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What you need to know about COVID-19: September 18, 2020
An apple a day might keep the doctor away but definitely not a coyote.
Malcolm MacNeil was surprised when his trail camera captured images of seven coyotes sniffing in the woods behind his home in Glencoe Mills, Inverness County. And he wasn’t too thrilled about how many of his apples they ate.
“The coyotes ate 150 pounds of apples in probably three or four days,” said the 22-year-old hunter, who had put out about 200 pounds of apples to attract whited-tailed deer.
Erich Muntz, a coyote expert who works as the Cape Breton Highlands National Park visitor safety co-ordinator, said coyotes usually live in family groups or packs of three to five members. However, nearly mature pups born earlier that year can sometimes increase that number to as many as 10 before they set out to find their own territory.
“Seeing seven at one time, I would consider it to be unusual but not unexpected,” said Muntz, who explained that fruit makes up a large part of a coyote’s diet.
“In sort of mid-August, you’ll see a very dramatic shift in the coyote diet. The largest fruit source in Cape Breton is blueberries — we’ve got a number of different species at different elevations at different places. They love blueberries and they’ll really focus on them, but they eat other berries as well. And when the apples start ripening up in September, October and November, they’ll focus on those and they’ll eat a lot of them. But it’s right about now they'll stop and they’ll flip back over to that winter diet, which is mostly wild animals.”
MUNCHING ON MOOSE
In most of Cape Breton, coyotes feed primarily on deer and small mammals in the winter. However, in the Cape Breton Highlands, they rely on moose — and they may even be able to chase and bring one down, said Muntz, who helped make the discovery during an extensive study of the park’s coyote population.
“In the Highlands, specifically, one of the unique things we found about our coyotes is that they eat a lot of moose, which is unusual. It forms the majority of their diet through the winter, spring and early fall. They’re even getting a little bit in the summertime, as well, which is unusual. In other areas kind of south of the park, we’ve found they’ll take more white-tailed deer and in general, in eastern North America, coyotes have become very good white-tailed deer hunters. They take white-tailed deer but they also eat mice, hare — they eat a lot of different things.”
Muntz said coyotes will closely follow moose and continuously look for any signs of weakness. They’ll then use their familiarity with the landscape to their advantage to kill an animal that can easily outweigh the average coyote by more than 500 pounds.
“These are smart animals and they’re constantly testing the environment where moose are. They’ll follow moose. We found that they were very close to them. They’ll even sleep right next to them — I mean within three to five metres — and they’re assessing. If they find something that’s not quite — if an animal is weak or has some sort of cue to indicate to them that it’s not going to be able to survive a fight, they’ll push it and they’ll chase it along. In some cases, they were chasing them over steep banks, into deep snow, and then they would attack at the bottom. Or in bogs that had bottomless holes. We found at least two where moose had died in some of these bog holes in the Highlands — these bottomless pits — and then they come back, and they wait for the animal to die in one spot,” said Muntz.
“I think rarely they are killing big, mature moose — they have to have just the right conditions to do it — but moose are extremely important food source in the Highlands.”
An experienced hunter, the presence of so many coyotes won’t keep MacNeil out of the woods. He now just makes sure to brings a flashlight so he can “spot them before I step on them, basically,” at dawn and dusk.
However, when he posted his trail cam photos on social media, many people commented that the coyotes should be shot or trapped.
“I’m not too concerned about them. It’s nice to see a healthy population but at the same time, a lot of people, after what happened in the Cape Breton Highlands, I find you tell anyone around you see one coyote and they’re all freaking out,” said MacNeil, referring to the 2009 death of Taylor Josephine Stephanie Luciow, who went by the stage name Taylor Mitchell. The 19-year-old folk singer had suffered fatal injuries when she was attacked by two coyotes on the Skyline Trail. “I feel like a lot of people don’t understand because they live off of mice. They will take down a deer and stuff, but I’ve ran into them hunting in the woods and stuff and I’ve never had an issue with them bothering me.
SPEAK LOUDLY, CARRY A BIG STICK
Muntz said coyote attacks are rare and the rewards of travelling in the woods and hiking local trails “far outweighs the risk of a coyote.” However, if you do encounter one, the key is to stand your ground.
