19 Mar Coyotes in Our Midst
WARNING: This post contains some fairly graphic images of a partially eaten deer.
WARNING #2: This post is kind of long. I get really excited by Eastern coyotes.
A few days ago, I decided to carve out some time to hike around the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Topsfield. It had been a while since I’d hiked the trails, and having worked there for three years, I remembered that in years of deep snow there were often deer kill sites to be found. I sought these out not for the gore, but instead because I’m fascinated by the animals that hunt the deer: Eastern coyotes.
Eastern coyotes have a complicated past and an even more complicated present. According to numerous sources, there is no concrete evidence that coyotes lived east of the Appalachian Mountains prior to the early 1900s. There were a variety of wolves that patrolled the East Coast (red wolves in the south and gray/timberwolves in the north) but almost all of them were extirpated (killed or driven from the area) by the mid-1800s. With the demise of the wolves, mountain lions and bears, there was a vacuum at the top of the food chain. And in stepped the coyote.
Traditionally, coyotes lived anywhere from the grasslands and rolling hills of the Midwest to the desert Southwest, living a solitary life on the edges, foraging for whatever they could find. As the western United States became more developed, coyotes gravitated towards ranches and agricultural land where their preferred prey (mice, rats, voles) were abundant. Farmers and ranchers naturally assumed that coyotes were attacking their livestock and began hunting and trapping them in great numbers. Today, many states still have no limits and year-round seasons for hunting coyotes. Facing this increased pressure, it is believed that many coyotes migrated north into less populated Ontario.
During the early 1900s, coyotes began to appear east of the Appalachians. These coyotes were almost twice as large as those native to the western United States. It is now widely assumed that the coyotes driven into Canada interbred with the resident wolf population, and recent studies have shown that almost all Eastern coyote have some wolf DNA. In recent years, the Eastern coyote has been declared a separate species from the Western coyote due to these differences.
Eastern coyotes are generalists, meaning that they can survive in a variety of habitats. Their preferred habitat is “edge” habitat – anywhere two ecosystems collide (i.e. agricultural fields, suburban neighborhoods, etc.). Coyotes have been found almost everywhere, including urban areas. In fact, one coyote family established their den on the grounds of O’Hare Airport. They are able to survive in these areas because they are not picky about their food. Coyotes will hunt small rodents, insects, and birds, and will forage for fruit and carrion.
A few years ago, while working at the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, our staff received a report about a dead deer near one of the trails. Naturally, we went down to investigate. Not much was left of the deer, but the area was surrounded by coyote tracks. It was unclear if this deer had succumbed to natural causes and coyotes had scavenged it, or if a coyote had killed the deer. A coyote killing a deer seemed improbable. At the time, I assumed that most coyotes were solitary hunters and that one coyote (even a large Eastern coyote) would have difficulty taking down a large deer. Then I did a little research. It turns out that since Eastern coyotes are by default the dominant predator in our area, they have started to fill that niche. They will occasionally hunt in packs and there are a number of studies indicating that deer have become an increasingly large component of their diet.
Since then I’ve kept my eyes open for deer kills during the winter. My limited experience has indicated that most deer kills happen during the winter and almost exclusively when there’s deep snow. Deer have the ability to run quickly for short distances; their long legs and jumping ability give them an advantage over an endurance predator like an Eastern coyote. However, with deep snow, the deer is slowed down and cannot run nearly as fast. My assumption is that this makes it much easier for a pack of coyotes to bring the deer down. It would also stand to reason that coyotes would begin hunting larger prey in deep snow as easier prey (such as voles and mice) are buried beneath three feet of snowy powder and ice.
Which brings me back to my hike yesterday. Having heard about a deer kill site on a particular trail, I headed down to search for it. Shortly into my hike, I came across this:
So as the winter’s snow (finally) begins to recede, I invite you to head out into your local wild areas to look for coyote evidence. Dead deer are not the only sign to look for. Along frequently traveled paths, look for their prints and scat in the snow. Coyotes seem to use human trails when they can and will often mark their territory by defecating at trail intersections. If you keep your eyes open, you’ll be surprised at how prevalent these magnificent animals are in our area.
Coyote track. Notice general oval shape, the raised “x” in the middle, and the two prominent toenail impressions. A domestic dog tends to have a rounder print with highly splayed toes. Also, domestic dog trails tend to wander, while coyote trails usually are a straight line through the snow.