Coyotes! – Who Knew?
Certainly not I, not really, even though I did know they were in the Northeast and, if it comes to that, in both of our home neighborhoods. In Maine, there’s a whole pack of ‘em in the woodland right across the road. We hear them often on summer nights, yipping and laughing and howling.
Here in the Hudson Valley we don’t hear them nearly as often – or as close – but we do see them from time to time, including just a couple of weeks ago in a field near our friend Ilana the chicken queen‘s farm.
And then we saw what looked like coyote tracks while we were out skiing. The post on skunk tracks is a perennial favorite, so I asked Bill if he’d consider doing a guest post guide to reading tracks in the snow.
He did. It’s far more than I bargained for. And so are the quite scary coyotes.
COYOTES, THOSE GAUNT DOGS OF WINTER
Part one: WHAT THE SNOW SAID
The snows of winter provide a record of the recent history of forest and field. Walking a piece of land this time of year reveals a natural history that is otherwise opaque and difficult to understand. Tracks left by the passing animals read like a book and even a halfway trained eye can see at a glance the recent history of those passing through snow and time. In such a scape, the forest comes to life, becomes immediate and compelling, as the snow reveals a world filled with activity, the activity of animals coming and going, animals interacting with one another, and animals interacting with the clumsy passage of the chance outside human visitor.
Although a bow hunter and an avid outdoorsman, I am nevertheless reluctant to venture out into the woods during the gun season for deer. I was therefore particularly eager to get out once the gun season ended and a week-long layer of snow covered the ground.
Luckily, Leslie and I live in an area where there are thousands of acres of undisturbed forest nearby: State Lands, private estates, educational and research facilities, camps and preserves, as well as the remains of farms gone fallow and otherwise vacant.
It was quite easy therefore to select a piece where I thought I would be alone, and could enjoy the blessings of nature. Here I rarely see any evidence of humans except on one or two paths skirting along an edge of this large tract of reforested farmland. Not far along one path I veered off and almost immediately found a set of deer tracks.
They were quite fresh: the edges were sharp, not yet eroded by wind or weather, and the tracks at the edge of the nearby stream were still muddy, evidence of a recent disturbance. At first I thought the deer probably spooked as I came up the trail, but by careful comparison of my tracks and those of the deer, I came to the conclusion that the deer probably passed by a half hour to hour before my arrival.
That appraisal was confirmed a few moments later when I came upon the tracks of a large canine following the deer. By following off to the side of the tracks, I quickly surmised that the tracks were probably those of coyote, not dogs, and that there were at least two, perhaps three coyote following the deer.
The deer apparently was being pushed by the coyotes. This, I thought, is a trail worth following, and so I did for the next two or three hours.
The tracks carried me far into the forest, always the coyote tracks coming over and therefore after, those of the deer. The largest set was persistent, dogged, never wandering far off the trail. Another set, or perhaps two of nearly identical size, seemed to join the trail for a period of time and then divert, returning again at a later juncture. And always my tracks were the last, obliterating everything underfoot.
At one point a yellow urine stain squarely midway between the 5″ to 6″ straddle of the larger sets of tracks indicated that one of the coyotes was a large female; I judged that she was being assisted by one or two smaller animals, possibly her young of the year. The urine stain was clean, with no trace of the blood tinge which might mark her estrus in the coming weeks. The snow was telling me a lot about this family.
And then, during one of those peculiar loops of the trail, miles from where we began, I found a set of my tracks with those of a coyote overlaying my bootprint. An immediate surge of adrenaline raced through my body as I realized what the snow said, that, at least momentarily, I had become the tracked, not the tracker.
Compared to the deer I was both soft and slow and during all of this time I had not seen another set of human tracks. Here I was all alone in the woods with a family of large presumable hungry canines. What an eerie feeling! I had become so immersed in the snow’s story that it was like slipping into a dream- space of natural drama. And in that space, the deer, the coyote and I had become equals.
It was not quite a panic, but I immediately broke off the trail and headed overland towards a place where I knew a path to be, thinking the next time I come I’ll bring a handgun, just to be safe, thinking about how bold the coyotes have become in this area, thinking about the kills I knew these 50 pound animals had made, the calves killed in Steven’s barnyard, the remains of the piebald deer I found near here last year, the dogs and cats killed in town, the stories of the German Shepherd which last fall had not survived an encounter with a family of coyotes…
This is a safe kind of fear, mostly a product of my imagination, both thrilling and non-rational, but it was with a sense of relief when I reached the trail to find both human tracks and those of someone’s faithful companion, a well fed, jaunty Golden Retriever perhaps, judged by the joyful, sloppy character of its tracks. These signs were as comforting to me as a fire on a cold day and I followed them to the highway which was still a mile off.
