Monday, August 25, 2008

Coyote Land

We were travelling west on Blundell Road, heading toward the rail crossing. Far ahead, between fast-moving cars, a brown dog ran across the road. “Did you see the coyote?” I asked my wife, who was driving. “No,” she said. She was paying attention to the road, the car ahead, the rear-view mirror. Right, driving.

Of the three wild dogs in British Columbia -- the others are Gray Wolf and Red Fox -- the coyote has benefited most from the spread of cities and farmland. It is estimated that there are 3000 living in the Lower Mainland, found in almost any habitat.

That coyotes are here, and in such numbers, is an example of zoological history being turned on its head. When Europeans arrived, the resident wild dogs were the wolf, which is very large, and fox, which is dainty. Wolves were first to go, due to irreconcilable differences between settlers and large predators. Foxes, although with a certain Nuisance Quotient, remained widespread until some time in the 1900s, when coyotes, whose range had originally been limited to the American southwest and central plains, capitalized on the sudden disappearance of wolves, and spread throughout much of the rest of North America. This was not good for foxes. Coyotes are close enough in size to be an ecological competitor, but large enough to prey upon the smaller species. They are likely responsible for the disappearance of foxes from many former habitats.

So they alone are among us in cities and suburbs, large enough to win the Wild Dog Contest, but not so large that they are actively persecuted. An adult coyote weighs 20-35 pounds, and stands about 60 cm tall. This is a medium-sized dog, about half the size of a wolf. They fit within our parks and lanes and empty lots, where they are active day and night, although leaning toward a nocturnal lifestyle.

As with many animals, coyotes become a problem for humans when they lose their fear of us. This can happen when they are fed, incidentally, or deliberately. Incidental feeding includes the leaving of fallen fruit on the ground, the outdoor feeding of pets, and, well, sometimes the outdoor pets themselves. Something to think about before Mr. Mittens is let out.

Deliberate feeding is illegal, and dangerous--for the coyotes as much as anyone else. Most of the few known cases of coyote attacks on humans in British Columbia have involved animals that had lost their fear of humans through being deliberately fed--knowable by examining the post mortem stomach contents of problem animals shot by conservation officers. Soup-bones and chicken meat are not on nature’s menu.

Another human behaviour can further embolden them: flinching. Typically if you see a coyote while on foot, you’re watching it trot away from you, because it has seen you first. It will glance over its shoulder and check if you’re following, and if it feels safe, might stop and stare with its bat-ears directed at you. But only for a few seconds, then it’s gone. However, if a coyote is repeatedly met with human timidity, or flight, it may decide that humans aren’t a threat, which is certainly not correct. If one comes toward you, it’s time to bare your fangs. Stamp, shout, and make use of that opposable thumb--wave a broom, throw cans! A coyote is a handsome thing, but ought to be admired from a distance, and definitely should be ejected from places frequented by small children. Tough love keeps them away, and makes everyone safer.
The Stanley Park Ecological Society has provided a website that outlines the dos and don’ts of co-existing with urban coyotes:

The site includes lists of recent sightings for Lower Mainland cities. Have a look. You’ll be surprised where they roam. And watch for them on the roads. They’re out there, everywhere

1 comment:

emily said...

I agree. People need to be more careful about incidental feeding. Many people aren't even aware coyotes are in their area. Bears are very comman in our city, and due to human mistakes, have become a problem. (fyi, my sister writes the whatgrowshere blog, and I saw your comment about the giant blueberry... it made me laugh.)

My husband and I once looked out our front window in the middle of the day to find a coyote (with mange) curled up on our front yard, sleeping. He was there for a little while, and trotted off (past people washing their cars & mowing their lawns).

We need to be more responsible humans.