Dances with Coyotes
Humans have long had a love-hate relationship with these ingenious creatures.
In August 2009, four coyotes were found dead on the 10th Line of Amaranth. A local farmer told me the animals were intentionally run down. A driver, cresting a rise in the road, surprised a family of five and accelerated, striking and killing four of them.
If true, this story illustrates the hostility that has tended to characterize attitudes toward coyotes since European settlers first encountered these wily predators on the plains of western North America. To many newcomers, coyotes were “vicious beasts,” “skulking varmints” and “sneaky vermin” – and this mindset has persisted.
But many Aboriginal people had a different view of coyotes. To them, coyote was the “trickster” and the “transformer.” Some First Nations people, inspired by coyotes’ nocturnal chorusing, called them “song dogs.” Others, beguiled by coyotes’ ingenuity, revered them as “God’s dogs.”
Like humans coyotes are highly resourceful, able to live just about anywhere, to respond creatively to environmental challenges and eat just about anything – including at times domestic animals. The human response to this predation has often been violent. Coyotes have been shot, poisoned, burned, trapped and in Amaranth in 2009, run down by cars.
The case for coexistence
From the West, coyotes gradually migrated eastward, and their yipping and howling can now be heard from the heights of Melancthon to the Peel Plain. The coyote has become the dominant predator, not only in the Headwaters region, but also throughout most of North America. Unlike other large predators coyotes thrive in human-dominated landscapes. Possessed of the same resolute determination to survive as people, these animals are here to stay.
So we must learn to coexist – and we humans could start by getting to know these predators better. Coyotes are canids, belonging to the same family as dogs, and people who have studied coyotes see in them many of the traits often admired in dogs: loyalty, compassion, courage and co-operation. For those who celebrate family values, the coyote family could serve as a model. Coyote parents are devoted to each other and to their pups.
Coyotes entered southern Ontario in the early 20th century, a colonization aided and abetted by human settlement. Forests were thinned out to create a mix of field and woodland where these animals could thrive, and people largely eliminated the coyote’s mortal enemy the wolf.
As coyotes became the new chief predator in the province, something interesting happened. The few wolves that remained embraced the love-the-one-you’re-with philosophy, and wolf/coyote hybrids were born. Coyote “the transformer” became bigger and stronger than the full-blooded coyotes of the West, better able to take down larger prey such as deer.
So when the opportunity arises or when hunger drives them, Ontario coyotes often behave like wolves, co-operating with pack mates to subdue large prey. But the hoofs and antlers of deer are weapons coyotes prefer to avoid. More often coyotes hunt smaller prey and this continues to be a solo endeavour.
Coyotes are expert mousers with highly sensitive ears that can pinpoint the faint footfalls of mice under snow or mats of grass. Coyote cuisine also includes lots of insects and fruit. In the fall, for example, I frequently come across coyote scat consisting largely of wild grape skins.
Top predators like coyotes are essential to the well-being of the natural environment for they keep populations of prey animals at sustainable levels. Coyote predation on rodent, rabbit and deer populations also helps keep native plant communities healthy and protect crops grown by humans.
Coyote predation may even help birds. A California study found coyote-rich habitats have more birds than those with few coyotes, apparently because coyotes control small predators such as foxes, which feed on birds and their eggs.
Foxes also fall prey to coyotes and in response some foxes are proving that coyotes aren’t the only smart canids. Every spring on Keith Lamont’s sheep farm in Erin Township, foxes dig dens inside the protection of his electric fencing. Foxes are small enough to move with impunity through the fencing, while the larger coyotes are kept outside and away from vulnerable kits.
Groundhogs aren’t as resourceful as foxes in avoiding coyote predation. For people of my vintage, who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, the sight of groundhogs, or woodchucks, standing sentinel in fields was common. Groundhogs are now seen only infrequently, and their burrows, once the bane of horse and cattle owners, are of less concern.
Coyote predation may even benefit the health of humans – and their pets – by controlling deer populations. Deer host the ticks that carry Lyme disease, a malady that has recently attracted considerable attention. Decreased deer populations may help reduce the incidence of this potentially disabling disease.
Looking past the headlines
While the role of coyotes in the ecosystem receives little popular attention, these animals’ misdeeds often make headlines. Take the Toronto Star’s coverage of an incident that occurred in a city park on a July evening last year. According to the Star, a man practising yoga in the park was “charged” three times by a coyote. The man “began to yell, clap his hands and jump up and down,” successfully driving the animal away.
News reports like this sometimes stoke anti-coyote hysteria – but fail to ask a critical question: Why would an animal normally very wary of people approach someone so boldly?