Back home I resolved to follow up on those coyote stories.
Part two: WHAT THE NEIGHBORS SAID
It is a well reported observation: After a few years of eclipse, the Coyotes are back. Grown accustomed to the suburban exurban environment of the north east they are more and more likely to be seen in broad daylight in our fields, forests and yards. Their nightly songs are quite common throughout the area. For many the coexistence has been harmonious, but for others, one fraught with anxiety and trouble.
The manager confirmed for me that in the children’s camp a family of three coyotes became so bold that by the end of summer they began to hound the young campers and then, once the camp closed, to dog the seasoned staff. A stalwart of the town also confirmed that this summer, in town, a small dog was trapped and killed on the porch of the family home. So too with several house cats. I was unable to verify the persistent rumors of the German Shepherd which did not survive an encounter with a group of Coyotes.
This is not completely new: Twenty years ago, at my previous home, a mini-farm surrounded by larger farms and thousand acre tracts of preserves, coyotes came into my barn in the spring to kill our nesting turkeys. They were notorious for monitoring cows about to deliver and then taking the calves during or shortly after labor. On a nearby dairy farm, several coyotes have been killed in the barnyard as they closed in on the expectant mothers. In one case they were actually eating the calf during the delivery process itself. An Angus calf in a back pasture of the neighbor’s farm I was helping to manage was lost when we misjudged the due date of the mother and coyotes took the newborn calf.
Coyotes are natural predators, and are usually wary of humans but increasingly the locals’ stories seem to indicate that they are dancing alongside us in tighter and tighter movements.
Part three: WHAT THE INTERNET SAID
It has been suggested that one of the factors involved in their ability to exploit a human dominated environment is the ability of coyotes to interbreed with domestic dogs. The most common term used is ‘coydog’ which technically refers to the male coyote (Canis latrans) – female dog (Canis lupus familiaris) offspring. The male dog, female coyote offspring is referred to as a ‘dogote’. Both hybrids are known to be fertile in controlled breeding experiments and assumed to be so in the wild as well. The introduction of familiaris genes into the latrans population is thought to influence both the growing size and boldness of the evolving eastern coyote population.
This coydog hybrid hypothesis is not without controversy. Although both species have compatible chromosomal arrangements (78 chromosomes arranged in 39 pairs), their natural breeding cycles and temperaments differ sufficiently so as to make the occurrence of hybrids rare. Coyotes usually go into heat in the winter, delivering springtime, while most domestic dogs come into heat so as to deliver in the winter. For more and photos of coydog hybrids, click here.
On the internet, several technical papers can be found in which discriminate morphological skull analyses indicate the occurrence of hybridizations, but most seem to conclude that these are not common. See here for a brief synopsis.
Whatever the factors, there are sizeable variations in the local coyote population from ‘Border Collie’ to ‘German Shephard’ in size and stature, between 35 to over 50 pounds in weight, and with marked color variation.. The adults that attacked the cows in Steven’s barnyard were about 50 pounds in weight and rangy in stature. I recall seeing their bodies completely filling the bed of his pick-up truck. These were about the size of the larger coyotes that I sometimes see in the fields and forests near my home, and whose tracks I often find in the winter woods. These eastern coyotes are considerably larger than the ones commonly seen out west.
Intermingled with these larger animals are ones which are noticeably smaller. The one Leslie and I saw in the field, for example, was on the small side. The difference in size is readably apparent when you see them in nature and also easy to see in the size of the tracks.
Searching through the internet, following a trail one link at a time is somewhat analogous to tracking natural signs. In following the ‘Eastern Coyote’ links a series of articles appeared that knocked my socks off and gave me the same eerie feeling I had when the coyote tracks appeared in my bootprints.
