Saturday, October 31, 2009

Coyotes are changing

This week a young folk singer died after being mauled by a pair of coyotes. Hiking the Skyline Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, 19-year-old Taylor Mitchell, of Toronto, was airlifted to a hospital in Halifax but died from her extensive injuries.

To put us all at ease, editorial writers like Paul Berton, of The London Free Press/Sun Media, are telling us, "unlike wolves, coyotes tend to be solitary and do not travel in packs."

Not according to the Nova Scotia Department of Resources that has posted pertinent information on the department Website. "Coyotes do travel and hunt in family units or packs, generally there is a dominate pair with young of the year."

Berton continues to mislead his readers by writing that coyotes "are smaller than medium-sized dogs and not designed to take down large prey..."

Not according to the Website All Points North which states that whitetail deer are the "primary diet for the eastern coyotes in the Adirondacks."

If you are thinking that deer are rather large prey to be downed by something smaller than many family pets, you're right to wonder. Truth is, according to Project Coyote, folks like Berton are confusing the coyotes found in the west with those found in the east. The eastern coyote is a much bigger predator. A 55-pound female eastern coyote was radio-collared in New England. Large males of almost 50-pounds have been reported in Nova Scotia in the area where the young hiker was attacked.

Why are these coyotes so large and why are they hunting in packs — possibly because they are not purebred coyotes but a product of a "canid soup." The most plausible scenario is that the Eastern coyote is often a hybrid between coyotes and a small type of wolf — the red wolf, although some believe the grey wolf may also be part of the mix. DNA sampling of coyote tissue in the Northeast has confirmed the presence of wolf DNA.

The Nova Scotia Department of Resources believes the Eastern coyote has significant wolf and dog characteristics resulting from interbreeding and producing an animal "twice the size of . . . the western coyote." This is not an animal to be lightly dismissed as simply looming "large" in "the human imagination" as Berton writes.

It was not until 1977 that the first coyote was trapped in Nova Scotia. Since then they have dispersed across the province. The danger coyotes pose to people is not great, that said, there have been three recorded incidents of people bitten or attacked in Nova Scotia since 1995. Newspaper articles record that across Canada between 1998-2008 there were 24 incidents resulting in injury. It must be noted that these were mostly scratches or puncture wounds. Until this week, there were no deaths.

It is much the same story in the States. Attacks on joggers, hikers, cyclists and children are increasing, especially in southern California. A rash of coyote attacks on children in 2008 led to the closure of a park in southern Cal. "People cannot be ambivalent about coyotes," said Harry Morse of the California Dep't of Fish and Game.

Most injuries are minor but one victim of a coyote attack required 200 stitches.  And back in 1981 a Glendale, CA, girl was attacked and killed while playing outside her home.

In areas where aggressive coyote behaviour has been reported, people are wise to take note. In most cases, simple precautions are all that is necessary. The following, based on advice given by the CBC seems prudent.

  •  In areas where coyotes have been spotted, be prepared. The best defence is a good offence. Carry a whistle, flashlight and/or personal alarm. This is especially important for small children who play outside or walk to school.
  • If confronted by an aggressive coyote, stand your ground. Stay put and look it in the eye. Do not look away and never run as it is more likely to consider you prey, give chase and seriously harm you.
  • Be aggressive yourself by waving your arms, stomping and yelling loudly in a deep voice. You are trying to deter it from coming closer.
  • Don't walk alone in areas with known high coyote activity. Walk with a companion and stay together.
  • Don't lure coyotes with food. Coyotes are scavengers and will be attracted by food left outside for pets, meat scraps left in compost buckets and garbage bins that do not seal tightly.
There is little reason to fear coyotes but there is no reason not to have great respect for them. The coyotes in eastern Canada are a dynamic, evolving species with a changing genetic make-up.

For another take on coyotes in Ontario see Anatomy of a Coyote Attack by Harold MacGregor. Be warned, he has posted pictures which some may find difficult to view.

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