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Friday, December 18, 2009
Coyotes revisited

By James Swan
ESPNOutdoors.com

In March of 2009, I wrote a column about the positive effects of coyote decoys placed in a local high school athletic field to drive away Canada geese.

Faux coyote decoy

The faux snarling canids seemed to be a godsend to the school's sports teams, as previously flocks of very tame Canada geese had descended on the football, soccer and baseball fields, depositing copious amounts of goose droppings, which resulted in anyone falling to ground likely being smeared with goose poop.

The football field was replaced with Astroturf, which kept them off the playing field. That was costly, but it worked. However, every place else where there were a few blades of grass, the honkers would pass the day grazing and pooping, so putting out a couple rubber coyote decoys seemed to be a blessing, as suddenly the birds moved over to the nearby Community Center playing fields to do their business.

All was well until last month. Somehow, a brave Canada goose must have figured out what was going on, and passed the word along to the rest of the flock. These days, the geese have returned big time, a large flock of up to 50 or so.

Canada geese feeding between two coyote decoys.

They are feeding in the baseball outfield, right around where the coyote decoys have been and still are located — which coincidentally is where the grass is more luxuriant because it was free of geese for awhile.

Moving the decoys does not seem to help. If anything, the geese seem to be attracted to them. So, take what I wrote last spring with a grain of salt if you have problem geese and want to let them know they are not welcome.

If the decoys were motorized to move, that might help. A coyote howl or growl sound might help too, but that would not last long with school and homes nearby.

Coyote population explosion

A couple hundred years ago coyotes were only found in the west. Possibly they were kept in certain areas by wolves, but when the wolves were killed off a hundred years ago, the coyote populations began to grow.

Scientists now estimate that there are anywhere between one million and 10 million coyotes in the U.S., and the population is growing, even though about 400,000 are shot or trapped every year. They are now found in all states except Hawaii.

They are in Canada, too. We became acutely aware of that on October 27, 2009, when Canadian folk singer Taylor Mitchell was killed by two coyotes that attacked her while hiking in Breton Highland National Park in Nova Scotia.

Habituation

In rural areas, coyotes may prefer rabbits and mice, but they are moving into urban areas all across the North America.

A coyote sleeping by our back porch

Garbage, cats and dogs, birdseed, compost piles, and roadkill all are food for urbanized coyotes, which are really growing in numbers. It is now estimated that 2,000 live in the greater Chicago area. Many urban areas across the U.S. now find coyotes howling and feeding in their neighborhoods.

While the faux coyotes have lost their power in our neighborhood, the real local coyotes have gotten bolder. I mean really bolder. A pack comes howling in from the Golden Gate National Recreation Area nearly every night. They are almost wild.

However, there is one big adult that has lost all fear of people. He roams the neighborhood and sleeps in the street in broad daylight, sometimes right in front of my truck.

Marin County, where I live, has a policy of not harming coyotes, unless they are menacing people. If you want to complain about Wiley E. in your backyard, you call and the Humane Society comes out and uses air horns, paint balls or rubber bullets to drive them away. Sometimes it works. Usually it does not. Only if they are menacing people can Fish and Game Wardens or a professional trapper come in and remove them the good old-fashioned way.

A not so wily coyote.

Our neighborhood decided we could make our own noise, and organized a local neighborhood coyote watch. On sight, everyone began to make noises and throw rocks at the bold, bushy-tailed interloper walking down the middle of the road. Quickly, he got the message, but now he works the same beat at night.

Nearly every week signs get posted in the park about missing cats. I bet the coyote knows where they are.

It seems likely that the one bold male in our area is the same one that walked into a neighbor's kitchen a year ago, and was approaching a young child in a high chair, before dad saw him and threw a plate to drive him away.

The recent attack in Canada makes us wonder just how dangerous coyotes are to humans. Until recently, the general opinion was that the only coyotes that attacked people were infected with rabies. Rabies is pretty much gone from domestic dogs, but there are rabies outbreaks in raccoons along the East Coast, and skunks in the Midwest. Generally rabid wolves and coyotes seem to attack anyone, especially adults.

What about healthy coyotes? Researchers Bob Timm and Rex Baxter have documented over 200 coyote attacks on people across North America. California has the most, but the rest have occurred across the U.S. Some are rabid animals, but a growing number are healthy.

Like wolves, coyotes seem to follow a progressive pattern of testing to see what people will do as they approach. If people do not respond, or feed them, coyotes lose all fear and approach, expecting food, like a gang of street thieves. If they cannot find food, then humans can become prey. Young children are the most likely to be attacked.

There are only two recorded fatalities in North America from coyote attacks. In 1981 in Glendale, Calif., a coyote attacked toddler Kelly Keen, who was rescued by her father, but she died in surgery due to blood loss and a broken neck. Then came the October 2009 fatal attack on folk-singer Taylor Mitchell in Nova Scotia.

Some researchers believe that the large northeastern coyotes responsible for this attack may be coyote-wolf hybrids (or coywolves). Coyotes also interbreed with domestic dogs (coydog), or they eat them. In both cases, hybrids are felt to be more aggressive than plain old coyotes.

The irony of the urbanization of coyotes is that while there are serious issues involved with coyotes moving into urban areas, one of the potential benefits is that coyotes help limit urban Canada goose populations. So long as the faux coyotes don't bite, I think I'd prefer them, even though they do lose their repelling powers.