Living with coyotes
Tips for home and pet owners:
• Remove access to unnatural food sources, such as pet food on your porch or in your back yard. If you feed your pets outside, only provide enough food that can be consumed in a short period. Also secure garbage can lids.
• Defend your living space. Tolerating coyotes around your residence may result in coyotes becoming less wary of your presence or actions. When coyotes attempt to extend their living space to include space around your residence, find a safe space that affords you an opportunity to escape an unlikely attack, and yell, throw non-edible objects in the direction of the coyote, or otherwise convey any “trespassing” animal that it is not welcome in your “space.”
• The territorial nature of predatory coyotes poses a real risk to small, free-roaming dogs and cats. Keep small dogs restrained on a leash when walking them outdoors, and keep small dogs and cats in an enclosure if they are going to sleep outside.
Source: VDGIF’s Living with the Coyote in Virginia (PDF, 1.2 MB)
That unusual sound you hear after dark in Rappahannock County – between the more familiar bark of distant dogs and the occasional passing plane – could very well be the yip and howl of the eastern coyote.
Though not native to the eastern U.S., coyotes made it to the western mountains of Virginia by the 1980s, according to Mike Fies, wildlife researcher and fur-bearing animal specialist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF). And now, because they thrive in “fringe areas,” or the mix of wooded areas and open fields created by logging, agriculture and residential development, coyote populations east of the Blue Ridge are rising steeply.
This worries local livestock farmers – especially now, in the middle of calving season.
Sperryville farmer Cliff Miller III lost two 60-pound lambs Monday night, and though Miller said he had “no idea” whether coyotes were responsible, farm manager Mike Peterson said he found scat and other clues that pointed toward coyote.
“When you lose two lambs of that size, it’s a serious thing,” Miller said. “That’s two less lambs out of 125 for us to process… This is the first attack we’ve ever had here. We’ve had sheep here for seven years, and had [guard] llamas for four of those.”
The attack occurred on a hill near one the farm houses, oddly enough, as Peterson said, “right in the middle of everything.” Miller said if he had to guess, “I’d say it was a coyote, since I’ve heard them here at night, and I think a 60-pound lamb is just too big for a fox to bring down.”
Brooke Miller of the family-run Ginger Hill purebred Angus cattle farm in Washington says he has seen and heard a lot of coyotes lately, including a close encounter involving a newborn calf three weeks ago.
“Right as we [he and 24-year-old son David] got out of the car, we heard a cow just going crazy, bellowing,” Miller said. “So we went down to the big oak at the bottom of the hill, and sure enough, the cow had calved and the calf was up and trying to nurse, but there was a coyote harassing them.”
Miller described the coyote as about the size of a medium-sized dog, with pointed ears. It seemed to have been circling the pair for some time before the two men got there, Miller said. He and David were able to scare the coyote off by yelling and stomping without it causing any harm to either momma or baby.
“Usually, with cattle farms, it’s that first few weeks when the calves are being born that they are vulnerable,” said Chad Fox, who oversees the state’s livestock protection program for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and is the USDA’s unofficial expert on coyote activity in northwestern Virginia. “After that they’re a little bit safer. But you can have other types of coyote damage to cattle, from just stress from them harassing larger cows.”
According to the VDGIF, the coyote in the eastern U.S. is typically larger than coyotes in the West (which average 20 to 35 pounds); in the East, female coyotes average 30 to 45 pounds, male coyotes 35 to 45 pounds, and coyotes can weigh as much as 60 pounds.
There is also a lot of variation in the coat patterning of the eastern coyote, Fies said, from the sandy color typical of the western coyote to a foxy red to black, which suggests interbreeding with wolves during the coyote’s expansion from Canada southward, and northeastward from Texas and Oklahoma.
“With all of the advances in genetic testing, it does appear that the eastern population is a complex mix between the western coyote, the grey wolf, and perhaps a little more domestic dog than we might have thought,” Fies said, referring to research projects over the past 10 years.
Fies described the well-documented coyote expansion across southwestern America to southern Virginia by the 1970s, and the simultaneous transcontinental expansion from Canada south to New York, Pennsylvania, western Maryland and then, he said, finally to the western mountains of Virginia by the 1980s.
“The two populations kind of met in the middle in the mountains [of Virginia] and then gradually expanded their range eastward in the state,” Fies said. “So we currently have them, literally, in every county of the state right now.”
Trophy buck hunter Ronnie White, who resides in Prince William County but spends a few nights a week in his hunting cabin down Harris Hollow Road in Washington, doesn’t remember there being any coyotes when he started hunting in Rappahannock in the mid ’80s.
