Archive for November, 2015


If you didn’t know any better, you’d think some velociraptors were out stalking the mist.

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coyote  eastern

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been seen this article from The Economist, claiming that we’re seeing the evolution of a new species of canid that is a hybrid coyote and wolf.

It’s interesting, but I don’t think that just because we have a coyote that has hybridized with wolves and domestic dogs means that a new species is suddenly evolving. Rather, it’s a good example of how some introgression with a related species can provide some potential benefits to a species as it enters new ecosystems.

But the popular naming of this animal is coywolf. To me that suggests that the animals is a 50/50 mix, but the closest we have to 50/50 animals that are 50/50 coyote and wolf crosses are those in parts of Ontario, especially Algonquin Park. Those wolves are around 60 percent wolf and 40 percent coyote .

Most Eastern coyotes are still overwhelmingly coyote in ancestry.

This has led Roland Kays, one of the world’s leading authorities on coyote and wolf genetics (and one of the discoverers of the olinguito), to write this piece in The ConservationHe writes:

Coyotes in the Northeast are mostly (60%-84%) coyote, with lesser amounts of wolf (8%-25%) and dog (8%-11%). Start moving south or east and this mixture slowly changes. Virginia animals average more dog than wolf (85%:2%:13% coyote:wolf:dog) while coyotes from the Deep South had just a dash of wolf and dog genes mixed in (91%:4%:5% coyote:wolf:dog). Tests show that there are no animals that are just coyote and wolf (that is, a coywolf), and some eastern coyotes that have almost no wolf at all.

My little quibble, which is more a gentlemen’s disagreement, is that dogs are part of Canis lupus in the same way that Pekin duck is part of Anas platyrhynchos. They are just domestic variants of a widespread wild species.  Pekin ducks have lost most of their brooding instincts, which means they don’t exist anywhere but captivity. One could say the same thing about bulldogs, which usually cannot free-whelp. They simply wouldn’t exist in the wild, but I think that doesn’t give them a distinct species status.

However, even if we count the dog content in Eastern coyotes as wolves, they are still overwhelmingly coyote in their genetic makeup. If that’s the case, then I think it’s much more fair to call them Eastern coyotes.

If you’re going to call this a coywolf, then you’re going to have call yourself (if you’re not of Sub-Saharan African ancestry) a “humadenisothal.” That’s because modern humans who have origins out of Sub-Saharan Africa have Neanderthal in them, and those who have ancestry in Melanesia and Australia have genes from the now extinct Denisova hominin. All of us are still overwhelmingly Homo sapiens in ancestry, but some humans have the genes of other extinct hominins. It doesn’t mean that we’re all different species. It’s just that different populations have experienced introgression.

Kays is very cognizant of the issues around calling this animal a “coywolf”:

There are many examples of bad animal names that cause a lot of confusion.

The fisher is a large type of weasel that does not eat fish (it prefers porcupines). The mountain beaver of the Pacific Northwest is not a beaver and does not live in the mountains. And then there’s the sperm whale…

We don’t get many opportunities to name new animals in the 21st century. We shouldn’t let the media mess up this one by declaring it a new species called the coywolf. Yes, there are wolf genes in some populations, but there are also eastern coyotes with almost no wolf genes, and others that have as much dog mixed in as they do wolf. “Coywolf” is an inaccurate name that causes confusion.

The coyote has not evolved into a new species over the last century. Hybridization and expansion have created a host of new coyote variations in the east, and evolution is still sorting these out. Gene flow continues in all directions, keeping things mixed up, and leading to continual variation over their range, with no discrete boundaries.

Could evolution eventually lead to a coyote so specialized for eastern forests that they would be considered a unique species? Yes, but for this to happen, they would have to cut off gene flow with nonhybrid animals, leading to distinct types of coyotes that (almost) never interbreed. I think we are a long way from this possibility.

For now, we have the eastern coyote, an exciting new type of coyote in the midst of an amazing evolutionary transition. Call it a distinct “subspecies,” call it an “ecomorph,” or call it by its scientific name Canis latrans var. But don’t call it a new species, and please, don’t call it the coywolf.


However, if we want to make things more confusing. We’ve gone down this path of naming all sorts of wild dogs “wolves” for quite some time now. The Falklands wolf or warrah was actually closely related to the maned or “red” wolf. “Red wolf” is the direct translation from the Russian for the animal we call a dhole, and one way to interpret the scientific name of the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) is “painted wolf.”