The first, from Scientific American, is a summary of very recent work done by Dr. Roland Kays, curator of mammals at the New York State Museum in Albany, and his associates. According to his team, genetic analyses of the Eastern Coyote indicates considerable hybridization between coyotes and wolves. The team concluded that mating between female coyotes and male wolves was abundant, that these coywolves have larger, stronger jaws and bigger skulls overall than the so-called straight western coyotes, and that perhaps most importantly this interspecies hybrid is not only fertile but has adaptive advantages over either the wolf or coyote in the human-modified environment of the Northeast. Furthermore, they found that it is common for members of the genus, Canis, including coyotes, wolves, and dogs, to “hybridize quite readily.”
More details can be found here, including this photo of a coywolf skull showing its wider width and more powerful jaws.
Dr. Kays describes the male as being larger than the female, with the hybrid population possessing a wider range in color variations. This hybridization, or exchange of genetic material between species, he points out, is a mechanism which allows for a more rapid adaptation to environmental changes than do mutations.
If those findings knocked my socks off, the following singed my toenails! A few months ago, in Nova Scota, a young woman walking alone along a trail was killed by a pair of coyotes. The attack was witnessed by other hikers who together drove off the coyotes.
A senior wildlife official in the same area described another occasion where he was repeatedly charged by a lone coyote. The wildlife official thwarted the attack by ‘not acting like a prey’ and gave the following advice: “Coyotes can be found in rural and urban area across Canada. They often shy away from humans, but if one does approach, here’s what to do:
- Be aggressive yourself: Wave your arms, stomp and yell loudly in a deep voice to deter it from coming closer.
- Stand your ground: Stay where you are and look it in the eye. Never run away; it is more likely to consider you prey, give chase and seriously harm you.
- Be prepared: The best defense is a good offence; carry a whistle, flashlight and/or personal alarm. This is especially important for small children who play outside or walk to school in areas where coyotes have been spotted.
- Stay together: If you are walking in an area that has high coyote activity, never do so without a companion.
- Don’t lure them with food: Coyotes are scavengers. If you have pets, feed them inside the house rather than leaving food outside, don’t leave meat scraps or products in compost buckets outside your house, keep regular compost in an enclosed area and ensure garbage bins have tight resealable lids to keep out animals.
“In situations like a national park [where] usually there’s no hunting and no trapping allowed, [coyotes] can get used to a human presence and not have much fear of any retribution.” He also advised hikers to carry a means of personal defense, such as a knife.
Jonathan Way has studied the coyote/human interactions in the Northeast for some time and, although clearly not an alarmist, and very ‘coyote friendly’ has nevertheless issued a similar set of advice, especially for those of us who have pets.”A one sentence summary of [his recommendations] is quite simple: To avoid most negative interactions from occurring with eastern coyotes, leash your dogs, don’t let your cat outside (after all it is a wild animal when outside hunting small animals), and don’t feed them.” For much more, see here.
The New York State Department of Conservation has listed a similar set of recommendations and points out the predator- prey message inherent in 1) humans having garbage accessible to coyotes (thereby associating the scent of humans with free food) and 2) humans acting like prey and retreating at the sight of coyotes. The result trains coyotes to actively treat and pursue humans as prey. See this and much more here.
This Cornell University study adds an edge to the issue that is both chilling and compelling.”Paul Curtis, an associate professor in the Department of Natural Resources, recently received funding for a five-year study on coyote ecology and behavior in urban and suburban areas of New York. Coyotes have become increasingly aggressive in recent years in southeastern New York State. Usually coyotes avoid humans, but they have been venturing into suburban neighborhoods and attacking pets. Curtis states, ‘This kind of aggressive behavior is usually the last stage before coyotes actually start attacking humans—such as small children that are perceived by the coyotes as a potential food source.'”
With a degree of timing that is uncanny, a neighbor just today sent me this link to a local news story of a woman in a suburb to our south, out for a walk in a local park, who suffered an attack by a coyote on 1/26/10.
Part four; Return to the woods: WHAT THE RAINS REVEALED
A warm and torrential rain in late January quickly melted all of the snow which had accumulated over the previous month and I took this opportunity to return to the area where I had tracked the coyotes which, in turn, were tracking the deer. In a situation such as this, rapid snow melt has the effect of collapsing time. The record of a month or more of activity can lay exposed as a single layer on the forest floor, largely undisturbed by the accretion of time. This record will come to be churned into chaos by the activity of creatures and growth of vegetation in the warmth of spring making interpretation much more difficult.
