Suburban Wildlife – Backyard Critters

Above and below: Local wildlife captured on a backyard trail cam

If you live outside of a major city, you might be surprised to learn that your home is part of an ecosystem.  Your yard is a place where animals roam, hunt, forage and raise their young; and you are part of it by virtue of the boundaries you place on it, the shelter and food sources that you create, and the dangers that you bring to it.

Set up a trail cam outside your house before you settle down to an evening of television and you will see what I mean.  In the mornings, you will see pictures of animal comings and goings in the night that you probably never knew were happening.  You will find that you are sharing your turf with opossums, rabbits, raccoons, skunks, woodchucks, coyotes, foxes, owls and other critters that you may never have been aware of.  They are your neighbors and live their lives right  under your nose.  They are the reason that your dog wakes you  up in the night and barks to go outside.

What’s your part in this?  The best thing you can do is be responsible and be aware of their behaviors.

First off:  Control your pets.  Always keep your cats indoors and do not let your dog outside at night without keeping an eye on him.  Your cats are predators by nature and will attempt to hunt and kill birds and any other small animals that they can get.  Further, your cat is prey for the larger predators in your area.   By keeping your cat indoors, you are increasing its life expectancy by 12 to 15 years1,2.

Second:  Keep your trash inaccessible and use bins that cannot be opened by wildlife.  We do not need to attract wildlife to our homes or invite them to visit us for food.

Third:  Do not feed them.  If wildlife is present in your neighborhood, that means they have plenty of food and do not need you to supplement their diets.  And, the fact is, the sugar, fat and salt content in our diet is just as unhealthy for them as it is for us.  You are not doing them any favors by sharing it with them.  I am not saying to take down your bird feeder, just don’t share your breakfast cereal or dinner leftovers with them.  And absolutely do not feed your pets outdoors or leave their food bowls outside.  Not only do your pets’ bowls attract wildlife – sharing them with wildlife is an avenue for diseases.

One of the main reasons to admire wildlife from a distance is that they can carry diseases and parasites that are dangerous to both humans and our pets.  Not only profoundly serious diseases such as rabies and distemper, but tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, parasites such as mange, fleas and scabies, and other communicable diseases.   You can keep these illnesses and parasites outside by simply taking simple precautions about your pets and their food.

Lastly:  Leave them alone.  Do not try to make friends with them.  In fact, the more wary they are of people, the better.  If you see a critter that seems to be unafraid of you or tame; or if one approaches you, it is probably sick3.   In fact, animal welfare organizations across the country are seeing increases in diseases such as canine distemper4,5, a disease that can be spread to unvaccinated dogs.

Summing it up:  Just recognize that we share the world with wildlife, and we should respect their space.  We can enjoy them from a distance, but for our benefit and theirs we should minimize our intrusion into their lives.  We also need to protect our pets by keeping them from having any interactions with wildlife and keeping their vaccinations up to date.

References:

  1. Watson, S. Indoor Vs. Outdoor Cats: Health and Safety (webmd.com)
  2. www.thehumanesociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/indoors_outdoors.pdf
  3. Sick animals being reported throughout Bristol | EastBayRI.com – News, Opinion, Things to Do in the East Bay
  4. yubanet.com/regional/distemper-cases-rise-among-californias-foxes-raccoons-skunks/
  5. patch.com/virginia/arlington-va/newsroom-canine-distemper-confirmed-raccoon-population-north-arlington

 

Suburban Wildlife – Deer

Deer are becoming more and more common in human-populated areas and are establishing themselves as a fixture in our neighborhoods.  In the coming months we are going to see increased deer activity as fawning season begins in late April and May.  Depending on your viewpoint, they’re a nuisance and garden thief, or they’re an attractive addition to your local community.  In either case, there are some do’s and don’ts that you should keep in mind.

First off, do not feed them or do anything to attract them to your home.  For one thing, not all of your human neighbors would appreciate it – particularly those with gardens.  And any food that you might put out would also attract other animals that you might not want to have nearby, such as mice or rats.  The deer in our backyards are feeding themselves very nicely and do not need your help.  In fact, we do not want them to become even more accustomed to human habitats than they already are.   For their own sake, we want them to be cautious around humans and avoid us.  Another reason to keep them at a distance is that they carry parasites and diseases (ticks, mange, lyme disease, leptospirosis, salmonella and giardia, to name a few) that are contagious to us and our pets1.  Your pets belong in your yard; the deer may visit from time to time but do not need to be regulars.  In fact, it’s a bad idea to let them become regulars.

In the spring you might encounter a fawn that is bedded down in a corner of your yard or in a wooded area.  This is common.  The fawn is fine, you should leave it alone and keep your pets and children away from it.   Unlike a lot of other animals, deer do not keep their unweaned young with them 24/7; they will leave fawns in a safe, quiet place while they graze nearby2.  So, if you see a fawn, just assume that it is most likely not orphaned or abandoned and does not need your help.  If you are concerned about it, set up a camera and watch it for a day or two to see if the deer returns.  If she doesn’t, call a wildlife rescue organization.

Summing it up, deer are cute and attractive animals.  Even though they live close to us, they are still wild animals and its better for all concerned if we leave them alone and admire them from a distance.