Coyotes are very closely related to wolves and dogs. They are something like 99.3 percent genetically similar.

And now that we’ve started to use molecular data to classify the dog family, we’ve generated several new “wolves” that aren’t part of Canis lupus. For example, when I was a child, Canis simensis was the Simien jackal.  Mitochondrial DNA analysis suggested it was closer to wolves than other African canids, so we started calling it the Ethiopian wolf.  Now we know it’s not that closely related to Canis lupus, but we still call it by that name.  My guess is that it is easier to get people interested in conserving a unique form of wolf than it is to get people to want to conserve a uniqiue form of jackal.

We also now know that African golden jackals are more closely related to wolves and coyotes than to Eurasian golden jackals, and we’re now moving to calling African golden jackals “golden wolves” (Canis anthus).

However, if we start calling the African canids “golden wolves,” why aren’t we calling the coyote something like “the lesser North American wolf.” A coyote is much more closely related to Canis lupus than the golden wolves of Africa are.

So you can see that it’s not that trivial what we call this animal.

Of course, calling the Eastern coyote a “coywolf” just adds to the mystique of this animal, and it certainly has plenty of mystique.

Most people in the US don’t live near any wolves. The last wolf in West Virginia was killed around the year 1900. The nearest wolves to me are in Michigan’s lower Peninsula, where they were discovered just a few months ago.

Yet we’ve come to think of wolves as a symbol of the wilderness we’ve lost.

So when the media says that we have “coywolves” running around, then it makes us feel that some of that wild mystery is running about.

Well, it certainly is, but using this term doesn’t help our understanding of what is happening.

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Oh West Virginia!

mon black suspect

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This it totally false. This coyote is alive!

150 pound coyote!

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The dog’s name is Tanne (German for fir tree):


This is illegal in West Virginia. Dogs cannot be used to hunt deer in any way, but the laws are not well-enforced.

The reason why it’s illegal is that deer were nearly wiped out with market hunters using hounds.

I think this something that should be revised. The dogs are not being used to hunt the deer. They are being used to recover wounded game, which is a very ethical thing to do.

We do it with game birds and migratory waterfowl. Why not with deer?

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I’m always excited when I get a coyote on the trail camera. Coyotes here are elusive, There is no closed season on them, and humans here are armed and hate coyotes. Ever since we met up with coyotes, the selection pressures have been for a sort of cunning paranoia.  This one spent more time sniffing around than the other ones I’ve been able to catch on camera. The Primos camera make so much noise and flash so much light that they quickly scare off more elusive predators. The new Moultrie 1100i did the job well.

I should note that when i first got the thumbnail of this video, I was certain that I’d got yet another opossum on it. Opossums are interesting in their own freaky way, but they aren’t interesting enough to get posted here.

But it’s nice to get a brush wolf, my highest value target.

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mule deer in WI

One of the more interesting stories of the past week comes out of Polk County, Wisconsin. A bow-hunter killed a mule deer.

That may not sound so weird, but the thing is mule deer are a Western species. Wisconsin is home to white-tailed deer, which are the most common species of deer in the East and Midwest.

The bow-hunter who took the deer is named Randy Haines, and when he saw the nice little buck get within range he took it.

A relative of Haines took this photo of the mule deer from his tree stand before Haines managed to kill it:

Wisconsin mule deer

The tail gives it away. If you didn’t see the weird forked antlers, you’d still know that you were looking at mule deer by that scraggly tail with the black top.  And if that didn’t give it away, if you spook a mule deer it stots like an impala, while white-tailed deer are quick bounders.

What this deer is doing in Wisconsin is a good question. The nearest mule deer to Wisconsin are in the Dakotas. The mule deer had no tags on it that would indicate that it had been on a deer farm, but that seems like the most obvious answer. However, there is no proof that it is a deer farm escapee.

Because we have had such good public management of deer in the US, we know where each species belongs. This is unlike England, where only two species of deer are native and it’s not exactly clear where their historic ranges were. England’s deer were managed using the deer park system, which is not entirely different from the private deer farms that are being promoted in some parts of this country. In both systems, deer are confined to an acreage and managed as a private entity. Deer that aren’t even native to the region, such as fallow deer (the epitome of a park deer), are brought in. If private hunting ranches in Texas are bringing in axis deer, it would make sense that a private deer preserve in Wisconsin would be trying to stock mule deer.

