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Coyotes on Martha's Vineyard

Summary of a very informative talk about how to handle a new coyote population on the small Southeastern Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard

By Jenna in the StarsPublished about a year ago 9 min read

I live on the small island of Martha's Vineyard off of the southeastern coast of Cape Cod, Massachusssetts. Our little island has long been renowned for its peaceful nature and distinct lack of apex predators. We have bird of prey here like Red Tail Hawks, Osprey, Perregrine Falcons and the occasioal migratory Bald Eagle sighting (I think...don't quote me on that) but never before have we had what's called an apex predator - a large predator at the top of its food chain without something else that would naturally prey on it. Examples of apex predators are bears and wolves, but in Southeastern Massachusetts, coyotes are as big and bad as it gets for the most part. Still, the island had never had a coyote population, or at least hasn't had one in a very long time. Over the years you'd occasionally hear about individual coyotes swimming from the mainland or other neighboring islands like the Elizabeth islands. The majority of them didn't survive the swim and would wash up dead on shore, although a few individuals did make it over but were probably shot and killed or decided to leave the island and swim away, as the sightings were short-lived.

Now, for whatever reason, probably due to population growth, lack of territory on the mainland and the other islands, and the need for young coyotes to expand and find territories of their own, more and more coyotes have been taking the plunge into the Vineyard Sound and successfully swimming to Martha's Vineyard.

According to island biologists, researchers, and people's private game cameras on their properties, it is estimated that there ar 6 individual coyotes living on the island at this time (February 11th 2023) and that they most likely swam from the island of Naushon. It's also possible that coyotes "bounce around" from the main land to the Elizabeth Islands to the Vineyard. Without GPS tracking collars, it's hard to know exactly where they came from and where they have been.

Coyote packs are usually formed by a mating pair. There hasn't been a mating pair identified, but inevitably, unless someone shoots and kills all 6 coyotes, there's probably at least one male and one female, so a mating pair is probably on the horizon. Coyote breeding season is also in March, and their gestation period is just 60 days, which means that in April we could have a litter of coyote pups on the island. Once a pair mates, they are monogomous and usually mate for life, and become the alpha male and female of their pack structure, which is then comprised of their pups, and those pups's pups - their children and grand children.

For the past few weeks I've been contacting local wildlife organizations to learn more about the implications of what having coyotes on this small island might be. On the island we have healthy populations of deer, skunks, wild turkeys, raccoons, rats, mice, squirrels, chipmunks, and other small rodents, although there are many complaints about deer overpopulation. I was wondering about what the introduction of an apex predator might mean for our local wildlife, and how people should prepare to deal with coyote encounters. No one was really able to give me much information until today when there was a public talk at the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Hall about coyotes and how to have safe and healthy (minimal) interactions with them.

The expert speaker who came over to give the talk was Dan Proulx, an animal control officer, a Massachussetts problem animal control officer, a Massachussetts wildlife rehabilitator, and a US Army Veteran 94-99 (Airborn Infantry). He also has experience working with wolves at Wolf Hollow wolf sanctuary in Ipswitch, MA. He has lots of experience wrangling coyotes with nets and catch poles, as well as experience helping locals all over Massachussetts fend off and "haze" problematic coyotes by introducing new wcae tactics to change their behaviors. He provided great information, some funny stories, and lots of strategies on how to haze coyotes away from humans and keep our interactions healthy. Animal control officers from every town were in attendance, as well as the island's Environmental Police officer Andrew Simmons.

I attended the talk and made a list of the main takeaways. This is specifically geared towards the island, but is general knwoledge and coyote ettiquette that can be applied to coyotes anywhere.

Discouraging coyotes from feeling comfortable around humans by hazing them, as Dan called it, is key. It is legal to shoot a coyote until March when hunting season ends.

DO NOT FEED THEM. This is bad for everyone encourages bad coyote behavior, teaching them to associate food with humans and human dwellings. try not to let them have access to trash and compost, secure trash and compost in a wooden structure or lid with bungee cords. Important for houses and for businesses.

