Christmas Bird Count Coyote

While looking for birds during the Audubon Christmas Bird Count on a cold, early-January day, my team of birders had the unexpected and delightful surprise to witness a beautiful coyote taking in some sunshine. Although I regularly come in close contact with coyotes at AWARE (and wrote about helping to raise and release coyotes in Back to the Wild), seeing a healthy one in the wild, even at a distance, was thrilling. I’m reassured to know enough wildness still exists where I live for these amazing animals to survive, yet I worry for their safety, too. Unfortunately, coyote sightings still make most people uneasy, and they continue to be persecuted on a national level.  How has the dog achieved the status of “Man’s Best Friend,” while its wild cousins, especially the coyote, continue to be feared and persecuted?

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Without our binoculars, I don’t think we would have ever spotted this coyote.

In order to understand why coyotes are so misunderstood, a few historical facts are worth mentioning. In the early history of wildlife management, as our nation expanded westward, Americans generally agreed that predators such as wolves, coyotes, and panthers should be killed indiscriminately. In 1909, under pressure from livestock owners, Congress began funding a large-scale predator control program aimed at large carnivores from eagles to bears. Both the Red Wolf and the Gray Wolf were completely wiped out in the United States in the ensuing decades and have only recently been reintroduced to the American landscape. Sadly, this predator control program persists even today with the government killing approximately 100,000 carnivores each year–using methods that include trapping, aerial gunning, poisoning, and killing young in their dens–and spending an estimated $100 million of our annual federal budget, with very little regulation, to do it. Coyotes are targeted in particular. Statistics provided by the United States Department of Agriculture indicate that more than 75,000 coyotes were killed in 2013 (The Toll Taken by Wildlife Services). Although most livestock losses come from weather, disease, illness, and birthing problems, coyotes continue to be persecuted, in spite of the vital role they play in maintaining healthy ecosystems. These federally-funded predator control activities, driven by narrow agricultural interests, kill untold numbers of non-target animals and ignore the public need for a healthy environment, fiscal responsibility, and safe public lands.

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Coyotes play an integral role in healthy ecosytems and pose little threat to humans, livestock, or pets when a few precautions are taken.

Little suggests these control measures are working anyway. In spite of persecution from humans, coyotes not only have failed to decline in numbers, but have expanded their range in all directions, flourishing in a wide range of habitats from the Canadian tundra to metropolitan cities. In fact, scientists and wildlife officials estimate coyote numbers to be at an all-time high, and studies show that efforts to reduce the population usually end up increasing it instead. In short, the resilient and resourceful coyote is an amazing evolutionary success. Many factors have contributed to this success. Until recent decades, coyotes lived only in western North America, often in harsh, dry climates with scorching days and freezing nights that enabled them to adapt to a wide variety of conditions. The eradication of wolves boosted coyote populations, both by eliminating their biggest predator and by making more prey available to them. Humans further contributed to the coyote’s expanding range by clearing forests and creating fragmented habitats ideal for small mammals, the coyote’s favorite prey. And, interestingly enough, many wildlife biologists argue that the overkill of the species has served only to transform the coyote into a more adaptable, intelligent, and indestructible animal since the individuals that escape the guns, traps, and poisons are those that possess the keenest survival instincts. Studies also show that efforts to control coyote populations actually cause a population increase within a short time. In a stable family group (a breeding pair and one or two offspring, known as a “pack”), only the alpha male and female reproduce, keeping the population in check. When individuals are killed and more resources become available, females tend to have larger litters with higher survival rates. If an alpha female is killed, other females in the area will seize the opportunity to have litters of their own. In any case, the population ultimately increases quickly. The coyote’s generalized diet gives it an additional evolutionary edge. Though excellent hunters, coyotes are also opportunistic, dining on carrion, insects, nuts, fruits, grasses, and other vegetation, in addition to small prey. In spite of our best efforts to defeat it, the coyote has adapted and persevered. Like the well-known Wile E. Coyote of cartoons, the coyote just keeps bouncing back.

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Intelligent, adaptable, and family-oriented, coyotes have outwitted attempts to eradicate them. And how can you resist this face?!

