A shooting star glided across the sky, adding tranquility to the moonlit night.
A howl from a coyote shattered it.
An hour earlier, a raucous group of coyotes awakened me in the middle of the night. I’ve heard coyotes carrying on at night plenty of times, but this group was particularly close and the waxing half moon lit up the landscape enough to see without a flashlight.
It was enough to send me on an impromptu night hike in search of the coyotes.
A howling coyote dominates the night much like a gobbling turkey in the springtime woods. When a gobbler sounds off in the morning, there is nothing louder.
And when a coyote howls at night, it demands attention.
This particular pack of coyotes opened the night with an excited cluster of yips and barks that shattered the stillness from their post at the top of a field.
As I slowly walked up the hill hoping to get a look, I pondered the cause for the coyotes excitability. Had they just made a kill and were celebrating their success? Was the noise produced by young coyotes getting ready to disperse from their family group?
I didn’t get an answer, but as I made it halfway up the hill, the coyotes became silent. I knelt down hoping to hear them again, but for 45 minutes things were quiet. The coyote calls were soon replaced by the chirping of crickets and the faint peep of a bird that I inadvertently disturbed from its roost in a nearby sassafras tree.
Believing that the coyotes likely scented me and wouldn’t call again, I headed for home.
But they weren’t finished quite yet.
In an instant, the pack of canines sent another excited flurry of yelps and barks into the night air, this time from a hollow below a dirt road. I reversed course, slowly walked across the road and trekked into the woods following the calls with ease.
It was a thrill listening to the barking and yipping grow louder as I crept closer, but actually seeing the pack would be difficult. The moon may have been bright, but the light didn’t penetrate the forest floor.
I knelt by a tree and listened to the carrying on emanate out of the hollow below. It was the perfect Halloween backdrop, but the best was yet to come.
The Eastern coyote which inhabits Pennsylvania is larger than its cousin in the western U.S. Adult males can weigh 55 pounds or more while, in the western states, coyotes generally weigh between 25-30 pounds.
Genetic research suggests the Eastern coyote is actually part wolf, which would explain its larger size.
Scientists believe as western coyotes moved east, they cross-bred with wolves inhabiting Quebec and southern Ontario. Those coyotes carried the wolf gene into the U.S. as they moved into New York, Pennsylvania and other eastern states.
Perhaps that’s why when a coyote howls it evokes a feeling of true wilderness, even if it is in farmlands or suburbs.
And that’s exactly what I was hoping to hear — up close, as I tracked the coyote pack on this fall night.
Before long, the pack in the hollow grew silent and I guessed they had moved again. I headed back toward the hill where I began and sat in the grass for one last wait.
Ten minutes passed when I finally heard it. Hidden somewhere in an overgrown field on top of the hill, a coyote emitted a plaintive howl in a single, long note.
The howl rose in pitch, and intensity, wavered between two notes and quickly subsided.
A few seconds of silence followed before the night sounds returned to normal.
The coyotes howled no more but they had already made it clear that wild things roam throughout our nighttime landscape.