Coyote

I MISS HEARING whippoorwills sing in the springtime night from the block of woods just outside our bedroom window. Similarly, I miss hearing the short barks and yips of gray foxes, sometimes sounding like they were hanging around just past the house’s gravel driveway. These two species regularly provided nighttime serenades.

Without attributing any scientific cause and effect, whippoorwills seemed to vanish as the “neighborhood” began building up. We still hear the occasional bird, but it now seems to be an even rarer experience than hearing the late spring call of a bobwhite quail looking for companionship.

What happened to the whippoorwills? Maybe we need to “round up the usual suspects.” Habitat loss, a decline in flying insects, possibly due to agricultural pesticides, and a steady decline in the “edge” features associated with young forests—mainly due to not cutting trees—all likely contribute.

About a decade ago, gray foxes disappeared around here. Their decline seems, at least in my observations, to correlate with the wholesale establishment of coyotes.

Both red and gray fox were abundant in this eastern part of King George when we planted a log home in a former cow pasture nearly 25 years ago. Today, with increasing capability of trail cameras to monitor wildlife activity, I easily see 10 or more coyotes for every red fox. I never see gray foxes anymore. It seems, as biologists like to say, they are “extirpated” from this area.

My own anecdotal observations also show fewer whitetail does having two fawns, the historic standard, with them as summers progress. It used to be routine to see mama deer with her two young ‘uns. Now, I might see a doe with two fawns in early June and a month later she is down to one.

A lot can happen to a whitetail fawn. My own guess, based on those year-round trail camera observations, is that coyotes are eating well.

New Research

Certainly, new predators establishing themselves in any environment affects the equilibrium related to wildlife species in a region. Dramatic decreases in elk and moose populations have been documented in areas where wolves were introduced and left unmanaged.

Coyote research in the eastern United States has been ongoing for more than a decade. One study showed that coyotes in our part of the country have considerable wolf DNA, due to crossbreeding with their bigger cousins as they migrated. Another study in South Carolina showed coyotes were the top predator of deer fawns, responsible for killing about 62 percent of all fawns born.

A new article published on the Quality Deer Management Association’s website (qdma.com) looks at results from the Tri-State Coyote Project, a cooperative effort that monitored 190 radio-collared coyotes in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Written by Dr. Mike Chamberlain and Dr. Joey Hinton, two experienced researchers into wildlife behavior and ecology, this study looks at how coyotes may be impacting deer populations.

This new research showed that some coyotes cover enormous ground.

“There are two types of coyotes – residents and transients. Residents maintain territories that average about 7 square miles, whereas transients move around the landscape looking for open territories, typically using more than 25 square miles,” according to the article. Some transients can cover hundreds of miles looking for a new territory. And once coyotes established residence in a territory, any losses to the resident numbers were quickly replaced by transients moving in, usually within days or, at best, a few weeks.

“If you remove a transient coyote, you’ve done nothing to impact the local dynamics of the coyote population relative to influences on deer or other species. If you remove a resident, you can rest assured that a transient will fill that void quickly,” the authors noted.

Resident coyotes enjoyed much higher annual survival rates, 64 percent compared to 39 percent for transients. Shootings accounted for 60 percent of all deaths.

Coyotes living in areas with relatively more agricultural and open areas, such as fragmented forests with agricultural fields, had greater survival. Coyotes living near road networks also fared better, mainly because they were exposed to less trapping and hunting pressure.

Deer for Dinner

To assess what coyotes were eating, researchers entered the coyotes’ territories monthly, scouring for scat. Deer are the dietary staple. The researchers found that coyotes ate adult deer all year and fawns for a seven-month period.

Researchers found a coyote pack consumed, on average, 600 pounds of deer annually. Packs consumed an average of 29 pounds of adult deer per month and an average of 4 pounds of fawns, when fawns were available.

Some people may wonder if the coyotes are just eating a lot of roadkill. Apparently not. Research suggests predation exceeds scavenging.

It’s a tough scenario. It seems that trapping and hunting pressure related to coyotes must be intense and sustained to effect even modest results. Maintaining quality habitat also helps.

Coyotes, with their western origins, fare best in open areas where they can see and chase. The researchers said maintaining dense fawning and escape cover allows deer pursued by coyotes to escape quickly. “Managers should recognize this relationship and ensure that open areas managed as foraging sites for deer, such as food plots, are juxtaposed to dense cover,” according to the article.

It’s hard for a single landowner to make a difference, unless that person owns hundreds if not thousands of acres. Neighbors need to work together on both habitat management and predator control. It can be a tough commitment.

I sure would like to hear those gray foxes—and the whippoorwills—again.

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