By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — There have been numerous coyote sightings in Amesbury over the past week, and one case near Whittier Meadows appears to have prompted the local homeowners association to cry wolf.
Last week, Whittier Meadows residents received an email warning them to be careful walking their dogs in the morning because two wolves were sighted in the area. Residents were understandably concerned, but city officials are skeptical that there are actually wolves in Amesbury.
“I would be surprised if they were wolves,” said Mayor Thatcher Kezer. “There are definitely coyotes and they are probably pretty healthy. I’ve seen them and heard them in my own backyard. I hear them all the time.”
According to the Amesbury police, there haven’t been any reported wolf sightings in town, and the state Environmental Police said they haven’t received any reports of wolves in the area either. Police Chief Mark Gagnon said it was highly probable that the “wolves” in question were just big coyotes.
The confusion might be well-founded, however, given that there is evidence most coyotes living in eastern Massachusetts are actually coyote/wolf hybrids.
Dr. Jonathan Way, who is an expert on eastern coyotes, has researched the subject and had his and a group of other scientists’ findings published in the Northeastern Naturalist journal in 2010. In this report, the group found that Massachusetts-area coyotes have genetic material found in both western coyotes and eastern wolves.
“These results indicate that the eastern coyote should more appropriately be termed “coywolf” to reflect their hybrid origin,” the report said.
These coywolves tend to be larger than ordinary coyotes and bear closer resemblance to wolves, which would explain why some might mistake them for wolves at first glance.
After the reported sighting at Whittier Meadows, a pack of large coyotes was spotted on nearby Fern Avenue. A Pleasant Valley Road resident also reported finding unusually large tracks in the snow, which would suggest that the wolves in question were likely coywolves.
There have also been reports of coywolves at Woodsom Farm this past week as well, with one large male leading around a group of four or five smaller animals.
Coywolves have been spotted in other areas of eastern North America too, and a 2009 Toronto Star report described the animals as being highly adaptive with the wolf characteristic of pack hunting and aggression with the coyote characteristic of not being afraid of human environments.
Despite being larger and bolder than western coyotes, the animals are common in Boston-area suburbs and rarely pose any danger to humans. In general, coywolves prefer hunting smaller prey and most accounts of coyotes coming into people’s yards or porches tend to stem from the homeowner leaving food outside for their pets.