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|In a healthy ecosystem, the coyote's role is to keep rodents, raccoons, and other small mammals from becoming overly abundant.
By Jamie Bails, WDFW habitat biologist, Snohomish Basin and Island County
One spring evening as I walked my corgi, I stopped to chat with a neighbor. As we talked he bent down to pet my dog, telling me that coyotes had killed his small dog several years ago. Now, in retaliation, he shoots all coyotes that come near his property. Shocked and saddened, I shook my head in sympathy and looked down at my beloved corgi. What could I say to a man who had lost his dog? Nothing. There were no words. I simply told him I was very sorry for his loss and walked home.
In truth, I was sad for the loss of both lives. While I could not bear to lose my dog to a wild animal, I know that predators have a role in nature and no amount of coyote killing will bring back his beloved dog. Now, on nights when I hear packs of coyotes howling, I listen closely. What a wild sound, full of joy and life. Other nights, when I hear gun shots, I pray they escaped.
How did coyotes come to live among us this way? Coyotes are naturally wary of humans and domestic pets and will avoid interaction. But hungry coyotes that find easy meals of unsecured pet food or garbage can lose their fear of humans when they associate us with a food source, even in urban areas.
Biologists with the Urban Coyote Research Program in Chicago analyzed more than 1,400 urban coyote scat samples to determine what they eat. The most common foods were small rodents (42 percent), fruit (23 percent), deer (22 percent) and rabbit (18 percent). While it's true coyotes will eat garbage and occasionally kill free-roaming pets for food, this study showed it is rare. Less than two percent of the scat samples analyzed contained signs of either garbage or cats.
Historically, coyotes roamed open prairies, grasslands and agricultural fields searching for birds, mammals and reptiles, as well as grass, fruit and other vegetation. Despite constant trapping and shooting to reduce their numbers, they persevered, responding with even greater reproduction. And as towns and cities took over those open spaces, they learned to thrive in urban areas, too.
In a healthy ecosystem, the coyote's role is to keep rodents, raccoons, and other small mammals from becoming overly abundant. Scat studies in both rural and urban settings show rodents make up the bulk of the coyote diet. They feed on the eggs of geese in both urban waterfront parks and rural agricultural lands, helping reduce goose damage. Coyotes also scavenge on dead wildlife or livestock that would otherwise spread disease or illness.
The coyote is considered a "mesopredator" -- a mid-sized predator that competes for food with other similar sized predators like fox and bobcat, and that is limited by large predators like wolves. When large predators are extirpated, mesopredators irrupt in numbers and range. Famous wildlife scientist Aldo Leopold speculated back in the 1930's that the American West's wolves kept coyotes at lower numbers than they were then in the Midwest. The range of the coyote expanded in the West after wolves were extirpated and coyote-compatible agriculture, logging, livestock grazing and other human development increased. From Yellowstone to Denali, National Park Service biologists have documented coyote population increases with wolf declines, and vice versa in recent years.
Other studies have shown that coyotes indirectly help songbirds by preying on rodents, raccoons, opossums and other small mammals that otherwise prey on songbirds and their nests. Populations of both feral and household domestic cats, which are known to prey heavily on songbirds, are also kept in check by coyotes.
All of these interactions tell me how important coyotes are in our world as a keystone species in a complex biological web. Despite the problems that can develop when we let them become habituated to us, coyotes are worth our efforts to co-exist with and even help them.
Since 2010 the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Lynnwood (one of many rehabilitators licensed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) has received 40 coyotes, most as orphaned pups but also some injured adults. Not all thrive or are able to be successfully released back to the wild, but those that do are cared for in ways that avoid that dangerous human habituation.
Last year six orphaned coyote pups were brought to PAWS where they received minimal human interaction. After four months, three female pups were ready to return to the wild. With strong formed bonds during their time in captivity, releasing them together increased their odds for survival over the winter. On a gray, rainy November morning, I assisted with the release at a riverside location. Once the kennel gates were lifted, it only took a moment for the coyotes to sense freedom and bolt towards the river. At a safe distance from us, they paused to take in their new home. Their brown, camouflaged coats blended perfectly with the fall leaves on the ground, the bare tree trunks, the soil on the streambank. We lost sight of them as they trotted away, fading into the wild.
