Coyotes on the prowl

Deana Stokes Sullivan dss@thetelegram.com
Published on April 23, 2011
The Eastern Coyote, known to prey on caribou and other wildlife, has been increasing in numbers throughout the province in recent years.
Photo courtesy of Mike McGrath, Department of Environment and Conservation, wildlife division

Justin O’Leary recently returned home to Kilbride after an unsuccessful day of coyote hunting.

Before going to bed, he stepped outdoors to smoke a cigarette and was amazed by what he heard, breaking the early morning silence, shortly after 1 a.m.

“It was coyotes howling, like across the street,” O’Leary said.

It’s now been three to four weeks and the animals seem to be staying around his neighbourhood.

“They’ve been howling behind the dairy farm, just up the road from me,” O’Leary said.

Earlier this week, he watched one come up out of a drainage ditch next to a neighbour’s house.

“Actually, I thought it was the neighbour's dog at first until I watched it move and, from its movements, I noticed it was a coyote,” he said.

He figures there are at least two animals in the area, scavenging for food. With a lot of dairy farms around, O’Leary said, the coyotes are likely hunting rodents and may even be going into the barns to steal grain from the cattle.

“I think they’re hungry,” he said.

One night, O’Leary said, he started returning calls to the coyotes and had them howling for about 10 minutes.

“They’re really vocal,” he said.

Unlike a dog’s howl, theirs is high-pitched.

They seem harmless now, he said, but in larger numbers that might not be the case. He expects a population boom this year because the female coyotes are denning now and will soon have litters of pups.

Plotted on website

O’Leary is a member of the Newfoundland and Labrador Waterfowlers hunting website that has a coyote group, where members report sightings.

Coyote group administrator Tony Cooney has been recording sightings on a Google Earth map. Small, blue balloons represent each sighting. To the left of the map is a short description of each encounter, with the date and time.

O’Leary, for example, describes one of his sightings around 2:30 a.m. at the end of Walsh’s Lane in Kilbride.

“Don’t even think it noticed me until I whistled and barked at him,” he wrote. “He came up out of the ditch on the side of the road, rubbed his scent in the lawn of the house next door and headed up Old Bay Bulls Road next to the dairy farm with the big red barns. The cattle were going crazy for about a half hour after I watched him head in that direction.”

Since last fall, numerous coyotes have been reported from central Newfoundland to the south coast and eastern region, but what’s really noticeable on the map is a large cluster of small blue balloons around the St. John’s metro region, representing recent sightings, including Blackmarsh Road, Brookfield Road, Pippy Park, Wishingwell Road, Crosbie Road and Goulds.

Ed Smith, a conservation officer who works seasonally fighting forest fires, is the founder of the website. He agrees that coyotes are moving into urban areas in search of food.

Females are giving birth, he said, so their energy and food demands are high.

“So, to have a place where it’s easy access to food, like a city or urban setting, is probably really beneficial,” Smith said.

Even small pets can be easy prey for coyote parents and their offspring.

Smith said there have been anecdotal reports of pets being approached and killed by coyotes. There have also been stories of small animals being taken off back porches at night and of beagles being attacked while hunting rabbits with their owners.

“They hear the dog barking one minute and the next minute, it’s whimpering or dead when they come up to it, with pieces taken out of it,” he said.

The hunting dog’s attention was probably on a rabbit, making it an easier target for a coyote, Smith said. Out of a territorial response. the coyote would try to kill an intruder or attack it as a food source.

In the wild, he said, coyotes have a real disdain for foxes and other canines and are said to be the No. 1 predator of foxes.

Once they lose their fear of humans, Smith said, coyotes could attack small children and even adults.

In British Columbia, a small child was attacked by a coyote and nearly dragged off into the woods, he said. Closer to home, a woman was killed in a coyote attack in Cape Breton, N.S., last year.

“The threat for humans is rare, but it does happen,” Smith said, “and with the increased presence in an urban setting, the more likely it is for a confrontation, whether it’s in fear that the animal strikes back or it just loses all fear and goes after the small human or even an adult.”

Smith said he would advise people not to leave small pets and children unattended in their backyards, even for a few minutes, with coyotes roaming urban neighbourhoods.

The population of coyotes in the province since their arrival in the mid-1980s isn’t known, but Smith said their home range on the island seems extensive.

One juvenile animal that was radio-collared by local wildlife officials in Clarenville ended up in the Codroy Valley a couple of months later and established a home range there. It was tracked going down the Burin Peninsula, across Bay d’Espoir, up the Port au Port Peninsula and down into the Codroy Valley.

“That’s quite an extensive pilgrimage,” Smith said.

Wolf hybrid

The breed of coyote in Newfoundland is known as the eastern coyote, which is believed to have been interbred with wolves during their trek from the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, through the Maritimes and into Newfoundland. The species has been blamed for killing animals on the island, such as caribou and young moose.

Smith doesn’t believe they’ve put the caribou population in jeopardy because brain worm disease has also killed substantial numbers of caribou.

“They might hinder the re-emergence of the caribou population by attacking calves, but mostly black bears are doing the major damage when it comes to calf recruitment,” he said.

The eastern coyote can be twice the size of other coyotes, Smith said. Some reported in the city have been estimated to be 60 pounds and heavier.

Smith said they form family groups because the pups stay with the parents for a number of years. It’s not a big leap to say that if they have wolf DNA they may hunt in packs, but there’s no hard evidence of that.

Growing interest

When Smith created the waterfowlers website in November 2009, he was initially interested in connecting with people who hunted ducks and geese.

“I didn’t expect it to go very far,” he said.

In December 2009, he partnered with another hunter, Peter Emberley, who also became a website administrator. Smith said they decided to expand it to reflect their other hunting and recreational interests.

With only word-of-mouth promotion, Smith said the site has grown from 23 members in 2009 to more than 570 members to date and between 8,000 and 10,000 hits a day.

Membership is free, but members can contribute photos, videos and comments or chat with other members.

Smith has a degree in anthropology and diplomas certifying him as a fish and wildlife technician and forestry, wildlife conservation officer.

He said the coyote group has expanded far beyond what he ever imagined because it’s a relatively hard species to hunt. Coyotes can be really elusive and it takes a lot of knowledge and equipment to start hunting them, Smith said. The group has more than 80 members.

Smith said one member in the Grand Falls-Windsor area has successfully hunted more than 22 coyotes this winter.

He said Cooney thought it would be a great idea to map sightings so hunters would know the best spots to find the animals. New sightings are reported and mapped almost every day.

Even if you factor in a margin of error for misidentification that would mean only 50 per cent of the cases were correct, Smith said there’s still a big issue with coyotes entering urban areas.

“We have to take that into account, which was a surprising conclusion we never anticipated,” he said.

dss@thetelegram.com