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Ultimate Survivor - The Michigan Coyote
Wed, 27 Apr 2016 06:36:32 EDT
Ultimate Survivor - The Michigan Coyote
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By Tom Lounsbury
The coyote is no doubt the epitome of being a very adaptable and prolific survivor wherever it is found, which entails quite a continually growing area. Its geographic range now spans the entire North American Continent, with 19 recognized subspecies. Coyotes can now be found as far south as Central America and I believe it will only be a matter of time before they even venture into South America (they were first spotted beyond the Panama Canal in 2013).
The coyote is the North American equivalent of the Old World golden jackal, and was originally only found out west, or wherever it didnít have to compete with its larger cousin, the gray wolf. Lewis and Clark, who were obviously very seasoned outdoorsmen, never encountered coyotes in their lives until their 1804 - 06 Expedition into the West. Lewis described coyotes in his journal as being ďsmall woolfsĒ.
What very clearly paved the way for the coyote to be able to readily expand its range was the steady extirpation of the gray wolf, from the beginning of the first Europeans settling this country right up into the 20th Century. Being a large apex predator, the gray wolf was regularly condemned and eliminated while civilization continually expanded across North America.
All those 19 subspecies aside, I look at it as there simply being two types of coyotes which are the warm country type that is smaller and leggy to better deal with the heat, and the cold country type that is larger and more blockier (and with denser fur) to better deal with the cold (it is Natureís way and applies to whitetail deer as well, for an example). Here in Michigan of course, we have the northern version which is often referred to as being ďbrush wolvesĒ.
Other than hearing coyote howls used as backdrop noises in Hollywood produced western movies, I never had any personal coyote experiences until my first ever spring wild turkey hunt in northern Michigan. This occurred during the late 1960ís in the Baldwin area, and I can tell you it was a bit thrilling at first for a Thumb Area farm boy camping all by his lonesome at night in the big woods. However, thanks to those Hollywood westerns, I knew what I was hearing and actually rather enjoyed it as being a natural part of the outdoor scene, and still do. Having one come stalking into my turkey calling attempts was even a greater thrill, especially to just lay eyes on it, but the moment was very brief, because I wasnít all that great a turkey caller in those early days. Looking back, Iím surprised that coyote even showed up in the first place - it must have been real hungry!
I would again encounter more coyotes when I ventured on my first hunting forays in Wyoming during the early 1970ís, and I continually knew they were around whenever I went spring turkey hunting in northern Michigan. It wasnít until the mid 1980ís when I thought I heard a coyote howl one night in the Thumb. I then began to encounter what I knew to be coyote sign entailing tracks and scat. Having been around coyotes enough elsewhere by this time, I was certain as to what I was looking at, and I eventually actually saw a coyote while I was bowhunting for deer. When I wrote about it, some folks thought I was seeing things, but local houndsmen out after fox later that winter began to take a regular quantity of coyotes. The rest as they say is history, and the coyote is now a common fixture in the Thumb these days (I believe the large quantity of Thumb farmland that went into CRP during the mid 1980ís gave coyotes an additional boost per the habitat, as such a program benefits all wildlife including predators).
Coyotes depend primarily on animal matter (including carrion) to survive but can be very versatile with their diet and even eat plant matter including various fruits, berries, and I have even seen undigested grain in their droppings. To put it more succinctly, a coyote (being the ultimate survivor) will eat whatever it can in order to survive, even if it includes domestic livestock, poultry and pets such as small dogs and cats (I seem to remember a notable country western singer lamenting not that long ago about her little dog being snatched up and carried off by a coyote). Coyotes are lean, mean killing machines for their size.
Iíve seen coyotes on early summer occasions carrying cats in their jaws, most likely back to their dens and hungry pups. Iíve also had coyotes, and itís my calculated guess here, kill and eat mother cats and their half grown kittens in my open shed where I store horse-hay. All I can say is that the cats and their kittens are suddenly missing and there are distinct, fresh coyote tracks in the soft, damp areas near the shed, and usually some fresh scat too. I donít believe coyotes actually targeted my cats, with it simply being an opportunity that presented itself, and coyotes are very opportunistic. They are also keen experts at snatch and grab, even from patios and decks right in front of pet ownersí eyes.
My son Jake and his wife Sarah will never forget the full moon night they were tent camping right next to my farm pond a couple summers ago and were awakened by splashing noises. When they looked out the tentís screen window, they could see it was a pair of adult coyotes teaching their large litter of pups how to catch and eat frogs. With my home being tucked into the middle of wildlife habitat, Iíve had the opportunity to listen frequently to coyotes training their pups how to hunt during mid-summer nights. They have quite a few vocalizations including barks, yips and yaps that are very dog-like. My wife Ginny will always remember when coyotes discovered a fawn and the noise, which sounded almost like a screaming human baby, woke us up. Obviously the coyote parents were letting their inexperienced pups do the killing work because it took awhile. Reality in the wild isnít always pretty.
The fact is coyotes can take their fair share of fawns each spring and summer. I believe it is more a matter of any opportunity which presents itself, as that is the coyote way of life, but when you have a bunch of coyotes patrolling a certain area, it can happen more times than not. Whenever I see a mature whitetail doe in early autumn these days without any fawns in tow, Iím a bit suspicious of a coyote influence.
At present there is a Michigan coyote hunting season which is open from July 15 to April 15. The closed period (April 16 - July 14) is actually designed to protect coyotes during their whelping period. By mid July, coyote pups are out of the den and being trained by their parents on how to hunt. They often remain together as a family group and hunt together well into winter. Coyotes can only be killed during the closed period if they are doing or about to do damage to private property, which is defined as pets, livestock and poultry. This does not include wildlife such as whitetail fawns.
The coyote mating season occurs in Michigan from mid-January until early March, with February being the key timeframe in my experience (and my favorite month for calling/hunting coyotes). When a female starts to go into estrus, she will emit howls (it is often the females you hear howling on cold winter nights) to attract suitors, which usually entails several males. The female will eventually select only one, and the rest, usually without a scrap, will move on in search of other mates. It is the coyote way of selecting a mate in a copacetic manner.
Males are very monogamist and fully assist in raising the litter, which entails regurgitating food to feed the young once they are weaned. If something happens to the female before the pups are weaned, the male will abandon the litter because there is nothing he can do. This is reality in the wild. The average litter size is six pups but this all depends upon food availability. The coyote is unique in that it has the ability to have small or large litters in this regard. Here in the Thumb, I believe there arenít very many lean years.
The Natural Resources Commission will be making a decision in April as to whether or not to keep the coyote season in place as is. Actually the only hunters out in the field during the established closed period are after wild turkeys or woodchucks. I believe any impact created here is very minimal per the coyote numbers, which are truthfully at a historic high given the range they now have. I never saw a reason for a specified coyote season in the first place, other than it was to make certain folks feel good, which doesnít necessarily relate to reality.
I highly doubt I will go out of my way to intentionally hunt coyotes if the closed period is dropped in April. By the same token if a (legal) opportunity presents itself while Iím hunting wild turkeys or woodchucks, Iíll probably take advantage of it. Doing so might save a few fawns during that key timeframe. Like the coyote I can be quite opportunistic, and by having a full understanding of the coyote, Iím also a pragmatic realist.
Being the ultimate survivor, the Michigan coyote is here to stay.
Note: The NRC removed the official coyote season, and coyotes can now be hunted all year in Michigan.
(Pictured: Josh Lounsbury bagged a Thumb coyote and then a doe on the opening morning
of the firearms deer season. Coyotes are great trophies for hunters hunting
other game species.)