As a top predator, coyotes play an integral role in the environment, helping to maintain healthy ecosystems and species diversity. Recent studies show coyotes may even be a benefit to declining bird populations by controlling mesopredators like raccoons that prey on bird eggs and young.  (For a cool video about the importance of top predators, check out this amazing video: How Wolves Change Rivers.) Although they are moving into our neighborhoods, their presence needn’t alarm us when we take a few precautions. Instinctively fearful of people, these animals go out of their way to avoid humans. (I tell people all the time I’d rather wrangle a coyote than handle a chipmunk). When people feed them, intentionally or unintentionally (by leaving pet food or garbage outside overnight, for example), coyotes may become less wary of our presence, which can lead to occasional sightings, but rarely more than that. Most of the time, coyotes go about their coyote business–living in small, close-knit family groups that hunt and play together, care for each other, and protect their territory from intruding coyotes and other predators. Having a healthy family group in your area is an asset, as coyotes help to control pest populations and maintain the balance of wildlife, including their own species. With minor adjustments we can learn to appreciate and coexist with these intelligent, adaptable canines. For me, seeing one during that chilly Christmas Bird Count was the best sighting of the day.

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Coyotes typically avoid humans. This one looked at me for a minute, then trotted off.

DID YOU KNOW…?   In Georgia and many other states, coyotes receive very few protections. They may be hunted or trapped at any time of year and their pelts commercially sold. By law, coyotes trapped as “nuisances” may not be relocated. Trapped animals are either euthanized or sold to licensed hunting facilities where they are put in penned enclosures and hunted with dogs. Trapping is not a humane solution. Please find ways to coexist. 

EDUCATED COEXISTENCE from Project Coyote
Urban landscapes offer an abundance of food, water, and shelter for coyotes. Take the following steps to prevent coyotes from being attracted to your home:
*Wildlife-proof garbage in sturdy containers with tight fitting lids.
*Don’t leave pet food outside.
*Take out trash the morning pick up is scheduled.
*Keep compost in secure containers.
*Keep fallen fruit off the ground. Coyotes eat fruit.
*Keep birdseed off the ground; seeds attract rodents which then attract coyotes. Remove
feeders if coyotes are seen in your yard.
*Keep barbecue grills clean.
*Eliminate accessible water sources.
*Clear away brush and dense weeds near buildings.
*Close off crawl spaces under decks and around buildings where coyotes may den.
*If you frequently see a coyote in your yard, make loud noises with pots, pans, or air horns, and haze the coyote with a water hose.
*Share this list with your neighbors; coexistence is a neighborhood effort.

 

You Might Be a Wildlife Rehabilitator If…

  • you do a quick u-turn when you notice flashing car lights and police officers in the middle of a busy road wondering what to do with a large snapping turtle stranded in the middle of four lanes.
  • you know how to handle a snapping turtle, and you happen to have a carrier for it in your car.  (See https://mefurr.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/a-snap-decision/.)
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Have carrier, will rescue!

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Orphaned squirrel takes a nap at the office between feedings.

  • you’ve been on a wild goose chase…literally.
  • you go to the doctor for a couple of stitches on your cheekbone because you’ve been clocked by the goose you were trying to catch. (The doctor thought my story was pretty crazy but figured it had to be true. Who could make up something like that?! I don’t think you want to see the photo–had a nasty bruise too!)
  • you’re more afraid of being bitten by a chipmunk than a coyote. (Those chipmunks bite hard!)
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Believe it or not, I’m more wary handling these little critters than large predators like coyotes and hawks.

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Edgar Allen Crow was very dear to me. I still miss her.

  • you love opossums, squirrels, coyotes, snakes, vultures, crows, pigeons, and many other animals that people disdain because you know they play an important role in their ecosystem. (See Carrion, My Wayward Bird and Pretty as a ‘Possum.)
  • You’ve worn a ghillie suit.
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Ghillie suits help prevent orphaned animals from imprinting on humans. They’re worn especially around predators like coyotes and foxes that need to keep their distance from human habitation to remain safe in the wild.

  • you can’t say no when you get a call to go rescue an injured opossum (goose, squirrel, fox, etc.), even when you’re exhausted and have just found a moment’s peace.
  • you’ve been bitten, scratched, or taloned by most of the native wildlife in your area.
  • you’ve said to a friend, “I’d give you a hug, but I have feces on my shirt.”
  • you deal with a lot of sh*t!

But aren’t these faces worth it!!

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Back to the Wild

Much of the work involved in wildlife rehabilitation isn’t interesting or glamorous. Actually, a lot of it is downright gross. I learned that fact my first week as a volunteer at AWARE wildlife center when my trainer Tammi asked me to cut up a dead rat for an injured vulture, testing my mettle for dirty work from day one. Cleaning soiled enclosures, washing dirty dishes, processing filthy laundry, and other unseemly tasks make up most of the work — essential, but hardly pleasant. Feeding baby animals is gratifying, but it, too, can feel like work when trying to keep up with the demands of numerous animals requiring multiple feedings a day. But rehabilitation has numerous rewards, too. One of the greatest rewards is watching an animal return to the wild, especially when you have been closely involved in its care. I’ve had the privilege of releasing several animals back to the wild, including opossums, raccoons, turtles, geese, songbirds, and hawks, as well as squirrels I have raised (see my post Nutty for Squirrels). Each of these releases was memorable, but perhaps none more so than the long-awaited release of three young coyotes last week at dusk.

