Coyotes on Vashon

Vashon has always had an almost mythic connection to music. An inordinate number of musically inclined people find themselves drawn to these shores. Music surrounds children growing up here. As a child, I remember hearing flutes in the woods as I walked home from school, and the haunting notes of marimbas floating through my bedroom windows on warm summer nights. It’s no wonder that many children here eventually become musicians themselves. Even Vashon’s nickname, Dancing Man, hints at the music coursing through this place.

Earlier this summer I awoke just before dawn to a new song in the woods. In my just awakened state I thought of the flutes and marimbas of my childhood. But, as my surprise wore off, it slowly dawned on me what these howls were.  I lay there appreciating the irony that coyotes, known as “America’s Native Song Dogs,” had found this island.

I saw my first coyote on Vashon in July of this year. However, these “song dogs” were first sighted at least six years ago according to T Martino of Wolftown who first positively identified a dead coyote near St. John Vianney’s.  She notified the Beachcomber so that people would be aware of their presence. After a lull in sightings, T says she has had several sightings on both ends of the island for the past three years.  Vashon Nature Center has also had several south-end sightings reported this summer and fall.

 

This picture was taken near Camp Sealth on November 11, 2011. This was one of 2 coyotes seen. Photo by: Nik Ormseth

This picture was taken near Camp Sealth on November 11, 2011. This was one of 2 coyotes seen. Photo by: Nik Ormseth

 

This scat, possibly coyote, had tapering ends typical of canids and was full of fur and mice bones (seen just to the left and in front of the human thumb). Seen October 14, 2011 also near Camp Sealth. Photo by: Orion Knowler

This scat, possibly coyote, had tapering ends typical of canids and was full of fur and mice bones (seen just to the left and in front of the human thumb). Seen October 14, 2011 also near Camp Sealth. Photo by: Orion Knowler

How do they get here? Probably just like deer and the occasional bear do. They swim. Perhaps across Colvos passage since that would be the shortest distance. Deer regularly swim across from Colvos and coyotes are reported as better swimmers than deer.

And why are they appearing now?  Like our raven populations that have increased over the last decade, coyotes may be making a comeback because there is more habitat for them as old farmlands convert back to forests.  We don’t know for sure if coyotes inhabited the island in the past or are recently returning after a hiatus. There are no known records one way or another from early settlers of the islands. Coyotes are spreading to many rural areas both because of habitat change and because they were successful at filling the space left open when wolf populations were extirpated across most of the lower 48.

What does it mean for the island to host this “native song dog”?  No one knows yet. Hearing coyotes in our midst seems to generate both a sense of excitement and nervousness, especially for cat and small dog owners. Just like eagles and great-horned owls, coyotes can kill cats though they aren’t their preferred food.

Possible coyote benefits

From an ecological viewpoint coyotes stand to be helpful here. Their most common and preferred source of food is small rodents of all kinds. T Martino thinks that they may also occasionally take young or sick raccoons and fawns, which could help to balance these populations. A secondary effect of balancing deer populations may be a more diverse understory of plants in our forests.

A few people who live where coyotes have been sighted have mentioned to me that their raccoon population seems to be dwindling. Whether this is an actual drop in raccoon numbers or a behavioral change on the part of these animals responding to coyote presence, or something entirely unrelated to coyotes (like Leptospirosis infection), no one knows. But who wouldn’t be glad for a reprieve in the endless battle to come up with increasingly sophisticated barricades for the garbage cans?

Keys to co-existence

There are real and effective actions people can take to increase the chance that coyotes and other island residents continue to live harmoniously.  Rural residents have successfully demonstrated this in communities across British Columbia, California, and Colorado.  These successes result when humans work within the constructs of coyote societies to establish behavior patterns that are passed from one coyote generation to another.

 Keeping these naturally shy animals shy and wild is the key to harmony. 

Below are proven effective techniques from Project Coyote, a coalition of wildlife biologists working to increase co-existence of humans and coyotes.

1.       Do not feed coyotes.

2.       Walk pets on a leash (especially during spring and early summer when pups are in dens and coyotes may try to deter you or your dog).

3.       Supervise small pets and children and keep cats inside (keeping cats indoors also helps native songbird populations).

4.       Secure garbage, compost, and pet foods.  (Make sure can lids are tight, pick up fallen fruit, feed pets inside, and prevent bird feeders from attracting rodents.)

5.       “Haze” coyotes seen near homes and community spaces. (Pop open your umbrella, blow a whistle, make a shaker to use, or just be BIG and LOUD in any way you can).

6.       Talk to your neighbors. See a coyote in your neighborhood? Ask neighbors to follow these tips to make the area less attractive to them.

7.       Secure livestock. Use guard dogs, guard llamas, or secure fencing.  Locally, Wolftown also suggests electric fencing around chicken coops. Wolftown is a great local resource for livestock owners who want to learn preventative techniques.

Coyote myths

There are a few myths about coyotes worth mentioning. First, coyotes do not carry rabies. Russell Link, who works for Department of Wildlife and Fish in Washington and has authored many books about urban wildlife, says that bats are the only wild animal in Washington that carry rabies and very few bats actually do.

Secondly, culling coyote populations does not work.  Numerous studies show that coyote populations explode in response to killing for a number of reasons. Let be, coyotes have a rigid social structure in which only the alpha pair breeds. However, if the social structure is upset, more coyotes in the pack start to breed. This leads to higher than normal population growth.  In addition, young animals may have less guidance as to how to behave if key older pack members are shot. This can lead to unwanted coyote behaviors becoming established in a coyote population that is growing at an unstable and rapid rate.

Evidence from the past six years of coyote habitation on Vashon Island suggests that our coyote population is blessedly shy and wild. Most of us don’t even know they are here.  Working together as a community to continue to reinforce this behavior will help minimize potential conflicts.

I enjoy the fact that these high clear voices are part of Vashon’s ever-changing song. When I listen, I think of the benefits to our island ecosystems that those voices potentially symbolize.  I accept that they have made it to this island to live a life and call it home just like I did. And I will do everything I can to keep in right relation with these bards of the woods, including securing my food and scraps and animals, and scaring them off if needed for everyone’s sake, including theirs.

Please report coyote sightings or any possible coyote interaction with pets/livestock to Vashon Nature Center: info@vashonnaturecenter.org

For more information on coyotes please contact Vashon Nature Center or Wolftown. For specific information on securing livestock, contact Wolftown and consider donating to their cause.

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