Burton on the Bay:

Coyotes on the Prowl

They're coming back - hungry

In Maryland, coyotes increasingly wail along the trail, but they have no monopoly on wailing. Alas, some of those eerie sounds come from the human citizenry whose domestic pets, primarily cats and small dogs, become prey to growing numbers of the Eastern Coyote, which some consider our version of the wolf.

The novelty of coyote sightings has worn off in the past five years, so they're not talked about much any more - though I overheard a couple deer hunters talking about the one sighted by a Frederick County hunter who fired at it, but apparently missed - and didn't get a second shot. Coyotes are wary creatures - they don't wait around to see what the commotion is about - and this one vanished into the underbrush pronto.


Spreading Range

This reminder about coyote range spreading across Maryland prompted a call to Department of Natural Resources' furbearer chief Bob Colona, stationed at LeCompte Wildlife Management Area on the Eastern Shore. Turns out that only a couple hours previously, he handled a coyote call from a Talbot County lady.

No, she didn't phone to report another coyote sighting. She just wanted verification of rumors that DNR was stocking coyotes as a means to combat deer overpopulation. Not true, she was told. Deer numbers are troublesome, but hunters, not coyotes, are currently DNR's avenue to combat the troublesome whitetail population.

Just a couple of weeks ago in Caroline County, a farmer called to report a livestock attack in which coyotes killed a calf. There are now verified coyote sightings in all but Maryland's two southernmost counties on the Eastern Shore - and Colona doesn't doubt that they have taken up residence there, seeing that some have been seen in Virginia's portion of the lower Shore.

We've got some in Anne Arundel County. I saw a pair one summer evening six years ago lurking in the reeds at Lake Shore in North County.

They were tall and slender with pointed snouts; their ears were large and pointed, and I could make out a vague white patch around the mouth of the closest one. Nonchalantly they turned and slipped back into the marsh.

Had I needed more proof, I got it when I went to the marsh edge and spotted oval tracks. Dogs leave more circular tracks. Much as I have been on the outdoor trail in this state the past 42 years, they are the only live coyotes I've seen in Maryland, though I saw a dead one at Deep Creek Lake a year or two prior.


Who Gets What?

Like many, my opinion of coyotes moving into Maryland puts me in a dilemma. If I were hunting anything from deer to grouse and saw one, should I shoot or just observe? I've long held the opinion that hunters shouldn't fire at anything that's not destined for the table.

Why bag anything one doesn't intend to eat? Unless it represents a serious problem, like when I was a kid in New England, handed a shotgun and told to shoot at any crow that came within range. Or perhaps a skunk, fox or hawk near the chicken yard.

Crows were the biggest problem among hard-pressed farmers during the Great Depression. We'd plant sweet corn in hills, and within a day or two ingenious crows would ferret out the kernels. We tried coating the kernels in tar, but that didn't always work - and there was the question whether the seed was as productive when tarred. Nor did scarecrows work, at least for more than a couple days. Hungry crows are smart.

So the shotgun was an obvious solution, and who else but a kid to pull the trigger. Grownups had too much to do on the farm (including replanting corn kernels) to sit around waiting to pot - or at least frighten off - crows.

For me at eight to 10 years old, sitting at the edge of the garden with shotgun across my lap on the crow patrol was the best of assignments. It was 'hunting,' also an escape from carting water to tomato, pepper and other plants or planting seeds in rows and hills. But when my brother Johnny got big enough to handle a shotgun, I was pressed into real farming and he rode shotgun on marauding crows.

But coyotes are the subject of this column, and whether to shoot or not if the opportunity arises remains a question. In a way, the coyote is like the crow and the corn, but the target of the coyote can go far beyond kernels of sweet corn. All the way to cats.


Cat Food

Within the past year, my oldest daughter Liz tried tearfully and unsuccessfully to save the life of her favorite feline, which was mauled by a coyote in Rhode Island. Niece Jane has lost two cats to coyotes on a farm 12 miles away.

My sister Ruth, Jane's mother, who spends much of her time feeding wildlife from birds to raccoons, has given up replenishing a cache of food she set out periodically for coyotes not far in the woods from her home because she fears for the cats and small dogs in the farming community.

Much as she likes to listen to the wails of Rhode Island coyotes in the evening, or occasionally to see one, she has abandoned her feeding program - and the coyotes are still heard as night approaches.

Rhode Island might seem a long way from Anne Arundel County, but it isn't far as coyotes are concerned. Colona figures that in the Frederick/Hagerstown area, also some spots on the Eastern Shore and north of Baltimore, coyote problems can be big time within five years, and much of the remainder of the state can follow.

Coyotes have gained a foothold as they expand their range in much of Eastern United States. Like wild turkeys, deer, bears and other wildlife, they have learned to co-exist with humans - and proximity offers something they covet: household pets, the cat being among their favorites.

No natural enemies have coyotes. Trappers aren't much interested in them. Eastern Coyote pelts bring only $5 or $6; they're scraggly compared to the Western Coyote.

Already in Frederick and Washington counties, the impact of the coyote is noted in diminished numbers of red foxes. The two don't co-exist, and the fox is always the loser, pushed from its traditional habitat by a newcomer.

Most coyotes are satisfied with a diet of rabbits, groundhogs, mice, carrion, insects, berries and fruits though some target small or young farm animals, nuisance Canada geese, small pigs, calves and such. Sheep are exceptionally vulnerable, as are cats and young dogs.

So what rules: nostalgia, the call of the wild or substance - protection of other species such as my dearest pet Frieda Lawrence Burton, an 11-year-old white cat? One Carroll County woman lost 65 cats to coyotes within five months, so I'm thinking any of those predators within visiting distance of the Burton domicile on Stoney Creek would be most unwelcome indeed.

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VolumeVI Number 49
December 10-16, 1998
New Bay Times

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