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Coyote brothers on the day of their release.
photo credit: Linda Potter

The three orphaned male coyote pups from two different litters were brought to AWARE last spring after their parents had been trapped and killed, a far too frequent occurrence. Understandably, some trappers have a harder time killing defenseless pups, so they occasionally end up in our care (such scruples from people who have been paid to kill the adults, but leave the orphans to be raised at AWARE’s expense!). Because I have been vaccinated against rabies as a precautionary measure, I was one of a few volunteers who regularly fed and cleaned up after the three pups. Every Tuesday for seven months, I delivered their food and cleaned their enclosure (which became increasingly foul as they grew older!), so I witnessed their growth up-close.

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So tiny when they were brought to AWARE as orphans!
photo credit: ajiiiphotography.com

Watching the pups grow from tiny, clumsy, defenseless balls of fur into sleek, wary, and powerful predators was an incredible experience. When the pups were small, I had to fight the impulse to shower them with affection, so I hated having to clap and stomp to scare them back when they occasionally became bold or inquisitive as I delivered their food. (Coyotes that approach humans too closely usually don’t come to a good end, so good rehabilitators are committed to reinforcing their natural fear of humans.) Within a few weeks, the pups’ instinctive wariness of people overrode their curiosity. Even though I’d never done anything more than clap, they were terrified each time I approached to feed and clean, hiding or pacing frantically at the far end of their enclosure. My heart broke to see them, but I knew this fear was necessary. As the coyotes grew, seeing them living a caged life became increasingly difficult. Although AWARE’s enclosures give the animals plenty of room to climb and move around, coyotes need to run free. Until they were full-grown and able to find food, catch prey, and defend themselves, however, releasing them would have been a death sentence. Still, even though they are now full-grown, these youngsters have been forced to strike out on their own at a much younger age than their parents would have required in the wild.

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Instinctively wary of humans, the pups tried to hide whenever I approached their enclosure, even after they’d outgrown their favorite hiding place.

??????????????????????????????? DSCN7753 ???????????????????????????????       When release day arrived, Tammi and I corralled the coyotes into a kennel, wrestling one frightened kid out from a corner, and then loaded them into the back of my minivan. (Never thought I’d count coyote wrangling among my skills!) My good friend and fellow volunteer Kelly joined me on a two hour ride to north Georgia where we had permission to release the small family on private land safe from hunters, cities, and busy roads. When we arrived, we parked near a wooded area and waited a short time for dusk to fall in order to give the coyotes the best chance to explore their surroundings without danger from humans. When the moment seemed right, we lowered the kennel to the ground and opened the door. The coyotes crowded to the back of the cage. Everything must have seemed so strange to them! After a few minutes, I stepped up to the cage and gave it a gentle shake. One coyote dashed out like a shot and was out of sight in the blink of an eye. Twice more I had to shake the cage before the remaining two coyotes were compelled to leave, but once they stepped out, their legs carried them full speed ahead until the fading light obscured them from our view. How fascinating to imagine all the new experiences and adventures they had on that first night of freedom! Did they seek each other out with yips and howls as night fell, or did they venture off in their own directions? What animal did they catch for their first meal? We’ll never know their fate, but we equipped them for the wild the best we could by helping them learn to recognize food sources, catch prey, and avoid humans. We wish them long, healthy lives.

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Ready for release — good luck, boys!

Note: Like a lot of wildlife, coyotes (and foxes) generally aren’t welcome near human development, where they are frequently trapped and destroyed. Relocating these animals (without rehabilitation permits) is against the law in Georgia, and in most states, I suspect. In addition, in many states they can be hunted without restriction at any time of year, and the federal government contributes to the slaughter of tens of thousands of coyotes each year. Efforts to control their numbers have actually only served to increase their population and expand their range, which was once limited to the western United States. Sadly, these animals are grossly misunderstood. Intelligent, adaptable, and family-oriented, coyotes provide important environmental benefits. Though urban sightings are becoming more common as wild habitats are destroyed, coyotes are naturally afraid of humans and rarely approach within thirty feet. With a few precautions, they pose little danger to people and their pets. For more information on these amazing creatures, please check out http://www.coyoteyipps.com

http://www.coyotecoexistence.com

To learn more about AWARE or to make a tax-deductible donation to help wildlife, visit http://www.awarewildlife.org.