Coyote scat,” said Bill Healy, my neighbor and professional landscaper, pointing out an ample pile studded with deer hair. It wasn’t the first time I had seen wild animal scat on our property but this was clearly from a large predator and just thirty feet from my house. I thought back to the first time I spotted Canis latrans in Gloucester County.
2004 and I was standing at the top of my drive when a tan and grey figure furtively crossed over into the woods several yards away. For a moment I thought I had seen a large grey fox but recalling the coyotes I had seen in California hunting jack rabbits, I quickly realized this was no fox!
Western coyotes typically weigh 22-35 pounds while this specimen looked over 40 pounds—huge by coyote standards, and when a hunter bagged a large male in White Marsh a few months later I knew the old trickster was alive and well in SE Virginia.
At quick glance they can be mistaken for a medium-size German shepherd. Leggy and graceful when walking or running, they hold their bushy tails down—not up—like dogs do. Their large upright ears never droop and their coloring ranges from white, buff, tan, grey, reddish-brown to black, and black guard hairs often give them a grizzled look.
For plains Indians the coyote was the stuff of legend--the consummate trickster filled with malicious mischief, bending societal rules in the form of half-truths or thievery. Demi god, shape shifter, impersonator, fellow hunter, myth maker—the coyote was all this and more.
Coyotes were at home on the open grasslands of mid America, from Canada to Mexico. They evolved a million years ago, as did all members of the dog family—wolves, foxes, and jackals. Early settlers called them by many names but the name coyote, from the Aztec word “coyotl” stuck.
As other large predators such as wolves and cougars were eliminated, stockmen and farmers viewed the coyote as public enemy number one. By 1915 the federal government launched a massive predator removal program that continues today. In less than a century more than 20 million coyotes were killed.
As pressure increased by development, wholesale slaughter, and the need for the young to branch out into new territories, this adaptable animal spread eastward, going so far as to find homes in large metropolitan cities. With no large predators to compete, the coyote thrived.
Once regarded as the quintessential symbol of the old West, by the 1950s scientists and landowners alike reported the presence of coyotes in western Virginia. Some specimens were typical of western coyotes—small and rangy like a mid-sized dog; but others were large, more wolf-like. What scientists eventually discovered through DNA studies of coyote scat was that for the first time some coyotes in Virginia were indeed part wolf.
Researchers at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. point to Virginia as the convergence point for coyote eastward migration; one group coming up from the south and one from the north, the latter a larger coyote-wolf hybrid from the Northeast via southern Canada. That would explain the size disparity among reported sightings of these elusive animals. The evidence was clear—at some point in their northeastern migration coyotes had most likely mated with Great Lakes wolves, producing a hybrid more wolf-like than its western counterpart.
The spread of these intelligent, adaptable, and opportunistic animals is one of wildlife’s biggest success stories of recent years—but not everyone is happy about it. When the subject comes up as a topic of conversation, myths and half-truths abound. Few animals evoke such extremes of feeling, between those who think they should be completely eradicated and those who feel they fill a necessary niche in the ecosystem.
Todd Engelmeyer, wildlife biologist for region 1 Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, says coyotes made their first official recorded appearance in the region in 2001 according to the agency’s annual Bow Hunter Survey, although coyotes were rumored to have arrived a decade earlier. The survey logs hours spent hunting and wildlife observed in the field. Over the past decade bow hunters have reported a gradual increase in coyote sightings.
Some individuals claim coyotes were released by some state agencies to help control deer population but, when asked, Engelmeyer had this comment. “Our agency is supported in part by the sales of hunting and fishing licenses. It would be contrary to our mission to release predators that are detrimental to the wildlife hunters seek. Coyotes are considered nuisance species and are fair game year round.”
Reported sightings fluctuate from year to year for the coyote is not only elusive, their territories can cover up to 200 square miles and only ongoing scat DNA studies will eventually determine the region’s overall population. Unlike their western counterparts, the eastern coyote feels at home in forested areas, hunts bigger game (at times in groups), and, like wolves, is extremely territorial. According to Engelmeyer, once a territory is claimed by a coyote it usually stays put.