Lesley Sampson of Coyote Watch Canada, an Ontario-based coyote advocacy group, said the answer may be straightforward. “Some of our parks have become hot spots for feeding coyotes,” said Sampson. “And there are photographers who routinely bait coyotes and other wildlife to lure them near.”
A coyote that is fed by humans soon learns to view all people as potential food dispensers, Sampson added. It thinks, “These two-legged creatures are going to feed me.”
The death of Taylor Mitchell, a Toronto folksinger killed in 2009 by coyotes in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, shocked a continent. Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado and a member of the advisory board of Project Coyote in the United States, was deeply saddened by Mitchell’s death.
Still, Bekoff noted, coyote attacks on people are “extremely rare.” In fact, the deaths of Mitchell and a young California child in 1981 are the only recorded North American fatalities attributable to coyote – ever. Yet millions of people and tens of thousands of coyotes share the same territory. This proximity, Bekoff said, means “the opportunities for such aggressive encounters amount to hundreds, or even thousands, in North America each day.”
The precise circumstances of Mitchell’s death are unknown, but according to Sampson evidence suggests that, for a long time, coyotes in the Cape Breton park had frequented campsites in search of food. This close contact may have caused the animals to lose their fear of humans.
Does this mean that coyotes now pose a significant risk to people? No, said Brent Patterson, a research scientist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and an adjunct professor at Trent University. “Like all large predators,” he said, “coyotes need to be respected, and proper precautions need to be taken, but beyond that, we should keep in mind that the risk of being harmed by a coyote is very small relative to the many common dangers we all face during our daily lives.”
In my hundreds of solo walks through the Headwaters region over the past four decades, I’ve frequently come across coyote scat and coyote tracks – though I’ve rarely seen a coyote. But these creatures have undoubtedly seen me many times. Their healthy fear of people has kept them in the shadows.
The key to coexisting with coyotes
Humans must ensure coyotes’ natural fear persists. The actions of those who feed coyotes intentionally or even inadvertently leave garbage accessible in their yards, weaken this fear, which protects both people and coyotes.
In consultation with Sampson, Niagara Falls has implemented a program of non-lethal coyote control, an initiative the city takes very seriously. Feed a coyote in Niagara Falls and you could face a $5,000 fine. Other communities would do well to follow this lead.
People must also learn how to deal with coyotes that have become habituated to humans. Like many other canids, coyotes live in family structures governed by dominance and submission. When meeting an emboldened coyote, humans must demonstrate their dominance. Screaming and running away will not work.
If you encounter a coyote, Coyote Watch Canada advises following five steps: stop; stand still; shout, wave arms and throw something; back away slowly; share the experience – others may learn from it.
To persuade coyotes to leave a particular area, Sampson recommends a technique called “hazing.” Hazing, described in detail at coyotewatch canada.com, involves a variety of strategies, such as yelling and banging pots and pans, to restore the coyote’s natural fear of humans.
Though coyotes sometimes attack pet dogs, predation is not usually the motivation. Like all canids coyotes are strongly territorial. They will also actively protect their young from other animals.
In his book Coyote, Wyman Meinzer relates the story of a coyote that repeatedly appeared whenever this Texas photographer walked a friend’s Labrador retrievers. The coyote would “dash in and bite the Labs on their hips,” wrote Meinzer. The animal wasn’t harbouring delusions of killing the much larger retrievers, it was simply defending its territory.
Cats are more likely than dogs to fall victim to hungry coyotes. But most cats killed by coyotes are those permitted to roam freely outdoors. As these cats participate in the food chain by hunting small birds and animals, coyotes in turn hunt the cats. This is fundamental ecology and there’s a simple solution: keep cats indoors.
Along with free-roaming cats, lamb is sometimes on the coyote’s menu, and those who raise sheep react with understandable ire. This antipathy has a long history, stretching back to biblical times when shepherds watched their flocks by night.
The sheep farmers I have met delight in the natural world. Lamont enjoys watching the painted turtles that bask in his pond and the foxes that prowl his fields. And John Henstock, who has been farming sheep in Amaranth for many years, is a longtime member of the Upper Credit Field Naturalists.
Neither Lamont nor Henstock despise coyotes, and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs does compensate farmers who lose livestock to predators. But no amount of compensation can assuage the anguish of a sheep farmer who wakes in the morning to find the grisly remains of coyote-killed lambs. In the fall Henstock now allows hunters onto his property to kill coyotes.
Non-lethal control measures
Is it possible to deal with coyotes’ sheep predation in non-lethal ways? Can humans outwit these predators? Or is killing them the only recourse?
