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New Neighbor: Coyote?

Recent sightings likely to increase in Potomac.

Like it or not the coyote is staking out his place in area neighborhoods. In fact, that furtive creature with the long snout and longer legs may soon be as familiar as the ubiquitous red fox.

As recently as last month, River Falls resident Anne Killeen noticed a small German Shepherd-like animal about the size of a 30-pound dog across the road from her house. “It had a square head, a fox-like tail and long legs,” she said.

Not long after that sighting, Killeen’s boys raced into the house with a tale about an encounter at the nearby creek. They saw three animals running together and, at first, thought they were foxes, but they looked too different, the boys told her.

“That really scared them,” said Killeen. She did not think much about it until she e-mailed the citizen’s association about her experience and discovered that a number of neighbors saw similar animals around Brickyard Road.

Nearby, Deborah Jacobson described a midsize dog-like animal pacing the road near her house. “We see foxes all the time, but this one was grayer and taller,” she said. “He looked more like a scruffy German Shepherd.” She checked the Internet sight from Rock Creek Park sightings and said he looked similar to the coyote pictured there.

Were these animals coyotes or just big foxes? Are coyotes moving into the area? Where did they come from?

Although there has been a steady increase in reported sightings of coyotes in Montgomery County, they have been living in Maryland since about 1972. They hunt on farm land, raise their pups in tree-dense stands, and use the power lines as their personal beltway to Dickerson and back. Few people noticed. Soon the pups had pups and coyotes from neighboring states migrated to find better habitat. The population grew.

Officer Stephen Whitney of the Rockville Police Department reports that calls of sightings have increased to almost daily and have become routine. Recently, coyotes have been seen in such unlikely places as Bethesda and Rockville, near the streambeds in Potomac, on highways and even the footpaths of parks.

“Today, there are coyotes in every county,” said biologist Robert Colona, Furbearer Project Leader at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Coyotes have been seen around Route 28 and Falls Grove, the development on the former Thomas Farm.

“Occasionally there have been complaints from people who have been approached by a coyote while walking their dogs, but there has never been an attack,” said Whitney.

The coyote population in Maryland has not yet been recorded, but the numbers appear to be much less than currently in Virginia. But, since they reach sexual maturity at about one year, have litters of four to six pups and are fertile all their lives, the potential for growth in their numbers in significant. Coyotes are often monogamous, having unions that last four years or longer.

“Coyotes started showing up earnestly in Virginia 15 years ago,” said biologist Bob Duncan, the Wildlife Division Director for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “Now there are tens of thousands.” As a result, Duncan said, more than 8,000 coyotes were shot last year by the state’s 250,000-plus deer hunters.

“There is a 95 percent confidence limit on this number from a survey we gave the hunters,” he said. “And, that is conservative.”

Maryland has initiated a similar survey from bow hunters, but it will take several years for an accurate reading of the population, said Colona. “The rate of growth in Virginia has reached 30 to 35 percent,” he said. But, Maryland numbers are still relatively low with the highest densities in western Maryland.

One indication of the increase in coyotes is a reduction of the feral cat population, according to an article by Marc Bekoff, of the Department of Environmental, Population, and Organismic Biology, University of Colorado. In addition, they can also attack small pets.

With an appetite for just about everything, the coyote has an ability find a meal whether in feast or famine. His nose could be in a garbage bin or a berry patch, or sniffing out a gopher. With a taste for vegetation if the need demands, he would prefer to feast on a variety of small animals. Squirrels and rabbits, ground hogs or a very small deer will do, although coyotes are not likely to significantly affect the deer population anytime soon.

Coyotes will not increase in the numbers that the red fox have attained locally because the habitat will not support them, said Colona. A coyote requires land to move and hunt and many neighborhoods do not offer that. “Seeing a coyote will still be a chance encounter,” he added.

The typical coyote differs significantly from the fox in size, shape and silhouette. The coyote can be distinguished by its size: taller, its ears: larger and erect, its muzzle: longer and pointed. Both have bushy tails, the coyote’s, vertical or floating down; the fox’s, horizontal. Coyote colors can be tan or mottled or grayish. The gray fox is usually smaller than the red fox, so size can be a factor in distinguishing a coyote from a gray fox.

At the Second Chance Wildlife Center in Gaithersburg, foxes are a regular sight, but until recently, coyotes were not. According to Christine Montuori, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator since 1986, Second Chance received its first coyote last week. The humane society brought in a four-week-old pup that had been found by a woman on April 29 in the Sligo Creek area. The woman initially thought she had a puppy until she took it to the vet. “By its size and head shape, we were sure it was a coyote,” said Montuori.

They euthanized the pup because of the extensive human contact and the possibility of rabies. “People should understand that sometimes picking up a baby wild animal is the worst thing they can do for it,” said Montuori. “The mother is often nearby.” And, if it tested positive for rabies, those friends and neighbors who touched it would have to take rabies shots, she said.

Coyotes are not serious rabies vectors yet, meaning that they most likely do not carry rabies, although rabies can infect any mammal. According to DVM, The Newsmagazine of Veterinary Medicine, information from 1998 to 2002 shows that less than 1 percent of coyotes nationwide carry rabies, compared to 39 percent of raccoons, 30 percent of skunks and 6 percent of foxes. Locally, raccoons comprise 85 percent of confirmed rabies cases, with foxes second, then bats, Montuori said. “It is more dangerous if you run into a fox or a raccoon because of rabies,” she said. At Second Chance, many would rather encounter a coyote than a fox.”

“Seeing a fox is not unusual, but as the coyote population spreads, people will see more coyotes walking down the street and it won’t be odd,” said Kevin Sullivan, state director of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, Wildlife Services Division. “They’re here.”

According to Duncan, the coyote is not as tough a creature as people imagine. “They are secretive and shy and would sooner disappear than confront a human,” he said. They are extremely intelligent but tend to cower when captured, not attack. “Anthropomorphically, maybe they’ve figured they have more to lose than gain,” he said. “They are wired differently from anything I’ve ever encountered.”

Potomac’s new neighbor may be a four-footed predator, but how he is welcomed will depend on the community’s education and a good degree of common sense. “Most of the calls we get — they are about wildlife just being wild," said Sullivan. “Be careful, but be happy you see these animals.”