Saturday, March 2, 2013

Coyote warning?

I wondered what a "coyote warning" was when I saw the headline to this story in the Connecticut Post a couple days ago. In the moments between it flashing before my eyes, me clicking on the link, and actually reading it I suppose I thought it might be about a rabid coyote that had been seen frequently near homes or one that had attacked a child. I certainly did not expect it to be local officials in Monroe imploring residents to notify them whenever they see a coyote simply because one homeowner saw a pair in their yard.

It goes on to say that according to Monroe Animal Control Officer Ed Risko, "[t]here are at least 3,000 coyotes in Connecticut, and they roam between five to 15 miles of their den." That seems to me to make it extremely likely for many homeowners to see a coyote at some point during the year, right? So what is the problem? Apparently because this is the breeding season officials are more concerned about them than usual, but reporting sightings and attempting to catalogue families and their dens sounds like a heck of a task for a very mobile and admittedly wide-ranging mammal.

I think the intent is to draw attention to the risk they pose to humans and that we should do all we can to keep them away from us. As silly as it sounds I do know some people unfortunately do feed mammals, even intentionally giving food to predators, as if they are friendly dogs and cats. My uneasiness about these sorts of pieces is that it will propagate more disinformation and fear of nature and wildlife. While you should obviously not intentionally feed coyotes sentiments such as, "[w]hen people feed birds and cats outside in their yard, they may not realize it, but they may also be feeding the coyotes," can go a little too far. There are plenty of safe ways to feed the birds in your yard while ensuring you are feeding only the avian visitors. All of your bird feeders should have baffles on them or be placed so that mammals of all sorts cannot access them. If you provide any food on the ground make sure it is limited to small amounts of seed but realize that even this can draw in mammals from rats to coyotes. Putting out food such as bread is an open invitation for mammals and not healthy for birds.

I do not think I have to say that feeding cats outdoors is extremely dangerous for all parties. Cats should never be allowed outdoors to begin with as they are proven and relentless natural killers. They are awesome little family members but they are non-native, invasive, bird slaughterers. If you love your pet then why allow it to be put at risk and expect to live a dangerous and drastically shorter life? Feeding it outside invites other mammals to eat the food, all the way up to bears, and perhaps the cat along with it. I could add more vividness to this entry with descriptions of dismembered cats I have encountered in my tens of thousands of hours in the Connecticut woods but I will just say that those missing signs we often see typically have one ending for the poor cat.

Having lived nearly all of my 27 years in Stratford I have acquired a mindset that reflects the developed and heavily populated section of the state. I see coyotes a few times each year and 99% of my sightings end in them fleeing as fast as they can or keeping a very safe distance from me, especially if in a pack. I hear them routinely as we have a local den and they make quite a commotion. In my experience even the red fox is a much more curious species, and I have had them stalk my trail through the woods and outflank me in order to see what the heck I was doing, at least until we locked eyes. The one time I saw a coyote I had to aggressively antagonize was when a weak and sick individual, not much larger than a red fox, decided to look for a snack in my yard in broad daylight on a temperate weekend, not being concerned about what was going on around it. It ran after I hooted, hollered, and flailed at it. It was literally dying and desperate for food, but even then it returned to the woods. Bear in mind that daytime sightings are not exclusively of such individuals either - I can still picture a coyote easily the size of a wolf that ran in front of my car in the middle of a sunny afternoon.

I passed the article along to CAS Director of Conservation Services Anthony Zemba who has a different view of the state living far inland. He told me that in all his time in the field in Connecticut (as he has been roaming our woodlands since 1976 and conducting flora and fauna surveys intensively since about 1993) he has only actually seen coyote on two occasions. Each time they tried to slink away from him undetected. Anthony hears them much more often when they vocalize at night and at times he hears multiple individuals vocalizing together. He is therefore certain they are out in the forests and woodlands that he frequents but he rarely ever sees them. As for our dissimilar experiences Anthony hypothesizes there is a higher density population in the reduced habitat of Fairfield County and that the coyote natural dispersal and introduction route was from the west through New York allowing them more time to establish in western Connecticut than in forests to the east across the Connecticut River.

We also thought it would be insightful to seek out the opinion of a Connecticut mammalogist. I sent the article to our friend James Fischer, the Research Director of The White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield (their blog can be found here). He provided me with the following thoughts:

I agree that people should be cautious about Eastern Coyotes in their neighborhoods but they should not fear the species. It is always a good idea to not feed wildlife without considering the implications. We now have several new neighbors in Connecticut backyards that we did not have as recently as 20 years ago. Black Bears, Fisher, and Eastern Coyote now live throughout Connecticut. People should secure potential sources of food that attract these animals into their backyards, which in turn acclimates the animals to humans. Acclimatizing these animals to humans can have undesirable consequences; these animals could harm property, domestic animals, or people. These animals are a beautiful addition to our state and they should be appreciated from a distance with respect and with an attitude toward conserving them for future generations.

Thanks for the wise words Jamie! I hope everyone tries to remember that we are responsible for everything happening in the world around us and that we have to have the correct approach in our interactions with our rapidly changing environment if we want to ensure a better future for all of the life involved.

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

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