I know many people fear coyotes and believe they shouldn't be rehabilitated, but trapped or killed before they attack their pets or raid their trash. But unless we provide them opportunities for easy meals and association with us, coyotes are simply wild creatures driven to survive by avoiding us. Co-existing with and protecting this species ultimately means protecting other wildlife.
A few weeks ago as I was walking my corgi on leash through a small urban park, a coyote leaped across the path ahead. We stopped, and a second coyote leaped after it. I tried to follow them by sight, but lost them to the trees and brush. As we approached the spot on the path where they had crossed, my corgi likely knew right where they were, or had gone. But the coyotes, possibly a mating pair at this time of year, were fixed on each other and unconcerned about us. I wondered how long they had been there in the brush, watching us approach, waiting for a chance to get away from us and on with their lives.
Learn more about Living with Coyotes at http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/coyotes.html.
|To keep liquid feed from freezing and avoid bringing feeders in at night, string Christmas lights around the feeder, or hang a caged "trouble light" (the kind used by car mechanics) nearby so the ambient heat can keep things thawed. Photo: Marilyn of View Ridge, Seattle Audubon Society
Early February is only the halfway mark through winter, and the cold snaps this year, even in western Washington, have had backyard bird watchers concerned about their feathered friends.
Keeping seed and suet feeders full and clean is the easy part.
Keeping water sources open is a little more challenging. A non-metal pan of warm water that is refreshed periodically, or has a heater under it, can help. A birdbath equipped with an in-water heater (available at many wild bird feeding supply outlets) is best.
But in western Washington, where Anna's hummingbirds (Calypte anna) are year-round residents, keeping that liquid feed available can be tougher.
Seattle Audubon Society addresses this problem on their website at http://www.seattleaudubon.org/sas/Learn/SeasonalFacts/Hummingbirds.aspx .
Here's the essence of their advice:
- Don't try to increase the sugar content of the hummingbird nectar to prevent it from freezing. Keep the mix at the standard ratio of one part white sugar (no brown sugar or honey) to four parts boiling water, then cool it (and never add red food coloring.) Higher sugar content may damage the birds' kidneys and liver.
- Have multiple feeders and rotate them. The mix will begin to freeze around 29 degrees, so rotating the feeders throughout the day will keep the fluid open and available to the birds. Bring the feeders indoors at night, when hummingbirds don't feed, but get them back out again at dawn.
- To avoid bringing feeders in at night, string Christmas lights around the feeder, or hang a caged "trouble light" (the kind used by car mechanics) nearby so the ambient heat can keep things thawed.
- Tape a chemical hand or foot warmer to the feeder. These commonly available warmers emit heat for about seven hours and will keep the liquid feed from freezing.
- Wrap plumber's heat tape around the feeder to keep it from freezing. These flexible electric tapes are similar to a flat extension cord and most are equipped with a built-in thermostat in the cord. The wattage of these tapes is very low and does not draw a lot of energy.
Earlier this winter WDFW habitat biologist Jamie Bails discovered another tip -- don't use feeders or bird baths with any kind of metal on them. She recalls how she found an Anna's hummingbird stuck to a frozen metal edge.
"It was furiously trying to free its tiny foot, its powerful wings creating a soft wind as it hung by its toes," she said. "Gently I used two fingers to warm and slide the toes free of the ice, and it zoomed off, hopefully none the worse for the wear. It reminded me of kids who try to lick metal objects and get their tongues stuck!"
The good news is that this winter of all winters IS winding down, and all birds, including Anna's hummingbirds, are usually capable of weathering it. They reduce their body temperature at night to conserve energy and roost in those dense shrubs and evergreen trees you include in your landscape. They don't just depend on the nectar and seeds you provide, but even in the winter they also eat insects found under that tree bark and other plants.