But this raises important questions about private deer operations. The American model of wildlife conservation is based upon the wildlife being managed as a public trust. When we start allowing people to keep large preserves full of monstrous white-tails and exotic deer, we are undercutting what has worked with deer management here.

The specter of chronic wasting disease is always on the horizon with these private deer operations, and if it winds up hitting the publicly held deer herds, then it will be upon the taxpayer to fix the problem.

So yes, it’s really cool that someone did kill a mule deer in Wisconsin, but let’s hope it’s the last.

For the sake of the deer and deer hunting.

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Why I hunt

young deer

We live in interesting times. I think everyone who has ever lived has had this thought on his or her mind. Our times are always interesting. I guess because we’re living them and not any others.

But to be alive in this century is to see what happens when the bulk of humanity is removed from the life processes that produced us and all other life on the planet. Our lives are very much alienated from the rest of living things. We know ecology only from what we see on television or read in books. Most of us don’t give much thought to how an overpopulation of deer can destroy a forest, and most of us don’t  realize that coyotes are boon to songbirds when they kill feral cats.

Nature is an abstraction. It is what lies beyond the greenbelts and stands of concrete and steel. Never mind that all of those things came from nature itself, and that all things are part of nature. Not a single thing that exists that you can see, touch, hear, smell, or taste is anything but nature or nature with some sort of refinement on it.

Ever since we domesticated fire, we’ve had abilities that other creatures never could. With fire we can cook meat. With fire we can clear a patch of scrub and allow new growth to come in. And that new growth is good nutrition for ungulates. And ungulates are good nutrition for us.

But we’ve come a long way from knapping flint into arrowheads and making fires with little sticks. We now have the capacity to change the climate or obliterate most of the world’s biodiversity with a few rounds of nuclear missile exchange.

With this alienation has come a desire for an ethic, and as the world becomes more and more interconnected and more and more secular, there comes a questing for what is the true moral way to relate to the world. In this modern age, ideas about animal rights have come to the fore. More and more people are choosing the vegan or vegetarian diet, but from I’ve read, it has a high attrition rate.

But there are questions about animals now that weren’t asked in the past. I don’t think this is a bad thing at all. We should be asking these questions. At one time, it was acceptable to dissect a live dog on a table, and his plaintive howls would be dismissed as being nothing more than those coming from a machine.

But I don’t think we will ever have a world in which no animals are used for food or killed to protect crops or manage their populations. The idea that this utopia will come to pass is an utter pipe dream. We no longer live on the edge of wilderness. In fact, no one really does anymore. All that is wild and free really exists only because civilization either allows it or has no good reason to destroy it.

And that which we allow to exist must be managed.

I must confess now that I am what is called an adult onset hunter. I grew up hunting squirrels in woods with my grandpa, and I went deer hunting a few times as a teenager. But I didn’t feel connected to it.

What’s worse is that I went through a bleeding heart stage during my college years. I was disgusted with the Iraq War, Republicans, and “gun culture.” I wanted nothing to do with killing animals.

Around that same time, I watched a beloved dog die of brain cancer.

I began to think about animals more and more. I read far lots of books by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson about animal emotions, and I deeply admired his sensitivity toward animals.

At some point in graduate school, I began to question the new animal rights ideas. I began to think more and more about the evolution of our species. We really weren’t much of anything until we learned to be efficient predators. We started hunting before we were fully modern. Homo habilis was hunting for meat 2 million years ago. And we know that humans were living off big game pretty much where ever we were.

It’s an odd story that this one lineage primate would wind up competing with lions and wolves as the top predators, and it’s even odder still that we’ve largely dominated over them. That is what you get with a big brain, opposable thumbs, and a desire to hunt for meat.

So if humans have spent that much of our evolutionary past as hunters and if we have all these game populations to be managed, isn’t ethical hunting the morally responsible thing to do?

Hunting is in my ancestry, and you don’t have to go to Olduvai Gorge to find it. One of my ancestors was a German-speaking frontiersman by the name of Sommers (now Summers).  He became a well-known bear hunter in the Northwest Virginia frontier and is said to have killed twelve bears before noon on a single day. He made his living as market hunter and fur-trapper but lost his fortune after investing in some bad public bonds.