Our neighbor’s Lab, a mean yellow cur that terrorized the other neighborhood dogs, received his comeuppance one spring night while tangling with a coyote, most likely in a territorial dispute. The lab’s bloody muzzle, swollen eye, and torn flank were testimony to the coyote’s skills.
Their territory varies according to available food supply and their highly varied diet has enabled them to survive and prosper. As much as 40% of their diet consists of rodents—mice, voles, shrews, gophers, groundhogs, and ground squirrels—a benefit to farmers and gardeners alike.
Author Dayton Hyde wrote of his experiences with a three-legged coyote who took refuge on his South Dakota ranch in his best selling book “Don Coyote”. During his observations, Hyde noticed his hay bales were rodent-free while those of his neighbors were decimated throughout the winter. As “Don” added a mate and pups to the ranch, Hyde’s family of coyotes forced him to consider his role as a steward to the land and its inhabitants.
In addition to rodents, coyotes favor other small mammals, which unfortunately can include domestic livestock and family pets, especially cats. They prey on birds and bird eggs, deer, reptiles, amphibians, crustaceans, and insects. As omnivores, coyotes enjoy fruit, vegetables, and nuts. They’ll also eat carrion and garbage.
In regions heavily peopled, coyotes tend to be more nocturnal than their rural cousins, who typically hunt from dusk to dawn. In summer they are much more likely to hunt at night when its cooler and food is plentiful. In winter they are forced to hunt at any time just to stay alive.
To those who claim coyotes have adversely affected deer populations, W. Matt Knox, Deer Program Supervisor for the state of Virginia says, “We frequently get comments and questions from deer hunters regarding the impact of coyotes. These hunters frequently perceive coyotes as having a negative impact. It should be noted however that deer kills have been at record levels for the past three years and there has been no decline in deer herds.”
Engelmeyer agrees. Data suggests deer density continues to rise and in some areas where deer population may have declined, mortality was likely due to disease rather than coyote predation. “Any detriments posed by the coyote is offset by the benefits,” says Engelmeyer.
From 2010 through 2012, Virginia had the fifth highest rate of deer-vehicular crashes in the country—more than 48,700. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries estimate Virginia’s population of white-tailed deer to be one million. If not hunted by man and predator, their population could double within five years.
At historic Elmington, where hunters are attempting to re-establish quail to the county, trapping has yielded several coyotes. “During the last part of the 2012 deer hunting season we saw as many coyotes as we did deer,” Healy claims. “If you were to wound a deer you can’t wait until the next day to recover it because by then the coyotes will have already found and devoured it.”
Unfortunately the desire among people appreciating wildlife often leads to feeding them, and feeding coyotes is the surest way to convert them from interesting additions to the landscape to pests inviting potential tragedy. The coyote is foremost a predator and does not differentiate between a rabbit and the family cat or dog, a groundhog or small child.
In some parts of the country generations of close exposure to humans have emboldened coyotes. There have been reports of coyotes snatching pets out of owners’ arms, attacking dogs walking on leashes, and biting humans who try
to intervene. More and more human-coyote encounters are being reported every year and lest one think we are
being stalked from every patch of brush or woodland, it’s prudent nevertheless to educate the public to the risks
of befriending and feeding these opportunistic hunters.
“It’s very good at finding niches,” Engelmeyer points out, “and Virginia has provided a good niche for coyotes.” Now firmly established, it’s impossible to eliminate them so we must find ways to safely coexist. We can minimize the harm they are capable of inflicting while enjoying the benefits they provide. The question is, can conflicting minds find mutual satisfaction?
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has posted an online advisory “Living with the Coyote in Virginia” that includes facts about coyotes and steps people should take to avoid them and safeguard their pets and livestock. You can find that link at www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/habitat_partners/infosheets/coyote.pdf.