By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator and Dave Pro, Land Steward
The handsome Red Fox is the most-common wild canid in this region, and encountered in a wide variety of habitats. In the spring, red foxes are busy feeding their kits and are frequently observed out on their hunting forays.
There is a relatively new addition to the wild canine community, a secretive mammal that is doing an excellent job of living “under the radar.” The Eastern Coyote is the new canid in town, and we’d like to introduce you to this interesting and secretive animal.
Over the past few years, we’ve found evidence of coyotes at Ashland Nature Center, Burrows Run Preserve, Flint Woods Preserve, and other places in northern Delaware. Tracks, scat, and fractured deer bones indicated the presence of this large predator, and sporadic sightings by staff naturalists led us to attempt to document a coyote on camera.
After Dave noticed large linear tracks in the snow, he surmised that a coyote could be travelling through the area. To confirm a coyote’s presence, we utilized the same scientific technique that mammal biologists employ to document elusive nocturnal animals.
Dave set up the motion-sensing camera to focus on an elevated bait station located in a young tulip forest along a stream corridor. Attaching the bait to a tree prevented vultures and small mammals from quickly consuming the meat. For the first week only red foxes were caught on camera, all at night.
The coyote spent 37 minutes at the bait on the morning of February 23, between 3:52 and 4:29am. Returning the next morning, the coyote spent a total of 35 minutes over the course of two separate visits. Each time, the images show that it consumed at least 1-2 pounds of meat.
State furbearer biologist Joe Rogerson says these are the first trail camera images of a coyote in Delaware. He estimates this coyote to be about 35 pounds(in comparison to the 15 pound fox). Rogerson has written an article about the current status of coyotes in Delaware: http://www.fw.delaware.gov/Hunting/Pages/Coyotes.aspx
The Eastern Coyote is a very different creature from its western relatives, and recent research by Dr. Roland Kays(New York State Museum) best explains the current theory explaining the colonization of the northeast by coyotes:
The dramatic expansion of the geographical range of coyotes over recent decades is partly explained by changes to the landscape and local extinctions of wolves, but hybridization may have facilitated their movement. DNA data from 686 eastern coyotes and measurements of 196 skulls helps explain their movements into the region. Coyotes in eastern Canada bred with wolves and then migrated south into New England, while pure “western” coyotes migrated eastward from the Ohio Valley into Pennsylvania. The result of these two migrations has led to a larger form of canid now known as the Eastern Coyote, occupying a portion of the niche left vacant by wolves.
Understanding that large predators stir emotions and fear in some people, it is important to remember that the whole ecosystem of the Eastern Seaboard has changed dramatically. When colonists killed off all the wolves, mountain lions, and black bears, the loss of these predators created a major shift in animal diversity.
Now, as coyotes gain a toehold and expand their range in the eastern United States, we can marvel at their adaptability and will to survive in a changing landscape.