“The very first thing is to pause, take a deep breath and look at the animal. Don’t do anything — and specifically do not move away from it. Demonstrate to the animal that you recognize it, you see it, and then be big. Be loud. Raise your arms and say, ‘Get out of here, coyote,’ and 99 per cent of the time if they see you are confident and are dominant, they’re just going to run away. Do not run and be aggressive — those are the most important things,” he said, announcing your presence can help prevent surprise encounters.
“Let them know you’re there. The vast majority of them want to have nothing to do with people. They are really afraid of people. These encounters that happen just really quickly, it’s often a surprise to the coyote as well. And if you stand your ground and demonstrate to them that you’re big and bad, the vast majority will run away.”
Carrying a stick any time you go for a walk in the wilderness is also recommended just in case you cross paths with an aggressive coyote, said Muntz.
“We really encourage people to hike with walking sticks. Take the stick, swing it above your head, swing it in front of them and be aggressive — actually move toward the coyote. If you have something you can throw at it, throw it. You’re demonstrating to that animal that it doesn’t want anything to do with you.”
MacNeil said he’s not sure if he’ll shoot the coyotes or possibly bring in a trapper friend to set snares. One thing he does know, however, is he’s going to stop giving them apples.
“Everyone is asking me ‘Oh, did you shoot the coyotes yet? Did you get them?’ If I see them I might shoot them but they’re no concern to me really,” he said, “but if the coyotes keep coming in I’m going to quit giving them apples.”
Coyote expert Erich Muntz says the Eastern coyote is probably the most common predator we have in Nova Scotia and it’s generally assumed the landscape as a whole is “saturated” by coyote territories. They regularly use rail lines to enter downtown Halifax. However, there are many common misconceptions about the animal.
ARRIVAL: The coyote migrated to Nova Scotia in the late 1970s and crossed into Cape Breton by 1981. While this part of a natural range expansion, many people mistakenly believe they were introduced to the island to control the snowshoe hare population, says Muntz.
“That story pops up often and I personally don’t believe it. I’ve been told by people Parks Canada brought them here and that’s just not the case. It’s not easy to live-transport coyotes — they’re pretty tough customers. They were coming, they were moving this way.”
Estimating the number of coyotes in Cape Breton is very difficult, says Muntz. He said they believe there are anywhere from 75 to 140 coyotes in the Cape Breton Highlands, but noted that is a “rough, rough, rough estimate.”
However, the territories in the mountains are the largest ever found anywhere, so there are likely denser populations in the lower elevations of Cape Breton where there are more rodents like mice to prey on.
Still, Muntz wasn’t willing to hazard a guess as to how many.
“We would be guessing and it’s not professionally credible to try to extrapolate without knowing more. If we had a good data for Cape Breton Island with good samples of territory size and some snow movement activity, some tracking stuff so we had an idea about what they’re doing on that landscape, it would be easier, but we just don’t really have enough to say with any confidence.”
The Eastern coyote is much larger than its western ancestor, with the average female in Nova Scotia weighing about 30 pounds and the average male about 40 pounds. That’s because as they moved eastward, they began breeding with wolves in Ontario and Québec.
“The term coywolf is something that’s been kind of invented by some people — some people like the term, some people don’t — but yes, our coyotes have a percentage of their genetic makeup that is wolf and a smaller portion of it actually is dog, as well,” says Muntz. “As these coyotes moved from the west to east there was some interbreeding. It happened generations ago.
"There’s actually some pretty good modelling that kind of pins it down to when it happened and where it happened, and it was likely in southern Quebec, Ontario and there’s a little bit of it continuing, but that major influx happened probably 80 or 90 years ago, and that genetic heritage continued on through until today and in Cape Breton.”
Like many Cape Bretoners, local coyotes regularly cross the Strait of Canso to seek their fortunes. Two coyotes affixed with radio satellite collars left the Highlands, with one eventually spotted in a blueberry field in Truro and the other joining a pack in Pictou County.
“So they can move long distances,” says Muntz, who has tracked other non-territorial coyotes, known as transients, that wander around without joining packs.
“These transients just go anywhere. They bounced around all over the Highlands. They would be in Ingonish one day and then two weeks later they were in Cheticamp Lake and then a week later they would be in Meat Cove.”