“They’re definitely there [in Rappahannock] now,” White said by phone this week from Ohio, where he was on a bow hunting trip. “We’ve been hearing them a lot, pretty much every night I’m up there I hear them talking to each other on the other side of the river, and up on the mountain.”
A week ago, White saw one at the end of his driveway in Harris Hollow (just days after he said he had seen one in Prince William chasing a full-grown deer across a field where he was bow hunting); on Oct. 9, he said he and his wife also saw four traveling together through a large orchard on the property. White described the animals as being about the size of a German shepherd; larger than a fox but smaller than a wolf.
Says the VDGIF’s “Living with the Coyote in Virginia” publication: “The coyote is an opportunistic forager that will consume anything of nutritional value. They do not specialize in hunting and killing only one type of prey, and they will not turn down an easy meal if they happen to stumble upon other prey that they were not hunting for.
“Although coyotes generally prey on small rodents, rabbits, birds, snakes and frogs,” the document continues, “they will kill larger animals such as big game and livestock during periods when the larger prey are more vulnerable to predation (e.g., turkeys on nests; deer fawns in the spring and summer; lambs, kid goats and newborn calves). They will scavenge exposed garbage or other refuse, and may even kill and consume housecats.”
Viewtown cattle farmer Chris Parrish’s herd of 120 mother cows began calving at the end of October, and he has noticed a new behavior.
“They’re definitely more aware, they’re more nervous – and they’re a little more aggressive,” Parrish said, adding that he hears coyotes at night, and that two have been shot on his farm in the last two years.
“The coyote is classified as a nuisance species and may be killed at any time,” according to VDGIF’s policy, which goes on to point out that “predation will rarely limit the population of the species” and “may even lead to population increases, based on the high reproductive potential of coyotes.”
A study by Jonathan G. Way, head of a Massachusetts based organization called Eastern Coyote Research, found that coyote pack density roughly doubles after the death of a resident territorial male. Way found that eastern coyotes – which he refers to as “coywolves,” because of their documented hybridization with the grey wolf in Canada and New England – live in territorial packs consisting of three or four adult individuals, including a breeding pair, some of their full-grown offspring and pups of that year.
By tracking 48 coyotes fitted with radio collars in Cape Cod between 1998 and 2008, Way and his researchers found that when one member of the alpha breeding pair died, the pack would divide into two groups that would form a new dominant breeding pair for each.
Killing just one coyote, in other words, can actually increase the overall coyote population.
“You really can’t manage the population of coyotes,” said Chad Fox with the USDA. “Even if there was a bounty for coyotes in Rappahannock, and several hundred coyotes were turned in, it may not decrease the population of coyotes in Rappahannock County. To have an impact in Rappahannock, you’d have to have a big impact in several surrounding counties, which is impossible.”
Fox instead proposed some preventative measures for farmers, including:
o bringing cows close to home when they’re calving, if possible
o improving fencing; using electric fencing is perhaps the best preventative measure
o burying or burning your dead animals (don’t leave dead livestock out for coyotes to feed on)
o using guard animals like llamas or dogs
o selectively removing (killing or trapping) coyotes that are recognized as a threat, which might help on a very local level
Parrish actually thinks that the coyote may be doing more good than harm, noting that he hasn’t recently seen many groundhogs – a coyote dietary staple and a nuisance to farmers, since livestock can step into their holes and break legs – and that they may be having an impact on what he described as the“pathetically high” deer population in the area.
Fies said that there is relatively little information on what effect the emergence of the coyote as the dominant predator in the east has had on Virginia deer populations, though they are known to predate on young fawns during the fawning season.
“We actually have a big research project going on right now that we just started the field work for last summer,” Fies said, describing a Virginia Tech-run project called “The Ecology of the Appalachian Coyote,” where coyotes are being fitted with radio collars in Rockingham and Bath counties to evaluate food habits and the impact of coyotes on deer populations. Fies said they should have a better idea of what the coyotes are eating – and how they are affecting specific mammal populations – by next year.
“They’ve definitely come a long way to fill a niche here in Virginia as a large predator,” Fies said, adding that residents, pet owners and farmers alike are going to have to learn to live with the coyote. “They have plenty to eat here, and their population size is based on the abundance of food in their area.”
Chad Fox agrees.
“They’re here, and they’re not going anywhere.”
As for hearing them at night, according to eastern coyote expert Jonathan Way, there are often increased complaints about coyotes during the fall, as young male coyotes forced out of the family pack try to establish their own territories – which can be a noisy process.
“They’re just talking it out,” Way writes.