Earth Matters: Understanding our coyote neighbors

Earth Matters: Understanding our coyote neighbors
Dr. Hildur Palsdottir

Outdoor enthusiast and author of “Land Ethics” Aldo Leopold wrote that ”there are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.” Whether you think you can or cannot, you must learn to live with the Eastern Coyote.

A group of wildlife biologists and naturalists invited me to join in tracking the whereabouts of the Eastern Coyote in Nassau County. As expected, we didn’t see coyotes in the flesh, but instead discovered their footprints and scat quite easily in December snowfall. You’ll rarely meet a coyote in broad daylight. Healthy, wild coyotes are cunning, clever and resourceful and will do whatever it takes to avoid you.

In the midst of an unprecedented number of species going extinct due to human activity, coyotes are an exception – they’re thriving. Human development and the subsequent removal of coyote predators have allowed them to expand to almost all of North America. It’s therefore not surprising that they’ve finally established home territories here.

How do you feel about coyote colonization on Long Island? My goal is to put your mind at ease if you’re feeling nervous.

While our domesticated and trusted companions bring out the best in us, their wild relatives provoke deep-rooted, almost always unfounded fears and even paranoia. Why are we so triggered by their wildness?

From folklore to fables and fairy tales, wild dogs are typically featured as frightening beasts. In Norse mythology the wolf Fenrir even dares to swallow the sun and eat one of their chief gods.

Spanning from Aesop’s “Boy Who Cried Wolf” to Grimms’ “Big Bad Wolf,” wild dogs get cast today in Disney movies as the tricksters and villains. An obvious explanation for vilifying wild dogs could be that they have throughout human history provided fierce competition for our food, often attacking domesticated livestock. Or perhaps it is the wild longing in their howl that’s unsettling to some?

In the case of coyotes, the perceived risk is much greater than the actual danger. Coyotes are responsible for only two reported deaths since the Sixties, according to Gotham Coyote founder Dr. Chris Nagy in his speech at the 2015 Long Island Natural History Conference. With an average of three reported coyote attacks per year (non-lethal), you’re more likely to be killed by a vending machine than a wild canine.

Flying golf balls and champagne corks are far more lethal than coyotes, not to mention texting while driving and falling out of bed.

As a top carnivore and keystone species, they serve an important ecological role and improve environmental health with their managerial role, supporting biodiversity in the process. Coyotes are omnivores and their diet includes vegetation (fruits, berries, seeds), in addition to captured and scavenged meat.

The Eastern Coyote isn’t a picky eater and will snack on Canada Geese, mice, rats, racoons, skunks and foxes and often feasts on white-tailed deer carcasses. We have every reason to be hopeful that they’ll offer a positive ecological impact with their colonization on Long Island.

As with any functional relationship, we must set clear boundaries from the start. It may feel counterintuitive to many animal lovers, but we must remain on unfriendly terms with coyotes. We must ”keep the wild in wildlife” by not habituating them.

A coyote that has been fed and is not afraid of humans is unpredictable and can become dangerous. The good news here is that a habituated coyote can be hazed back into wildness and there are simple protocols to follow with detailed instructions found here on the website of the Humane Society

If you’d like to help in tracking, please visit Seatuck Environmental Association here and click on “Think you’ve seen a coyote?” to help scientists at The Long Island Coyote Study Group document the colonization of coyotes.

In summary, here’s what you can do to co-exist peacefully with coyotes:
Don’t feed wild coyotes. Keep your food waste safe (straps on garbage, seal compost). Feed your pets inside.

Keep your pets on a leash. Bring a bell or whistle with you on walks. They don’t like noises.
Coyote-proof your fences if you’re letting pets free in the backyard and know of coyotes nearby. Movement triggered lights will scare coyotes.
Hazing is encouraged if coyotes are not afraid of you. Follow protocols.

Mr. Frank Vincenti, founder of the Wild Dog Foundation, whose tireless mission is to ensure the right relationship with wildlife and “alleviate anxiety or misconceptions” stresses the fact that conflict can be resolved with common sense. He offers free educational talks on this topic.

If you notice a coyote that has lost its wildness and acts too friendly, please reach out to Vincenti (email [email protected]). He is an expert at hazing and rewilding habituated coyotes.

Professor Lisa Filippi of Hofstra University clarifies that “negative interactions between humans and coyotes are rare, and when they do happen, it is usually because of careless human behavior.”

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