A juvenile coyote walks through snow. (ISTOCK PHOTO)
September’s sun warmed me as I listened to migrating warblers and local birds. Then I heard the soft brush of movement against a spruce tree to my left. Slowly turning, I saw two predators padding down the trail, unaware of my presence. They carried on with the hunt while I reflected on the encounter.
The creatures were eastern coyotes, probably juveniles from their size. The location was Orr’s Island. If this surprises you, then read on. Coyotes are settled in Harpswell and I often hear from friends about seeing or hearing them. We’ve seen dead coyotes near our house after vehicle collisions. As with foxes, fishers and bobcats, coyotes are rarely seen because of their preference for nocturnal movement.
Coyotes originated out west, from Sonora to Alberta. As humans eliminated bears, pumas and wolves from eastern settlements, the void was gradually filled by coyotes. On their extended migrations, coyotes crossbred with dogs, resulting in larger “coydogs” that resembled German shepherds. With few populations of wolves in the U.S. and Canada, the intelligent and adaptable eastern coyote is well established as an alpha predator. A DNA study in 2014 found that the genetic mix of eastern coyotes is 62% coyote, 14% western wolf, 13% eastern wolf and 11% dog.
Today coyotes live almost anywhere, including major cities. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife estimates the state’s population at 15,000, an impressive achievement when compared to many species in decline. An adult male may exceed 40 pounds and 4 feet in length, plus a bushy tail. The fur runs light gray or blond to reddish brown, with some black and white on the stomach, chest or chin. Average height is 2 feet, and powerful legs allow speeds up to 40 miles per hour. Their track is elongated, compared to the rounded footprint of dogs.
Coyotes live in small family groups around a mature female. Young adults may linger for two years, and bachelor males may join for short stints, allowing the pack to take on larger prey. As a female approaches estrous in midwinter, she gives off pheromones that cause multiple males to approach her and squabble for her affections. After breeding, the pair secure a den, often enlarging an existing fox den. The male supplies food while the female prepares the den, lining it with grass or her fur. As many as six pups nurse up to eight weeks, with the parents gradually introducing regurgitated food, then bits of meat.
The family soon becomes mobile, hunting across many miles while guarding their territory. The howls, barks and yips from a pack tell the story as a hunt succeeds. Coyotes are opportunistic carnivores, eating 90% meat. Their diet is mostly smaller creatures — rodents, rabbits, birds, amphibians and insects — plus fruit, vegetables and grains.
In winter coyotes consume roadkill and will attack deer weakened by age, disease or starvation. While some people insist that coyotes are the primary cause of declining whitetail populations in northern Maine, researchers studied carcasses of radio-collared deer visited by coyotes and found that 92 of 100 deer died from motor-vehicle accidents.
Inevitably coyotes come into conflict with humans. While coyotes are tolerated when raiding bird feeders, they find trouble around livestock. The National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that coyotes caused 60% of 200,000 yearly sheep deaths. Chickens, goats and calves are also at risk.
U.S. government agents eliminate up to 100,000 coyotes annually and bounties are offered in some states. In cities and suburbs, coyotes target unsecured garbage cans or outdoor dog dishes, and pets may be at risk. While there are just two documented cases of humans being killed by coyotes, there are more than 200 recorded cases of humans being attacked.
Wolves now have numerous groups championing their cause, regardless of their impact on livestock and wildlife. Coyotes have few advocates, and many folks still feel the only good coyote is a dead one. Coyote pelts, used for scarves, muffs, coat collars or hoods, used to sell for $200. Roughly 1,500 coyotes are trapped in Maine each year, worth just $20 per pelt.
Wildlife biologists and conservationists understand the role that coyotes play in a healthy, balanced environment, and appreciate coyotes for keeping rodent populations in check. Perhaps we should admire an animal that has managed to thrive despite every scheme to limit their population.
(A note on last month’s column: Thanks to the many readers who contacted me with feedback or questions regarding my October column on PFAS, “Forever chemicals.” On Sept. 29, California passed two laws banning the sales of cosmetics, personal care items, clothing and textiles that contain PFAS chemicals. The bans will be phased in over five years. Much more information is available online.)
Ed Robinson’s latest book, “Nature Notes from Maine Vol. II: Puffins, Black Bears, Raccoons & More,” is available from the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust. All profits support HHLT’s conservation and public education efforts.