Again, I had not gone far into the woods, following the same trails and lay of the land where the coyotes took me a month earlier, when I spotted the first evidence of a deer kill.
These few tufts of deer hair, found far from any road, indicate a deer probably killed by predators rather than an automobile. The tufts were isolated, indicating that this was not the site of the kill, but instead represented a place where a portion of the kill had been carried for consumption. The site of the main kill would be nearby.
Circling the area, I soon found the probable site of the kill.
Large amounts of white hair covered the ground in one spot, indicating where the underbelly was opened. The ground there was also torn up with several small shrubs and the base of Cedar debarked. I could imagine the coyotes each tearing at the deer pulling it asunder, disturbing the surroundings. A sparse trail of hair led towards a stand of spruce and adjoining swamp.
Along the trail a small portion of the skeletal remains were found
and nearby more deer hair from the carcass.
Finally, near the Spruce stand were a few bits of long thin hair from the tail of the deer, part of the prized meaty, haunch section.
Finding more of the dead deer was not completely surprising. When a hunter harvests a deer in the forest it is usually eviscerated then dragged out of the woods. The soft stuff, the pile of guts, stomach, and offal disappears in a few days, often overnight. It is quite amazing how the scavengers, from coyotes, fox and ‘possums to birds such as vultures, crows and smaller songbirds will completely clean up the remains of a kill. Nature, it is said, is a mutual eating society, and in a harmonized ecosystem nothing goes to waste.
But most of the times, in a deer kill such as this, one is able to find the skull and vertebrae of the animal nearby. All the flesh and cartilage, and most of the ribs will have been eaten but the larger bones will remain, often to be consumed by rodents during the next year or so. The fact that no bones were found here suggests that the carnivore was large enough to carry off the larger, heavier pieces.
All of this, it seems to me, is consistent with the hypothesis that the prints I first found and followed were coyote, or coywolf as the newer evidence indicates, and that they were able to kill a young deer and either consume it entirely or drag it off to a cache far from the site of the kill. By inference, this is probably done several times a month in order for these large, fifty pound dogs to survive.
Part five: ECOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS
As we all know, the landscape and ecology of the northeast has undergone considerable change over the past fifty to sixty years, the post WWII era. The reasons seem clear.
A large network of highways and superhighways along with the corresponding increase in private automobiles has led to an urbanizing sprawl of development. Urban planners have for decades spoken of the Bos-Wash Corridor as a single megalopolis extending along the Eastern seaboard from Southern Maine to Virginia. Spreading outward from this complex are layers upon layers of suburban and exurban developments. During the last decade this type of expansion has been accelerated by the fearful reactions of a post 9/11 world, the speculative housing bubble caused by a deregulated financial system, and a skewed economic distribution system which has hugely favored the wealthy at the expense of our nation’s working classes.
At the same time a move towards a corporate dominated, integrated and monopolized agribusiness system has led to the collapse of the small family farms which once dominated the rural landscape.
Within a few miles of my home are dozens of hastily constructed, chipboard McMansion developments, their selling prices beginning at $500,000, filled with commuters driving SUV’s to workplaces which lie an hour or more away. On the hilltops overlooking these former corn fields is the former pasture land now owned and posted by an urban elite who visit periodically, usually on weekends.
In the late 1960’s, when I began teaching at Dutchess County Community College in Poughkeepsie, NY, each of my classes held enough students from farms that a discussion of concepts such as “10-10-10″,”nitrogen budgets”, “crop rotation”, “wildlife/ erosion buffer zones”, “non point-source pollution”, “food chains”, “predator-prey relationships”, or “carrying capacity” would flow easily and naturally from their farming backgrounds. In turn, this discussion would meld seamlessly and easily from the farm based ecology/economy upwards into a treatment of larger socially referenced systems, and downwards into a discussion of the workings of one’s own biological based psychological system.
By the time I retired in 2006 I was lucky if I had a single student in my class who had even visited a farm. For them, food was something their mom or dad picked up, prepackaged and ready to eat from the deli section of the A and P. Their cognitive templates were not based upon biological natural phenomena, but upon man-made digital constructions and the disposable gadgets accompanying this development: computers, games, MP3 files, animation videos, and transient cultural content. “Reality” it seemed, was something served up in TV shows and by a political base which proclaimed that “reality is whatever we say it is”.
