Wonders in the Wild: Coyotes
Updated: May 15, 2022
A new series by contributing writer, Meg Gorsline
After a hike at Blackstrap Hill Preserve in Falmouth, Jill wrote about our unnerving run-in with ticks and how best to handle such unwanted hitchhikers (Let's Talk About Ticks). But we also had a second animal encounter with a far more ephemeral and entirely different species: coyote, specifically coyote scat. The Falmouth Land Trust website mentions that the Blackstrap Hill preserve is home to several species of animals, including coyote. I didn’t expect to see any, so I was pretty excited to encounter a trace of their presence, even if it was in the form of a pretty wacky looking scat.
Have you ever seen a coyote scat? You might think - like I did - that it would look a lot like dog poop - and it sort of did. But it was so full of hair that it also looked an awful lot like a small dead mammal.
Wanting to know more about coyotes, I searched around online to see what I could learn. I came upon the Urban Coyote Research Project, a collaborative study of coyotes in the Chicago metro area. The website is a wonderful trove of information about coyotes, from their diet and life cycle to how to manage conflicts with people and pets. The website confirmed for me that the scat Jill and I saw was from a coyote, describing coyote scats as “rope-like and typically filled with hair and bones, unlike dog scat which is soft from dog food.”
According to the website, “a major finding from this research is the extent to which coyotes and people are living together; more coyotes have been observed using developed areas than expected.” At the height of the pandemic, I read several stories in the news about wild animals venturing in greater numbers into urban areas. It seemed that with the presence of people curtailed by quarantine, animals were getting a chance to stretch their legs a bit.
My own anecdotal experience confirmed this. In the spring of 2021, I saw a coyote while jogging the Portland Trails in the woods behind Evergreen Cemetery. Rounding a bend, I spotted a large shaggy dog in the middle of the trail ahead of me and wondered where its owner was. In the blink of an eye, it disappeared and I realized with immediate clarity that what I had seen wasn’t a dog. For the rest of my run - and on any trips to the woods in the weeks after - I felt a mix of curiosity and wariness; I both wanted to see the coyote again and hoped I wouldn’t.
The Urban Coyote Research Project studies western coyotes, but I learned in the course of my online sleuthing that coyotes in Maine are actually eastern coyotes. Eastern coyotes are a hybrid of western coyotes, which are native to western North America, and wolves, which were common across North America, including Maine, until the 1920s, when they were hunted to extinction across the U.S. According to an article in the Portland Press Herald, this wolf DNA means that eastern coyotes are larger than western coyotes. While adult western coyotes weigh an average of 25 to 35 pounds, adult eastern coyotes average 35 to 55 pounds. The National Park Service recorded a whopping 82 pound male eastern coyote in Newfoundland.
The larger size of eastern coyotes means that they can hunt larger animals. While all coyotes are highly adaptable opportunistic eaters - meaning they will eat pretty much anything they come across, from animals to berries to cat food - the animals they hunt are primarily small to midsize animals, such as foxes, rodents, rabbits, and birds. However, an increasing number of hunters in Maine are claiming that eastern coyotes are hunting deer.
This is a contentious issue. Deer hunters are worried that coyote predation will interfere with their hunting and with the income that deer hunting generates in Maine. Naturalists disagree with hunters that coyotes will adversely affect the deer population. To the contrary, conservation biologist Geri Vistein argues that coyotes in Maine will, in fact, have a positive impact on the entire ecosystem. As the keystone carnivore in Maine, coyotes balance populations and prevent the spread of disease, promoting healthy deer populations and encouraging biodiversity. Learning this, I wondered if coyotes could have a similar impact here as wolves have had in Yellowstone.
Wolves were once native to Yellowstone, but - as in the rest of the country - were hunted into extinction. The elk population of Yellowstone - without predators to keep their numbers in check - doubled and elk herds seriously overgrazed the park, wreaking havoc on the park’s ecosystem. Insects lost important nectar sources and birds lost insects to feed on and trees to nest in; the elk eroded river banks, disrupting fish populations with muddy water, as well as the bears and otters that fed on the fish; the elk prevented trees from regenerating, which impacted the beavers who needed trees to build dams that also housed fish populations, and so on. The impacts were incredibly far reaching, what scientists call a trophic cascade.
