Posted by: SDHSPress | 11/12/2009

Halloween, Coyotes, and Cranes

Halloween, “hallowed eve,” is followed by the Day of the Dead. As we approach our longest nights, Americans and Mexicans face death, feigning fear and taunting symbols of death on Halloween, and communing with spirits of the dead. Having lost its spiritual aspect, Halloween is a night for costumes and masks, candy and outlandish acts. Across Mexico people gather in cemeteries November 2, washing gravestones, decorating tombs and offering food to loved ones lost.

On Halloween night a dozen friends sat around a bonfire with Norma and me beside the 1869 Severson log cabin. As the full moon cleared the eastern horizon, coyotes emerged from their dens and greeted the night. From then until midnight we were serenaded five times by choruses of coyotes, one pack hunting the corn fields and the narrow strip of brush and trees along Clay Creek to our south, another in our prairie and hills. The coyotes’ call is a blood-curdling cacophony of yips, wails and howls, the perfect accompaniment to the dark aura of Halloween. The exuberant yips and wails mean the pack is closing in on an unlucky cottontail or other prey, the most dramatic voice on our bluff.

I readily distinguish a lone coyote’s yip, and the practiced ear can separate the calls of a pair. But when more than two voices merge I hear discord that after years of straining, I cannot discern. Is it three, or half a dozen wailing at the moon? But on this night, one voice led the pack with sustained, hair-raising howls, while others added barks and yips. Whatever the makeup of the chorus or the reason for the cry, it brings joy to my heart; the presence of large predators is evidence of ecological health, of an ecosystem and a food chain achieving balance.

Following Halloween, the Day of the Dead dawned calm and clear. Trimming trees, I heard the distant chortle of sandhills cranes. I dropped my nippers and craned my neck toward the sky. Migrating sandhills fly at nearly stratospheric heights, so on windy days and in noisy places they pass overhead unheard. But this calm afternoon their trumpeting was distinct, and eventually I spotted them a mile up, a flock of four dozen lazily gliding south. I say lazily, because unlike geese, whose wings beat frantically and whose voices croak in seeming despair, cranes sail calmly in circles, riding thermal updrafts but with each revolution moving toward their southern winter home. The downside of their circuitous soaring is that a thousand-mile flight might require twice that many miles.

So what do the cranes have in common with the coyotes and me, we earth-bound neighbors for whom our cherished bluff is flyover country? Perhaps it is that Halloween and the Day of the Dead are mere figments of human imagination, rituals of death that have little to do with life. I raise a cheerful glass to Halloween and the Day of the Dead, and to coyotes, cranes and human friends, for this is the day and this is the world of life.


Don’t forget that if you would like to read more from Jerry, check out his book, Waiting for Coyote’s Call: An Eco-memoir from the Missouri River Bluff published by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press.



  1. I am headed back to the ranch, having worked in Abilene, and plan to write more about your post as soon as I have time to reflect. For now, I like your ability to distinguish coyote calls, communications. I raise a glass to your post. Thanks for making the day bearable with your observations.

  2. Thank you Jack.

  3. Some of us seek to help nature maintain a “good” ecological balance, like the yelps and wails of the coyotes you hear at the Missouri River Bluff indicating good health. I include myself gladly in the crowd that let things be. But, some “hunters,” blood sportsmen, in my area (and other places, too), kill to hang their “trophies” on their fences, upside down, side-by-side. It so disgusts me that I’ll take another highway to town or look the other way when I pass the Owens Ranch on the road to De Leon. My words to my wife, Brenda, when I see such atrocity, are inappropriate for my response to your post. I know this, and so does the wildlife in my area: if we can make to the Matthews place, there will be no killing. I have spent hours tearing down deer stand ladders nailed to old oak trees on my place. The deer come, they go. Coyotes yelp and wail and chase rabbits and fat field mice in pastures I have sown with native grasses. I may see horror on the fence posts of the Owens Ranch, but with the land I now reside on, I “see” a balance and I “hear” it, as you do, Jerry, at night. Thank you so very much for your posts.

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