Saturday, November 29, 2014
Note: This program first aired on October 18, 2014.
I haven’t been sleeping well this fall. The transition from summer’s expansive freedom to the structure and busy schedule of fall is always a rocky one. But above and beyond the stress of 21rst century living, a more practical matter is keeping me up at night. The weather the past month has been mostly cool and crisp, the air dry and clear. As a result, the moon has been exceedingly bright and it shines in my window with a direct hit on my pillow night after night. And if the night time noises I am hearing through my still open window are any indication, I’m not the only one awake in the moonlight.
Nearly every night for the past month our neighborhood has been serenaded by a group of coyotes. They aren’t singing for our benefit or enjoyment of course, biologists think coyotes vocalize to maintain contact with pack members and reinforce their claim to their territory. Whatever their reasons, they have been doing it a lot. If the yipping and howling really is a contact call, it makes sense to be hearing it so much as they move from place to place in their territory.
Announce that you have coyotes in your neighborhood and you will get one of two reactions: people who want to see or hear them and people who want to kill them. We have a long standing tradition in this country of not only over exploiting wildlife, but especially over exploiting apex predators, removing them from the ecosystem so that we can ostensibly take their place. That’s why coyotes are here and in such numbers in the first place, they moved in to the north east to occupy the ecological niche opened when wolves were exterminated here in the 19th century. That is a clue to both how ecosystems function and their resiliency, when one member of the cast disappears, an understudy quickly moves in to fill the role.
Coyotes will eat anything, making them opportunistic omnivores instead of pure carnivores in a strict trophic category sense. Their go to food item is mice and other small rodents. These are a year round staple on the coyote menu. If you know anything about lyme disease, you know that anything that eats mice is a good thing, they are the most common intermediate host for the disease. Keeping rodent populations in check is critical to slowing the spread of Lyme and coyotes are doing their part. In the late summer and fall, when we are picking berries and apples, coyotes are too, they’re no dummies. Two days ago I found coyote scat that was solid apple peel and studded with apple seeds and cherry pits. Coyotes will also prey on other mammals including snow shoe hares as well as scavenge on carrion of all types.
The elephant in the room of course is that coyotes also eat deer, and this is why they are so reviled by hunters. The degree to which coyotes rely on deer for food varies from region to region, and time period to time period, so what was found in a study one place at one time may not hold true somewhere else. Traditionally we are taught that wild predators take the weak and the old individuals of prey first; these individuals will be the easiest to catch. Hunting takes energy, and energy is at a premium in nature. Any advantage a predator can take to conserve energy is worth while. Studies have shown though that coyotes sometimes take deer that are in fine condition, good condition even, particularly if the hunting group is large, so the romantic view of the noble predator culling the herd and improving the gene pool is somewhat naïve. There is a natural economics in play here, coyotes will maximize their resources and get the biggest deer they can with the resources they have, they are in business to stay alive.
And it is a dirty business sometimes, staying alive. Death supports life, in every way you can imagine. Every bite we take begins with the death of something, be it the plant that became the bread, the fruit that bears the seed, the animal that became the meat. I can’t begrudge the coyotes their meal, they are no risk to me, and if I am smart with my pets and livestock, coyotes are no threat to them either. We humans like to think that we are the new apex predators, but we can’t actually fill that niche ecologically. Yes, some humans like to kill deer, but most of us are not also living off eating rodents and other small mammals. An ecosystem missing its top predators is an ecosystem overrun with herbivores and rodents and nowadays, Lyme disease. I’ll take the coyotes over the ticks any day.
Just the facts ma’am (from Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife: http://www.maine.gov/ifw/wildlife/human/lww_information/coyotes.html
The Wildlife Conservation Society’s review article on coyote biology: http://s3.amazonaws.com/WCSResources/file_20110518_073403_WCS_WorkingPaper17_Gompper_kTiIyc.pdf
BDN article: http://bangordailynews.com/2013/09/29/news/midcoast/maine-coyotes-dangerous-wild-pests-or-important-members-of-the-ecosystem/
Geri Vistein’s site about coyotes in Maine: http://www.coyotelivesinmaine.com/
And in case you were wondering about coyote hunting, here’s a fact sheet from SAM: http://www.sportsmansallianceofmaine.org/PDF/Coyote_hunting_laws_handout.pdf (short summary: you can hunt and kill them pretty much every way except snaring them—that includes baiting, trapping, hunting with dogs, hunting at night)