Then in 1995, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone and the trophic cascade reversed. Trees and flowers rebounded, the water ran clear again, and fish populations flourished in the dams the beavers were able to build. Insect and bird populations soared with the growth of new flowers and trees, and bears once again had the fish and berries they needed to thrive. Wolves even had a positive impact on the elk: by culling the population to an appropriate size for its habitat and removing the weaker members of the herd, the elk population in Yellowstone became healthier and stronger. Humans directly benefited, too, from the cleaner drinking water and the income generated by tourism to Yellowstone to see the wolves.
Another thing I wondered about when I learned that eastern coyotes might prey on deer in Maine was what impact that might have on deer ticks and tick-borne illness. Studies point to the fact that an overabundant deer population - like we have here in Maine - contributes to an overabundant tick population. A recent study conducted on Monhegan Island demonstrated that reducing the number of deer reduced the number of deer ticks and the risk of contracting Lyme disease. Could allowing coyotes to flourish in Maine - instead of killing them indiscriminately, as the law allows now - actually strengthen the deer population and encourage greater biodiversity, while reducing the number of ticks and tick-borne illness?
I recognize that this proposition to knowingly encourage coyotes - or any large carnivore - to live near us may strike fear into our hearts. We worry about our safety and the safety of our children and pets. I freely admit that I was on high alert after seeing a coyote on the trails near my house. But after researching the truth about coyotes, I realized that there was nothing to be afraid of, as long as I knew how to manage my own actions.
According to coyote experts, problems with coyotes can arise when coyotes associate humans with food. A healthy wild coyote is naturally shy of humans and will avoid any contact; but a coyote that has been fed by humans, whether intentionally or unintentionally (through finding pet food in the yard, getting access to compost or garbage, or preying on rodents drawn by bird feeders) may venture closer than we are comfortable into human habitats.
If you do ever cross paths with a coyote in your community, it will almost surely disappear in an instant, like the one I saw. If it doesn’t, don’t run away; make yourself big and loud and throw things at it if need be. Coyote attacks on humans are extremely infrequent and rarely serious. And attacks are often associated with humans feeding coyotes. Knowing what we can do to keep coyotes wild - feeding pets indoors, securing compost and garbage bins, planting flowers and shrubs for wild birds instead of putting out bird seed, keeping pets in sight and on leash - will allow us to co-exist peacefully.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife estimates that there are at least 12,000 coyotes in Maine. You may someday encounter one of these coyotes (or their scat) on a trail. In fact, one of the intriguing things about the coyote scat Jill and I found was that it was smack dab in the middle of the trail, almost like the coyote wanted it to be found. According to the Urban Coyote Research Project, “Coyotes use scat to communicate and so they usually deposit scats in the middle of trails or near the borders of their territories where they are easily seen.”
I had never stopped to consider that anything other than humans use trail systems. But - in one of those inexplicable instances of serendipity - my ignorance was gracefully upended by a totally unrelated book that I happened to be reading during my coyote research. The book, recommended by my friend Becca, was On Trails, by Robert Moor. Moor asserts that literally all living things use trails. “Pathways,” he writes, “act as an essential guiding force on this planet: on every scale of life, from microscopic cells to herds of elephants, creatures can be found relying on trails to reduce an overwhelming array of options to a single expeditious route. Without trails, we would be lost.” We use trails, coyotes use trails, insects use trails - we all use and need trails and these trails connect us.
What became clearer to me than ever while learning about coyotes is how interdependent all living things are. From wolves in Yellowstone to ticks in Maine, every living thing relies, directly or indirectly, on every other. Here in Maine, it seems to me that we need coyotes and they need us. The key is knowing how to strike a balance that benefits us all, and that can happen through learning about each other and our shared ecosystem. So go outside and get curious about this incredible world we inhabit. Maybe you’ll find that a little wonder in the wild can teach you something new about the world, and about yourself.
If you want to learn more about coyotes within and outside of Maine, and to see the resources I used to write this post, you can check out these websites:
Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
Coyote Lives in Maine: Citizenry and Science
Portland Press Herald. “Maine coyotes getting bigger, more wolflike.” 5/7/2017
History of Deer Herd Reduction for Tick Control on Maine’s Offshore Islands