Brrrrr… January wildlife update

Brrrrr!!!! These icy bluebird days have delivered much beauty to us this winter. But long cold spells are a challenging time for our Pacific Northwest wildlife.  During cold spells it is harder to find food and water. While some animals will go into torpor/hibernation (i.e. bears, squirrels, some rodents) others need more food so they can metabolize to keep warm (i.e. winter birds, coyotes, cougar, deer).

We may see more of some animals because they are spending more time foraging. These animals may appear in places they usually aren’t seen (for example traveling far to find running water when ponds freeze over, or finding shelter in unusual areas). Animals are also more likely to take risks during these times to get the food they need (being seen more during the day or in more densely human populated areas).

Many of us have noticed the Golden-crowned kinglets crowding the road sides and trails lately. In spring and summer kinglets forage high in Douglas fir trees but, in winter, these cold hardy birds (they can survive in temperatures to -40 degrees!) also descend to the underbrush to supplement their usual food.

With this extended cold, our kinglets are foraging even longer. This is dangerous for them because these little canopy birds are completely oblivious to both us and our vehicles. Next time you are on a walk watch the difference between the reaction of a flock of juncos to an on-coming car (they will scatter and veer back into the underbrush) compared to the kinglet flocks (they will happily keep foraging in the middle of the road having apparently no clue what a car means). My heart goes out to these little birds.

A golden-crowned kinglet that was hit by a car on 232nd Ave SW. Kinglets are not experienced at avoiding cars and often forage along roadsides.

What is so enticing about roadsides for kinglets in the winter? Gary Shugart, curator of Slater Museum of Natural History and Vashon Nature Center science adviser, is studying stomach contents of road-killed kinglets on Vashon trying to figure it out. If you find a kinglet please turn it in to Gary to help with the study.

Here’s a note from Gary: “Accepting these birds and anything else dead at 10925 SW Bank Road, blue cooler by garage. Tag them with data and location or just text me data at 206 949-9381.”

If you deal okay with morbid things like this you can also contribute to our roadkill study on inaturalist by recording what you see dead on our roads:

So far we have 593 observations of roadkill recorded on Vashon, yikes. However, this information helps us learn what animals are most susceptible, where roadkill hotspots are, and if there are certain times of year that are particularly dangerous for different animals. For example, we’ve learned that Fisher Pond and Christensen Pond have large migrations of amphibians starting in February. We are currently discussing ways of making the roads safer for these migrating amphibians at this time (ideas range from signs, to barriers, to active volunteers who shepherd).

Kinglets aren’t the only ones busy finding food right now. Coyotes are also more active. January marks the very beginning of denning season where coyotes mate and find a place to raise pups. During this time coyotes become more territorial in establishing safe boundaries around den areas. Add extended freezing weather to this and you can see a bit of a perfect storm brewing. It is important to keep dogs from wandering right now. Every year starting around this time we hear of altercations between dogs and coyotes.

Coyote in the snow from Vashon Nature Center on Vimeo.

Island coyotes have and always will defend territories and pups against wandering pets and they will take advantage of wandering pets as food sources. But, so far our island coyotes are remaining shy and opportunistic rather than bold and aggressive. For example, they have not exhibited brazen behaviors like approaching attended dogs on leash. We want to keep it this way.

Securing food sources near homes and securing pets and livestock is essential for minimizing conflict. You can also actively haze a coyote to encourage fear of humans and to discourage coyotes that approach too close for comfort to you, your pet, or your yard.

Here is a link to a hazing guide to learn more

Hazing means scaring off a coyote by any means you can—yelling, waving arms, loud noises, spraying a hose at them… use your imagination.  Hazing is a means of nipping brazen behavior in the bud and turning it around before it becomes dangerous. When you haze you are speaking to coyotes in a language they understand. Don’t hesitate to be loud and bold. Let it all out! A coyote will not interpret your actions as “gee what a mean person. My feelings are hurt!”  Instead they will likely react as, “Oh! I get it. I’m in your territory, okay see ya!”

There are some nuanced points to consider with hazing that are important.

