It’s evening in West Cape May, and the fire alarm is ringing. I’m honestly not sure of all the reasons that may trigger this alarm—I’m aware of only a few actual fires in my tenure in West Cape May—but the alarm does go off with some regularity. When I hear it, though, my ears sharpen — because it’s almost guaranteed that following the last siren I will hear something entirely unrelated to the alarm:
Yes, there are packs of wild coyotes in West Cape May, and the fire alarm is one time you can count on hearing their yelping and howling (you may also hear one of the resident pairs of Barred Owls start calling as well, as they seem to be equally stimulated by the fire siren). Other times I’m simply sitting out on my back deck in the evening, where I can hear the rumble of the ocean against the sand five blocks south of my yard. There, too, the Cape May coyotes wander, in The Nature Conservancy South Cape May Meadows. I hear the young pups yelping on summer evenings, as they hunt rodents along the paths and through the marsh. I confirm their presence on subsequent hikes when I spot impressive coyote poop on a morning run. As rodent specialists their scat is full of hair, but also berries, as they are quite omnivorous (seasonal locavores, really).
Coyotes get a bad rap across their range, considered “vermin” in literature and among hunters. I remember taking my firearms training when I took up deer hunting back in graduate school. The instructor told us that once we filled our deer tags, we could spend the rest of the day “shooting as many coyotes as you can get your sights on.”
I remember that bothering me, as the reason I took up hunting in the first place was because the deer in Somerset County, New Jersey, were literally mowing down the forest understory. This has grave consequences for a whole suite of songbirds who nested in the understory and has been demonstrated to facilitate the invasion of forest from highly aggressive plants like Multiflora Rose, Barberry, and Japanese Stilt Grass, just to name a few of the many species that don’t belong in this region and absent of natural competitors, effectively take over the endemic forests. Coyotes are the only natural predator of deer, and even then, they only really manage to take very young, sick, or old individuals. It’s an important ecological role, regardless. Instead, we’ve actively hunted them because of their historic role of chicken-coop-raider, and thus the honor of top deer “predator” has been given instead to the modern automobile (although many cars, and some drivers, don’t make it out unscathed).
Here in Cape May, coyotes, along with other predators, do pose a threat to protected species, especially beach-nesting birds…but like any predator, the main food source isn’t the rarest species, but rather the common rodents on our island paradise. According to the state of New Jersey, the first report of a coyote in the state was back in 1939, near Lambertville, in Hunterdon County, but the sightings until the 1980s were sporadic at best. Since 1980 though, the population of coyotes, thought to be emigrating from the west and north, has grown exponentially and today is estimated at several thousand statewide. Interestingly, Cape May County, along with several counties in the northwest part of the state, was one of the first municipalities to document the eastern coyote, as far back as 1948.
It would take until the 1990s for the surrounding municipalities to see coyote sightings increase, at which point there was almost a contiguous landscape where coyotes roamed from Cape May Point to High Point in the northwest corner of the state. As for the hotspots in our area, Cumberland County, with its extensive rural mosaic of farm and forest, remains a stronghold. But with the landmass of Cape Island being so small, even a few coyotes can be quite obvious. Of course, “obvious” is not often a word used to describe coyotes. Shy creatures that will slink away into the brush, marsh, or woods at the sight or smell of a human, they are seldom seen, but once that West Cape May fire siren goes off, you quickly realize how many are present. Although, scanning the farm fields off New England Road in The Nature Conservancy, you can also realize how many are present.
I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty smitten with our wolf cousins, and they add just that much more wildness to the Wild West Cape May I’m fortunate to call home. Now you’ll excuse me while I go howl at the moon and see if I get a response. n