January 17th – A Full Wolf Moon

January 17th – A Full Wolf Moon

Monday evening brings the Wolf Moon, the first full moon of the new year with peak illumination at 6:51 p.m. Look for it to rise from the northeastern horizon around sunset.

In New England, and all the way west to Lake Superior, we use the traditional names given by the Algonquin peoples for the full moons. Why is January the Wolf Moon? According to legend, January is when wolves are most likely to be heard howling. Long ago it was thought wolves howled in January because of hunger, but we now understand wolf howling is done for several reasons – to identity and claim territory, locate mates and pack members, organize hunting and strengthen the pack’s social bond.

Today, there are no wolves left in our region to howl at the full moon, as they have been long extirpated from this part of the country as an apex predator. But perhaps we should consider changing the name of the January full moon to the Eastern Coyote Moon, the canid species that has supplanted the wolf. My guess is all readers of this column have heard the howl of the eastern coyote (as well as their other varied vocalizations). That sound, on a cold winter night, can send a shiver up your spine, just as the sound of a wolf howl may have once done for the inhabitants of this region prior to the mid-18th century.

The region’s connection to the wolf dates to its earliest human inhabitants. The Mohegan people of the region call themselves the wolf people. The first sentences of the Mohegan mission statement say “We are the Wolf People, children of Mundo, a part of the Tree of Life. Our ancestors form our roots, our living Tribe is the trunk, our grandchildren are the buds of our future.”

There are many regional tales of wolves. Schoolchildren learn about 18th century military hero Israel Putnam, who as a younger man crawled on his stomach into a hillside cave and armed with his trusty flintlock dispatched the last marauding wolf of Connecticut. The legend and story are the reason for cast metal wolf heads adorning Putnam’s final resting place and tomb located in Brooklyn near the intersection of Rts. 6 and 169.

Hatred and fear of wolves ran deep in the European colonists. “It is painful to hear the contrast between the stories of Native Americans, in which the wolf figured as a powerful fellow creature, and those of the early Europeans, who saw it as a frightening competitor, a granny-eater and tempter of little girls, or as a sort of fiend that could eat every member of the wedding party when their sleights overturned in deep snow,” wrote Catherine Reid in  “Coyote: Seeking the Hunter in our Midst.”

But it was that very same fear that provided an opportunity for coyotes to move east. The absence of eastern apex predators such as wolves and mountain lions made room for coyotes to wander east.

So how did the coyote not only end up here, but also evolve into something different from its western counterparts? “Coyotes had never been seen in the northeastern U.S. before the 1940s. When the animal was first spotted, no one knew what it was: a cross between coyotes and dogs? Small wolves? Genetic studies show the eastern coyote is actually a hybrid, whose recent ancestors were gray wolves from southeastern Ontario and Quebec and western coyotes from Michigan, Ontario and Minnesota,” wrote Sy Montgomery in “The World Out Your Window: Exploring Nature Near at Hand,” from the chapter Letting the Coyotes Stay Wild. Additional DNA research has shown there is also some feral dog in the eastern coyote.

Located near my house, somewhere tucked into the thick woods on either side of our back pasture is a den used by a breeding pair of coyotes. I have seen their tracks crossing our field, usually together and sometimes solo, back and forth between the two wooded parcels. Our field is not only a safe, obscured avenue for travel but also a hunting ground for voles, mice and rabbits who live there.

Several times our nightly slumber has been interrupted by the howls and calls of the adult pair and their pups. On one occasion I watched in awe when a large male leapt onto the stonewall separating our yard from the field. From the kitchen window I watched it for several minutes as it stood there, lifting its head in the direction of the house to sniff the air. I turned away for a moment and it was gone. Mostly, I see their tracks, and if I am lucky enough, find their “scat” calling card by the pasture gate, letting me know they’d stopped by for a visit.

Monday, on the night of the Wolf Moon, I’ll take a walk to the back pasture. I just might hear the call of the eastern coyote. I’ll listen to that single lonely voice and hope to hear a response from a second coyote further away. I’ll imagine the response howl eliciting another response further away, and then another and another until the echo of their call reaches to some distant mountaintop.

We are fortunate to live in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor, with moon and star-filled skies and so many fascinating creatures — including one that is part wolf, part coyote, part dog — the eastern coyote, living and thriving among us.

In addition to the sources quoted above, information for this column was gleaned from The Farmer’s Almanac, the website Moonconnection.com, and the website for the Mohegan Tribe.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and can be reached at 860-774-3300 or bill@tlgv.org.

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