  • From late winter through early summer keep in mind that coyotes may have dens (Jan-March) and pups (March-July). If you haze a coyote on a trail in a wooded area or an area that looks like there could possibly be a den AND the coyote doesn’t run away but stands its ground or barks at you be aware that it might be trying to haze YOU away from its den. In this case it would be wise to get all dogs under control and back away slowly to let the coyote have some breathing room.
  • Secondly, if a coyote is going about its own business, perhaps just skirting the edge of your property quickly and going on its way, but not acting aggressively it’s okay not to haze. Hazing is meant to create fear in coyotes that have become too bold. If used too much when coyotes are exhibiting “shy” or “respectful” behaviors it can lead to habituation to the hazing itself.
  • If you do haze make sure the coyote is associating the hazing with you. Don’t haze from a house or car and look straight at the coyote when you haze.
  • Don’t give up until you get a backing off response from the coyote (unless you decide there may be a den in the area).
  • If a coyote returns be consistent and keep hazing. Amplify your volume and movements until the coyote flees. If you haze halfheartedly the coyote will learn that hazing is no threat.
  • Lastly, if a coyote appears sick or hurt don’t haze. Instead call a wildlife rehab center and give the coyote some space.

Confused yet? Here’s a little quiz that might help (answers below with numbers):

  1. You are walking and a coyote crosses the road in front of you. Rather than running away at the sight of you it stops and looks at you. Do you haze?
  2. You are at home and a coyote skirts the edge of your lawn and is gone in an eye-blink never even looking in your direction. Do you haze?
  3. You are sitting on your deck and a coyote pops into your yard, sees you, and starts sniffing around the yard in plain sight right in front of you. Do you haze?
  4. You are walking on a trail with your dog off the leash. Your dog runs into the bushes and you hear a bark. Your dog runs back to you and a coyote appears at the edge of the brush staring straight at you. It stands its ground and barks with a low chuffing bark. It is February. Do you haze?

ANSWERS: 1. Yes. This coyote is wondering whether you are a threat. Let him know you are. 2. No. If you do haze here there is no real harm done but it is not necessary as the coyote didn’t even see you and it was trying to be stealthy which indicates some level of fear. 3. YES!!! This is bold coyote behavior and should be discouraged right away. 4. NO. You were lucky. Judging from the time of year, the behavior of the coyote and the behavior of your dog there is likely a den nearby. This is the time to collect your dog under control and basically say, “woops sorry coyote dad for disturbing your home” and back slowly away. If this happens on a well-used trail be sure to let the Vashon Nature Center and your neighborhood know so other people don’t have the same experience.

It takes a bit of effort to understand different animals, their situations, their way of communicating, their tendencies, and their life cycles. On the one hand it is a tall order, but on the other it is a fascinating opportunity to become more connected to the wider community of life that we are all part of and living within.

To all who share your observations, thoughts, and photos and participate in our citizen science efforts, thank you for being part of the Vashon Nature Center community. Together we can get to know all of our wild neighbors better from the tiny kinglets to the big coyotes and enjoy all the cold has to offer.

Featured photo: Ice bubble on Fisher Pond. Kathryn True

7 Comments on “Brrrrr… January wildlife update

  1. This is a terrific and informative post, Bianca. I really appreciate it.

  2. Thank you for for this very useful lesson on coyotes, and hazing.
    I will try to remember to have the right reaction, in the right situation. It might take a little learning.

  3. Thanks for this info Bianca. I am a new island resident and have a couple questions about an experience I had a few nights ago. We live in Vashon Meadows, on the south end of town. Our yard backs up to a wooded protected area. We have installed a deer fence to enclose our yard. We just brought home an eight week old puppy three nights ago.
    The very first night, I took the puppy out to the fenced yard on a leash about 10pm. I was wearing a headlamp. After being out there for a few minutes, I heard a very loud and unusual noise, like a high pitched scream with a few short noises after the scream. I was completely startled so the details are a little unclear. I picked up the puppy and went inside. At first I suspected it might be a cougar but now I wonder if it might have been a coyote. There was no traditional coyote howl. It sounded very close. I thought it sounded human at first.
    Do you have any thoughts about what it was? Can either coyotes or cougars jump or climb a 6+ foot wire deer fence? Thanks.

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