By Tom Poland
First sighting, a hazy afternoon near the Georgia-South Carolina border. Driving east on Highway 221 toward Clarks Hill Dam, I spotted a gaunt, leggy, yellow dog loping along the left shoulder. It darted across the road right in front of me, looking back as if to say, “That was easy.”
“That’s a coyote,” I thought. I had seen one before. Maybe. I live on the edge of a forest. Lots of wildlife around deer, bald eagles, and omnipresent opossums. Raccoons, of course. Running a trail, I spotted a tawny dog. It stepped from the woods and stared at me. Then the dark, green forest swallowed it. Maybe it was a Carolina dog, but the critter near the dam was a migrant from the West.
Coyote concerts were part of the old westerns. “Gun Smoke,” “Rawhide,” “Bonanza,” “Wagon Train”—none were complete without yipping coyotes and moon-howling wolves. After watching tumbleweeds and campfire scenes, I wanted to stand beneath a full moon and hear a wolf howling or coyotes yapping.
The reality is that coyotes, like fire ants and armadillos, have moved into the American South, and we’re learning to live together, or trying. To succeed, we need to cut through myths and better understand our new neighbor.
Bad press plagues these creatures of the night, and from Florida comes a nighttime tale of predation. Down Ocala way, a man said coyotes attacked him one night a few feet from his front door. Jack Miller was about to walk his poodle and Maltese/Chihuahua mix when five to eight coyotes surrounded him. They rushed his dogs. Miller punched one of the coyotes but the coyotes came at him from all sides. One grabbed his Maltese/Chihuahua mix and bolted off. With a meal secured, the coyotes disappeared into the night. It was as if the coyotes had planned their attack, said Miller. His poodle, traumatized, refused to go outside or eat.
Out West, ranchers and coyotes have been waging war for 100 years. South Carolina DNR has kicked off a “coyote harvest incentive program.” It’s designed to minimize their impact on deer I suspect, but I doubt it does much good.
Back in the 1980s, John Lane wrote features for South Carolina Wildlife magazine when I worked there. Over the years our paths kept crossing. They still do, and I think of John as a friend. John’s new book, Coyote Settles the South, will enlighten you on our new neighbor, and if you enjoy beautiful language, you’ll like John’s book all the more.
Here’s an introduction … “One night, poet and environmental writer John Lane tuned in to a sound from behind his house that he had never heard before: the nearby eerie and captivating howls of coyotes. Since this was Spartanburg, South Carolina, and not Missoula, Montana, Lane set out to discover all he could about his new and unexpected neighbors.
“Coyote Settles the South is the story of his journey through the Southeast, as he visits coyote territories: swamps, nature preserves, old farm fields, suburbs, a tannery, and even city streets. On his travels he meets, interrogates, and observes those who interact with the animals—trappers, wildlife researchers, hunters, rattled pet owners, and even one devoted coyote hugger. Along the way, he encounters sensible, yet sometimes perplexing, insight concerning the migration into the Southeast of the American coyote, an animal that, in the end, surprises him with its intelligence, resilience, and amazing adaptability.”
In the book, Lane wrote, “I saw some promise of wildness returning to our region. I saw the redemption of our landscape wounded and scarred by hundreds of years of human settlement, a hope that may be hard to explain to my friends and neighbors.” Indeed, he found that his neighbors, fearful ‘for their poodles, their bird feeders, maybe even their children,’ would prefer that this ‘opportunistic omnivore’ be stopped.”
John writes that anti-coyote sentiment plays on dark fears. He reminds us that they are part of the natural world. We should remember, too, that they are here because we banished red wolves from our region, creating a vacuum. And we all know that nature abhors a vacuum. Like John, I see some wildness returning to our region. Consider it a salve of sorts, a balm to the loss of Carolina parakeets, ivorybills, and more.
Note: You can get John’s book, a Wormsloe Foundation Nature Book from the University of Georgia Press. Just call 800-848-6224 or visit your favorite independent bookstore.
Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. His work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press released his book, Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It, in November 2015 and his and Robert Clark’s Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II in 2014. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia, “Georgialina.” Find columns at www.tompoland.net.