This essay about the coywolf was originally published as part of “The Great Canadian Creature Feature” in the June/July issue of Cottage Life.
Animals are oblivious to national borders. Their habitats pay no heed to lines on a map; birds and herds migrate across them at will. They were roaming the landscape long before those lines were drawn anyway. No nation can ever truly lay claim to any one beast as its national animal.
The coywolf is, quite possibly, the only known exception to this rule. It is the rarest of breeds: a new species of hybrid origin, a mammal forged before our eyes. The coywolf is younger than zoology, younger than even Canada itself, having emerged only in the last 75 to 100 years.
The coywolf’s origins trace deep into Canada’s cottaging heartland. In the early 20th century, as North America’s population grew and its landscape was colonized, the eastern wolf population (Canis lycaons) was hit hard. Facing a habitat squeeze and eradication campaigns, the wolves headed north from the eastern seaboard and the St. Lawrence lowlands. By the 1950s their few remaining numbers had found safe haven in and around Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park. That’s when they met up with some western coyotes (Canis latrans) who, facing similar habitat pressures, had migrated from the American midwest and the central plains region of Canada.
So began the greatest-ever dirty weekend in the history of cottage country. For the coyotes, it was probably not love at first sight. The western gray wolf (Canis lupus) kills coyotes, so the idea of getting cozy with its eastern cousin probably seemed a bit dodgy. But eastern wolves, being significantly smaller than western ones, were a lot less intimidating. They were also eagerly seeking to diversify the gene pool, so they’d have been in a welcoming frame of mind. Plus both were new to the area, and there’s no better icebreaker than “where you from?”
The courtship turned out to be quick, and the marriage mind-blowingly successful. Their offspring are acknowledged by scientists as a species of hybrid origin: zoologists call them “eastern coyotes” and the rest of us call them “coywolves.” (For taxonomy nerds, they are known as “Canis latrans var.,” or “coyote variant.”) Coywolf is the better name, given that the species is a perfect fusion of its ancestors’ inherent traits, to the point of practically wielding mutant superpowers.
The coywolf’s size falls somewhere between wolves and coyotes, weighing in at roughly 45 pounds on average—small enough for stealth and agility, but big enough to throw its weight around. They can be loners or travel in packs. They can hunt together to take down deer, or subsist happily on rabbits, birds, and berries, or shop for groceries, ie., raid a chicken coop.
But perhaps their most remarkable trait is their habitat adaptability: they can live anywhere. And at a time when the combined pressures of ongoing habitat loss and accelerating climate change are putting more and more species at risk, the coywolf is kicking everybody’s ass. Like wolves, they are comfortable in the wild, but like coyotes, they’re not perturbed by human settlement. They happily nest and hunt amid rolling hills, farmland, and even in urban areas. Across eastern Canada and the New England states and as far south as Virginia, the “coyotes” people keep seeing in their backyards are most likely Algonquin Park coywolves, busy reconquering the continent.
So in addition to being made in this country, the coywolf’s traits are clearly and distinctively Canadian. We all love our big-city amenities, as well as the joys of escaping them. We know how to nest in any habitat; there’s no landscape we can’t call home. We can get along with just about anyone, and we believe there is strength in diversity. Truly, we are all coywolves.
Facts & figures
Let’s talk about sex, baby: Unlike some other hybrid species—mules, hinnies, ligres—coywolves are fertile and can reproduce.
And the winner is… Scientists call coywolves “the most adaptable mammals on the planet.”
A wolf in alternate clothing: For a long time, people thought coywolves were just large coyotes.
Read more essays from “The Great Canadian Creature Feature” to read more of our favourite writers making the case for their pick for the most Canadian animal in the June/July 2021 issue of Cottage Life.