EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. >> After a long, hot, steamy day, the fierce sun slips behind the trees in the backyard dropping the temperature by a few, not-particularly-noticeable, degrees. The humidity is almost visible. The buzzy rise and fall of the cicadas echo through the woods, occasionally punctuated by a katydid. A pair of mourning doves sits on the wire, but are silent. The phoebe flits down over the pond, snags an insect and returns to the overhanging branch. A couple of green frogs languidly twang to one another. Only the hummingbirds ignore the heat.

The light soon fades and a fat full moon slowly rises over the horizon. Danny and I, though, are still motionless on the patio, reading books, magazines, the newspaper. I make cold sandwiches for a late dinner as we remain out of doors. By 11, Danny and I turn in even though the moon lights up the backyard, turning the entire area into a shadowy movie set.

Who knows how much longer it is before we are awakened by the barking and yipping of dogs? One barks, then another yip-yip-yips and then a few more start to howl. Coyotes! Hard to tell how many, maybe 10 or 12? Or how far away, maybe, a half mile or so down the road. A barred owl joins the cacophony and, after a few minutes, all is quiet save the continually chirping cricket by the bedroom window.


Howling at the moon

As the full moon wanes, the coyotes gather and howl every night. Sometimes around midnight, sometimes just before dawn. In any case they are vociferous enough to awaken us nearly every night for these last three weeks.

We know they prowl the woods by night and disappear by day. Over the last 30 years, I have encountered one or two on my morning walk, and once a coyote chased an antlered deer through the trees on the hillside in our backyard. We usually, though, hear them in groups in February when they are sorting out partners. This is the first time we have heard their eerie howlfest at this time of year. And so often, as if they too are gathering to discuss politics as is the rest of the known world.

The Spaniards that invaded Mexico were the first to write about these animals, calling them coyotes after their Indian name "coyotl." Taxonomically the coyote is Canis latrans which translates into "barking dog." Doglike they are with their sharp faces, erect pointy ears, shaggy coats and long tails.

They are similar to their enemy the wolf, but not nearly as big at five feet long and 50 pounds. The coyote holds the tail down while a wolf hold the tail parallel to the ground when running. If you see tracks, the coyote's are two and half inches wide while the wolf's is five. Coyotes here are plentiful indeed, while observing a wolf would be a real rarity.

Prairie wolves, as coyotes were known in the Wild West, were creatures of the plains, of bushland, grassland, farmland, preferring open spaces. Literature from then cites packs of 50-70 that were chased away from camps by frontiersmen. Those that did creep in and among the tents under cover of darkness did not root out foodstuff, nor did they attack humans. They found pieces of leather such as crops, reins, saddlebags to chew on.

These bold settlers thought little of coyotes, not even to hunt for fur or food. Francis Parkman in his writings on the Oregon Trail called the coyote, "a grim visaged but harmless little brute."

Nowadays coyotes are found in 49 states, Canada and Mexico. And why wouldn't they be if they have seven to 10 pups at each birthing. One brood numbered 19! The first one caught and recorded in New York State was in 1912 though there were a few sightings before that.

Nor does this mammal remain a feature of grasslands. They have moved into any area that has grassy fields whether surrounded by woods or water. They eat mostly rabbits, rodents, reptiles, amphibians and even insects. Occasionally coyotes will take farm animals, yet some farmers in the Midwest liked having the coyotes around to control devastation to their cash crops by rabbits, rodents and insects. The debate still rages: To kill or conserve.

Coyotes are so pervasive that they are featured in myth and literature. In Native American myths, coyotes are considered deities and cultural heroes not only known for being tricksters and mediators but as foolish and bawdy creatures. Think of Wile E. Coyote of Warner Brothers fame trying to outsmart Roadrunner (among others) for food and drink, power and fame. Each episode ends with Wile E. foiled and flattened once again. He is both the villain we hope gets caught and the underdog we root for to outtrick his marks.

Symbols of paradox

Mark Twain writes of Mr. Coyote as being the quintessential lowbrow, but clever with it. Coyotes are called avaricious and generous, vicious and grateful, playful and intelligent, cowardly and brave, foolish and wise. They are dangerous to small animals, but beneficial because they are also carrion eaters. They are symbols of paradox, contradiction and survival representing both undesirable outcasts and fierce individualists.

Most recently, south of the border, the term coyote has come to mean: a street vendor, a mixed breed person, a pastry, a beverage, a rogue attorney and most pervasive, a people smuggler.

In 1846, Susan Magoffin living on the Santa Fe Trail wrote that the coyote's howling was "a mixture of cat, dog, sheep, wolf, and the dear knows what else. It was enough to frighten off sleep and everything else." Danny and I have heard these howlfests so frequently of late that no longer do they seem eerie. These piercing yips and howls have become part of the nightly sound stage!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.