For former Progressive Conservative MPP Bill Murdoch (Bruce, Grey, Owen Sound), killing is the answer. In early 2011 Murdoch pushed for an Ontario-wide bounty of $200 on coyotes. Now retired from the provincial legislature, Murdoch told the Owen Sound Sun Times that he regrets that the bounty was never adopted. And Larry Miller, federal MP for the same area, has publicly stated, “the only good coyote is a dead coyote.”
But not everyone supports bounties. Some find the idea repugnant, while others argue bounties are expensive and don’t work. Patterson, for example, maintained bounties “have never been shown effective at reducing coyote abundance. Despite the presence of a province-wide bounty on coyotes until 1972, coyotes expanded greatly in number and range across Ontario during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.”
Coyotes compensate for losses to trapping and hunting by having more pups. In addition, the death of alpha males and females can open breeding to lower-status coyotes in the pack, resulting in more coyotes, not fewer.
Dufferin County council hasn’t imposed a general bounty on coyotes, but councillors have adopted a bylaw to control “problem coyotes.” Stock owners can invite licensed hunters or trappers onto their property to kill coyotes that have been involved in livestock predation. From 2010 to August 2012, 157 coyotes were killed as part of this program, which pays hunters $50 for each dead coyote.
This focused approach is preferable to a general bounty, but its effectiveness remains to be seen. Bekoff compared the removal of coyotes from a property to what happens when guests check out of a hotel room. The guests leave in the morning, but by the afternoon, new guests are likely to occupy the room.
There will always be some coyote predation on sheep, regardless of measures taken to discourage it. So instead of killing coyotes, perhaps it’s worth trying alternatives that minimize losses while offering enduring results.
Installing electric fencing is one of the most effective measures. Guard animals such as llamas and donkeys, which have an inherent dislike of canids, can also help protect flocks. And large dogs such as the great Pyrenees, if raised with sheep, will bond with and guard their charges. Electric fencing and guard animals are expensive but as Lamont said, leaving a sheep farm unprotected is like walking away from home without locking the door.
No protective measure is fail-safe. Even Lamont, with electric fencing and a llama named Leo on guard, still loses sheep to coyotes.
But evidence confirms that non-lethal control measures can significantly decrease coyote predation. Marin County, California, which once paid trappers to catch and kill coyotes, has documented the benefits of non-lethal methods. The money saved has been redirected to help farmers by, for example, subsidizing the cost of electric fencing and of guard dogs. Sheep and lambs are still lost to coyotes, but at a much lower rate.
For sheep farmers, another challenge is disposing of dead stock. The farmers I spoke to bury or compost dead animals in accordance with regulations set by the Ontario agriculture ministry.
But coyotes have been in the business of cleaning up dead animals for thousands of years. The scent of a dead sheep is probably as alluring to a coyote as the aroma of a barbecued steak is to many humans. Not surprisingly, a study in Alberta found that sheep farmers who remove dead animals from their property suffer less coyote predation.
The cost of picking up dead sheep is not high, but for an operation already running on tight margins expenses can add up. Funding the removal of dead stock may be a way for governments to help farmers reduce coyote predation, especially as the cost of the program is likely to be offset by reduced compensation payouts for sheep killed by coyotes.
Celebrating coyote encounters
Last April, at an event at the Dufferin County Museum, Michael Agueci of the Dufferin Circle of Storytellers entertained guests with his tale of a coyote encounter. While walking his dog one wintry afternoon, Agueci moved toward a pair of calling barred owls in an effort to spot the elusive birds.
The owls were forgotten, however, when he stumbled upon coyotes feeding on a deer carcass. When the animals became aware of his presence, “the pack was spooked,” Agueci said, and the coyotes fled.
Agueci’s coyotes were playing a predatory role that has been keeping ecosystems healthy for millions of years. And they acted as they should in the presence of humans – with fear and withdrawal.
And Agueci? Though he was “awestruck” by the admittedly grisly scene, the final line of the story summed up his feelings: “What a fantastic walk.”
- For more on how humans can coexist with coyotes, check out the following: coyotewatchcanada.com and projectcoyote.org
- The online publication Coyotes in Our Midst, (link to PDF) by Camilla Fox and Christopher Papouchis is an excellent resource.
- God’s Dog: A Celebration of the North American Coyote, by Hope Ryden (universe, 2oo5), one of the first books to lament the long history of attempts to exterminate coyotes, presents a strong case for building a new relationship with these animals.
- Coyote, by Wyman Meinzer (texas tech university press, 1996), offers fascinating insights into coyote behaviour, as well as a gallery of photos.