A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Our Own Mystery Mammal: The Eastern Coyote

An Eastern coyote in mid-February.
How well do you know Canis latrans var.?

As we paddled around a corner in the marsh, motion caught my eye some 70 yards away, where the forest narrowed and the North Branch River turned into a rocky stream.

At first, I thought the blur was a bobcat. Then, as it hopped across the rocks to cross the stream, I saw it was a coyote, with a nice, long, bushy tail. It didn’t see us -- a small group of kayakers -- as it crossed and loped slowly into the woods.

Then another crossed the stream -- a pup, much to my delight -- playing in the water as it went. I held my hand up to the other kayakers behind me, put my finger to my lips so they’d be quiet, and pointed to the scene. Another pup crossed. Followed by yet another, all seeming to enjoy themselves as much as we enjoyed seeing them.

Finally, another adult crossed, all business-like, and off they went, into the woods. They never even saw us.

You don’t see coyotes too often, even if you spend a lot of time outside. Rarer still to see a whole family of coyotes, in their own setting. They’re kind of a mystery mammal.

With that in mind, here’s a quiz about coyotes:

1. New Hampshire’s Eastern coyote populations were wiped out in the early 1800s; they returned in the early 1900s when the forests grew back.
True or false?

2. Why do Eastern coyotes howl?
a) To excite other coyotes about a hunt.
b) Because it’s mating season.
c) To tell competing coyotes to stay away.
d) To draw their pack together.

3. Eastern coyotes typically eat:
a) House cats, small dogs and other pets.
b) Squirrels, mice, voles, frogs, apples, berries, fawns, adult deer, snowshoe hare and other seasonally available foods.
c) Fruit and vegetables.
d) Fish and rabbits.

4. An Eastern coyote typically weighs:
a) About as much as a Western coyote.
b) 30 to 50 pounds.
c) 80 to 100 pounds.
d) Much less than a Western coyote.

5) The Eastern coyote is more accurately described as a “coydog,” because of its hybridization with dogs. True or false?

6. The term “coywolf” is a more accurate description of Eastern coyotes. True or false?

7. Because of their impact on deer populations, the best way to manage Eastern coyote populations is to encourage high annual harvests. True or false?

8. If you encounter a coyote, the best thing to do is:
a) Run away.

b) Savor the sight calmly and safely from a distance, standing your ground, but not making a big reaction.
c) Yell and throw objects at the coyote.
d) Curl up in a fetal position and hope that it goes away.

1. False. According to prevailing scientific thought, New Hampshire’s first confirmed coyote was in 1944 in Grafton County. The spread of Eastern coyotes across the state really took off in the 1970s, north to south.

2. D. Biologists have observed that Eastern coyotes howl to locate each other and regroup their pack, especially in the fall and winter when the pups are old enough to start hunting on their own.

3. B. Coyotes are omnivores that thrive on opportunities offered by the season, whether it’s berries, rodents, ground-nesting birds or even garbage and carcasses. They will occasionally take pets, but that’s not a big part of their diet.

4. B, about 30 to 50 pounds. By comparison, the smaller Western coyote typically weighs 25 to 30 pounds.

5. False. While coyotes and dogs have been known to breed, there’s generally low viability of their litters. For one thing, the female coyote needs the male’s help in providing food. Studies have found little evidence of domestic dog genes in the mix of Eastern coyotes.

6. True. Genetic studies have shown that our Eastern coyotes are the result of hybridization between Western coyotes and Eastern wolves.

7. False. While the science, sociology and politics of managing coyotes is complex, research and experience have shown that Eastern coyotes can respond to hunting pressure by having larger litters or freeing up young females to breed. The end result can be more coyotes. This is a testament to the coyote’s remarkable ability to adapt to changing conditions.

8. B. If you encounter a coyote, the best thing to do is savor the sight. Relax and enjoy. Coyotes don’t want to mess with people and attacks are extremely rare. So watch and enjoy them. Running away can trigger a chase response in a coyote, and throwing things could upset them.
Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.