My family on both sides were hunting people. I come from the general sort of yeoman farmer-hunter-trapper that once populated most of America but lived long and legendarily in the Alleghenies. Both my grandfathers kept foxhounds at one point on their lives. My mother’s father was running hounds until his health began to fail, and my father’s father kept Norwegian elkhounds for hunting squirrels and varmints. They both loved hunting deer in the bleak November rutting time.

I hunt because I am human, and I hunt to remember my ancestors, to honor my grandfathers and their grandfathers before them. It is a deeply personal thing that only someone who has had a grandfather who took them hunting can truly appreciate.

Five years ago, if you had told me that I would be a hunter with a crossbow, I would have told you to get lost. Crossbows were illegal for all hunters but the disabled in West Virginia anyway, and I was really worried about wounding a deer a with an arrow.

It was then that I became aware of the broadheads with expanding blades. When these broadheads hit the deer, they expand and make a pretty large hole in the animal. If you hit it in the right place, it quickly bleeds out and dies. There is none of this sticking the animal with an arrow and letting it suffer for a few days or weeks before it dies of infection.

Further, West Virginia did legalize crossbows for general hunting purposes– for bears, “wild boar,” and white-tailed deer. I also discovered that the new crossbows were as accurate as a rifle at short distances.

So with a crossbow, one can quickly and humanely kill a deer. All you have to do is be able to shoot a gun.

And to sit quietly and watch the deer.

The truth is most of hunting isn’t killing. It’s only the culmination of the act. Most of hunting is observing the animals, reading its sign, and scouting out its habits. You get to appreciate the deer as deer. You almost see them as a nation unto themselves, like a rebel band that lives at the edge of society but is never fully dominated by it.

I can think of no greater satisfaction than watching a homely three-point buck smack down some chestnuts on a balmy October evening.

It’s not about killing the deer. It is coming to know the deer.

And that is why I hunt. I seek not the glory in the suffering of creatures, but I seek camaraderie with the old ways, the ones that are being lost now and have continued to winnow away as each generation passes.

For a limited time, I am part of it.

And then I return to the alien world of man once again,

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I set out some chicken gizzards and hearts for the local carnivorans, and when they didn’t come by, the “carrion birds” had a picnic in the hard November frost.

The title of this post is “Buzzard wars,” and if you are looking for something that looks like a vulture, then I know you’re an American. For some odd reason, we Americans decided to call New World vultures, which are mostly obligate scavengers, “buzzards.”  Almost all other hawks in the genus Buteo are called “buzzards.”

It is certainly true that there are no Old World vultures native to the British Isles, and it’s also true that New World and Old World vultures aren’t that closely related. (How closely related they are is still a hot debate).

However, I think I would have called the red-tailed hawk “the red-tailed buzzard.” I mean look at them! These birds are known in England, and one would think that the first time they saw a red-tailed hawk, the colonists would realize they are so similar to each other.

It is just another example of how our naming of wildlife on this continent is so screwy.

In this video, you will see a red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus), a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), and several crows compete over some chicken livers.  Crows fear large hawks and often mob them to drive them off. They also compete over carrion, which will happen more and more often now that the turkey vultures have started to move south.

I will warn you that one of these hawks makes a sound that might make you jump a bit. It’s not exactly expected when it happens!

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Over the years, I’ve made mention of the fact that English shepherds are a very common breed in West Virginia. Indeed, I knew what an English shepherd was long before I’d ever heard the words “border collie.”  English shepherds are pretty common in the Eastern and Midwestern US.

But only in the rural areas. In most towns around here, many people adopt “collie mixes” without ever knowing what they actually have.

They are derived from the farm dogs of the British Isles, with maybe a little bit of German, Swiss, or Native dog crossed in. They very strongly resemble the “shepherd’s dogs” that were commonly published in eighteenth and nineteenth century texts about dogs in the British Isles. He has the same broad head and curled tail, as well as the common black and white color. In America, they were used for livestock herding, but they were also used to guard properties and hunt game.

This dog came into area, probably because the gut pile from my deer isn’t 100 yards away in the woods behind the camera.

So Ol’ Shep was enjoying him a taste of raw green tripe, and no one had to spend a fortune on it.

Yes, these old dogs are pretty common, but I never thought I’d catch one on the trail camera!

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