The combined effect of the demographic changes sketched in above has been a major factor in exponential increase of the population of the White-tailed Deer across the northeast. And with this increase in the size of the deer herd, has come the rapid evolution of a new sub-species of coyote, the coywolf. “Change in one part of a system”, I used to tell my classes, “leads to changes throughout the entire system, most of which are unplanned, often unanticipated, many of which are undesired.”
According to records kept by the NY Department of Environmental Conservation, in 1954 there were 39,000 deer harvested by hunters in the state. By 2008 that number stood at 223,000, approximately a quarter of the size of the estimated 1,000,000 deer in the entire herd.
Nationally, the White-tailed deer population more than doubled during the two decades from 1980 to 2000, standing today at 30,000,000. Increasingly a larger number of deer are involved in automobile collisions, currently around 1.5 million a year according to the National Highway Safety Administration.
Many of these collisions occur during the rutting season when the males are in hot and constant pursuit of the females. During this sexually charged chase the normal caution of the deer simply dissolves as they run across forest field and highway. They are not being chased by hunters as some ‘animal lovers’ would like us to think. They are being driven by the increase in their natural hormone levels. (This incidentally seems to be common with most, if not all, species. Think of carp or salmon spawning, cardinals or robins competing for nest-mates and territory, the prowl of un-neutered house pets, the well publicized sexual proclivity of politicians, actors, or athletes, or, heaven forbid – and denied in full – by normal folks like you and me.) There are general discussions here and here . For technical details, see here.
Part six: GAME MANAGEMENT
Coyote and Deer, Predators and Prey, Hunters, The Hunted, the Food Chain and the Health of our Ecosystem: all are interrelated. It was Aldo Leopold recounting the overpopulation of Mule Deer on the Kaibab Plateau who asked us to “think like a mountain”. Just as the deer live in mortal fear of the wolf, he noted, the mountain lives in mortal fear of the deer. The health and ecology of much of the northeast today is being compromised by the size of our deer population and the pressure they place upon understory plants. Under continuous browse by deer the number and types of herbaceous and woody plants undergo systematic change. The ecosystem becomes degraded, less diverse and more fragile as plant species disappear and with them the birds and other animals which not only depend upon that vegetation for their own survival, but improve the robustness of the ecosystem as a whole. For more, see here.
On a more immediate, personal front, think of the problems you have in trying to garden. I know of no one in my neighborhood who can maintain even a small plot without deer fencing. Our entire property, in fact, is completely fenced off, even the driveways, in an effort to protect the plants around our house.
Leopold followed up with a now-famous corollary: When the hunter kills the wolf the hunter takes over the wolf’s job. This simple truth leads to concepts now familiar in game management circles.
With overpopulation, a major tool is to encourage the decline in numbers of breeding females. In deer management, this is usually accomplished by increasing the harvest of antlerless deer. The results can be striking, both with regard to speed and quality of recovery.
In the 1990’s, for example, the state of Pennsylvania was at the top of the list for both the large size and poor health of its deer herd. Beginning in 2002 a new policy of antler restriction was initiated. Immediate changes included a reduction of the size and composition of the herd and a concomitant increase in the size and health of the individual deer harvested. For more, see here.
Within this context the return of the wolf to the northeast – albeit this time a wolf in coyote clothing – is a perfectly natural phenomenon, the result of the failure of the hunter to do the job the mountain asks of him or her. Attempts to extirpate the coywolf conceivably could be initiated, but would be completely counterproductive without a corresponding effort to reduce the size of the deer herd. This is not a place where the tender-hearted plaints of those concerned with protecting ‘animal rights’ is likely to get much purchase. We are already killing the deer with kindness, and also, it seems, creating conditions perfect for the evolution of a new subspecies able not only to pare away at the excess deer population but also, it seems, poised to move on to new urban exploits.
The deer will be controlled by hunters, automobiles, coywolves or starvation and disease. Take your pick.
In the meantime when I plan to walk alone and quietly in the woods where the coywolf lives, I’ll probably follow the advice given above, and since I prefer to speak softly in the woods, blending into nature as best I can, I shall need to carry a big stick. How are you fixed for pepper spray?
Y’know, when I started this thing I thought it was just going to be a simple blog post illustrating animal tracks in the snow. I hope to return to that simple task next time.
Coming up soon (I hope): Foxes and Cats, ‘possums and ‘coons.