DO NOT BACK DOWN. If you see a coyote in your yard or on your property, it can be scary and intimidating to face it but it's important to stand your ground, defend your territory, and scare it off to show it that it can’t be there. Obviously if you have children or small pets get them inside ASAP. Once you've done so do not walk away or go back inside until the coyote has run off. If shouting at it (”HEY GET AWAY” is the example Dan Proulx the speaker gave today) doesn’t work, bang on pots and pans, shake a can with beans or rocks in it, throw rocks or any object at it, and you can even chase it off your property. He also suggested air horns, whistles, strobe lights/flashing lights, spraying at it with a power hose, getting some bear spray or mace, and non explosive pop-streamer fireworks. DO NOT back down or go back inside until it’s run away, if you do, it is a failed attempt to send the message that they are not welcome there. A normal coyote will be afraid of all of this and run away. Some coyotes may have come from parts of the mainland where they have become very used to humans and have acquired bad behaviors from people not hazing them properly or not hazing them at all, and may not be as easily scared off. We all need to be united in our strategy for discouraging coyotes to come near human dwellings and to approach people and small dogs on trails. You can also hilariously pee along the edge of your property to “mark your territory” for wandering coyotes.

ON A HIKE THROW ROCKS if you see a coyote watching or following you on a trail. Pick up your small dog as soon as you see it and don’t put the dog down until you are out of the woods or VERY sure that you scared it off successfully and it ran away. Shouting, chasing or throwing rocks, poop bags, or keys are good strategies. If you have a small or medium dog it’s probably safer to keep it on a leash now.

OPPORTUNIST OMNIVORES. Coyotes eat both meat and vegetables. They may want to eat your garden and compost bin! They may hunt deer, but more likely will hunt small rodents (yay they kill rats), skunks, squirrels, chipmunks etc. They will definitely try to hunt chickens, cats, and small-medium sized dogs. A normal coyote would not try to attack a full sized human but could try to attack a small child.

SCAVENGERS/HUNTING/ROADKILL. They will definitely eat dead deer and other dead animals (road kill) which means they would hunt fewer rats, so we should talk to our town officials and make sure that road kill is dealt with quickly so that wolves don’t get used to eating dead deer. If you hit a deer and kill it, call animal control immediately! If coyotes get used to eating dead deer, they won’t kill as many rats! Road kill could be burried, or perhaps better to incinerate if there is an incinerator. I know sometimes road kill becomes venison to feed low income people so that’s a good option too. This also goes for hunters who may leave parts of their kills in the forest- they should not do that and should dispose of the guts or whatever hunters do at home (bury or incinerate).

PETS AND CHILDREN. Coyotes are opportunists and will definitely go after small-medium dogs, cats, and even small children. Cats should be kept in doors now, although outdoor cats may stand a chance defending themselves. Small and medium dogs should be kept on leashes when walking in the forest and maybe even in your yard if you live in a wooded area. Fences may be helpful! You could also look into getting a coyote vest for your dog of any size - these are vests that have spikes or long stiff wires on them to a. make them look bigger and b. cause a coyote pain and discomfort if it did try to bite your dog. Small children should not be left to play outside in the woods and in wooded yards alone. The more we as a community teach the coyotes that being around people is BAD and SCARY for them, the less they will try to come around us. It’s early in the process so now is a good time to make a strong impact on coyotes and their behavior.

Janary 2nd -March 8th 2023 is hunting season and coyotes can be legally hunted then, but the rest of the year it is ILLEGAL to shoot or harm a coyote unless it is attacking a person, dog, or farm animal and can’t be scared off, or if it obviously has rabies.

Coyotes are monogamous pairs and usually mate for life. They live in a pack structure- a family. The alpha male and female are the parents and the rest of the pack are their children or grandchildren.

Coyotes with rabies are dangerous and you should not try to scare them off. Call Animal Control ASAP. Figure out who your local town animal control officer is just in case you have a coyote interaction.

Coyotes are very intelligent animals. They are adaptable and they learn behaviors. Once a coyote has learned that humans leave trash cans open around their house, they'll keep coming around will even teach their children and the rest of the pack that that's a food strategy and source. If you teach the adults that it's scary and not safe for them to be around humans and human dwellings, they will learn that and teach it to the rest of their pack too. Coyotes, just like everyone and everything else, are sentient animals just trying to survive on an ever-more-populated and crowded planet.

I hope this information has been helpful and interesting to islanders and to anyone else living with coyotes in the area.


About the Creator

Jenna in the Stars

fiction writer, journalist, reporter, *astrologer*, wildlife lover, citizen of planet earth, curious human

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email: [email protected]

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