to see who will introduce themselves. After all, I still feel new to this city, and it doesn't hurt to know your neighbors.
Photo: Beedie Savage
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.