References

  1. American Veterinary Medical Assocation.  Disease Precautions for Hunters.  Retrieved from Disease precautions for hunters | American Veterinary Medical Association (avma.org)
  2. Mizejewski, D. (2015, April 15). Finding a Fawn:  What to do, retrieved from Finding a Fawn: What To Do • The National Wildlife Federation Blog : The National Wildlife Federation Blog (nwf.org)

Eastern Coyote Myths and Reality

Its coyote season again.  This is the time of year when coyotes mate and establish dens and territories in preparation of new puppies arriving in the spring.  We can expect new encounters and sightings in our neighborhoods in the coming months.  So, I thought this might be a good time to discuss some commonly held notions and beliefs about them.

Myth Number One:  Coyotes roam in packs. Everyone knows that.

Actually, they live in small groups of about 5 individuals, consisting of a dominant male and female pair, with a few lower status members and any puppies that have been born that year.  In some cases, the “pack” may consist only of the breeding pair and any pups they may have.  The size of the pack is limited by the availability of game and the level of danger in that environment – in areas in which they are hunted or more likely to be killed by automobiles, their “pack” size tends to be smaller.

A third to a half of the coyotes that you may encounter don’t belong to packs at all, and are solitary animals.  They may be individuals who have left their packs and are looking for mates, or a looking for a pack to join, or just like being alone.1

The misconception that they live in larger groups may be due to their vocalizations.  When they get together for a good howl, two or three of them can sound like ten, as seen in the below video:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtsZoIe3Czk

Myth Number Two:  Coy-wolves. They’re enormous.

Not so much.  Coy-wolves are not a thing.

Before Americans started moving west, coyotes were rare east of the Mississippi River.  Starting over 100 years ago, coyotes from the American west began moving into Ontario, CA, taking over the space left by other predators being forced or hunted out.  As they drifted eastward, they intermingled with hybrid wolf populations in Canada, and became genetically distinct from the western coyote populations.  These hybrid coyotes are generally referred to as Eastern Coyotes.

A genetic study of coyotes in the New York area found that they generally 64% coyote, 13% gray wolf, 13% eastern wolf and 10% dog.  This should not be interpreted as meaning that they are interbreeding with domestic dogs.  That DNA was picked from the hybridized wolves they interbred with on their way east.  There is some speculation that species that are endangered or under pressures to survive, such as wolves, are more likely to breed with other, more successful species.  2

As a result of this genetic mixing, the coyotes we see in the US northeast are somewhat larger than their western counterparts and have slightly larger heads.  The ones that you are likely to see in your neighborhood will be between 20 and 40 lbs, about the same as a small- to mid-sized dog.  But they’re not coy-wolves.

Myth Number Three:  Coyotes attack people. Everyone has a story.

No.  They don’t.  They really want nothing to do with us.  You and your kids are safe from them.

Coyote attacks are, in fact, very rate.  There is only one recorded incident of a human being killed by coyotes in the United States.  Most cases in which humans have been bitten by coyotes are instances in which the coyotes were being fed (its never a good idea to feed wildlife) or in which people were attempting to save their pets from a hunting coyote.3

There are stories of people who claim that they were “stalked” by a coyote while out walking or hiking.  It is more likely that the coyote was simply curious, or had been fed by someone, or has simply become habituated (accustomed) to humans and is less fearful than it should be.

Myth Number Four:  Coyotes are rabid. One bite and you die.

Not really.  There is a coyote strain of rabies, but that is limited to a population in Texas.  They are considered to be a disease vector for rabies, but no more so than any other wild predator.  The primary risk of a rabid coyote is one that was bitten by an infected animal of another species.6,8

Not a Myth:  Coyotes can prey on pets and livestock

Yes, this can happen.  Coyotes are opportunistic predators and will attempt to make a meal out of any small prey they encounter.  This can include your pets, including smaller dogs or cats, or any other pet animals that you may leave out in your yard.

Dogs can be particularly vulnerable.  We encourage them to be social with their fellows and they may approach coyotes that they encounter.  Particularly so at this time of year then coyotes are mating – a fertile female coyote can be very interesting to a male dog. 4,8

That said, they don’t make a practice of eating our pets.  Nor, contrary to popular belief, do they live largely on our garbage.  Studies of eastern coyote scat from urban and suburban areas show that they live primarily on rodents, fruit (Yes, they have a sweet tooth and like berries or apples and pears) and deer (whether they hunt deer, or are scavenging road-killed deer carcasses is unclear).  2,5,7

The easiest way to protect your pets from coyotes to not let them roam, and don’t let your rabbits and chickens freely wander around your yard.  Keep them in protected runs.  And take particular care to have them secure at night.  Eastern coyotes hunting habits are shifting in response to human behavior and they are becoming more and more nocturnal –  when we are less active. 3,4

Lastly, we also share our suburbs with other predators, including feral cats and dogs, raccoons, foxes, weasels, minks, owls, etc.  Although coyotes are becoming more and more common in our neighborhoods, its likely that they are being blamed for predation done by other species.

What’s the takeaway?

The reality is that they are present in your neighborhood.  They are getting used to the flood of noises, smells and activity that we create, and are thriving in our urban and suburban ecosystems.  They are somewhat beneficial as they prey on rodents such as rats, mice and moles that can become nuisances if left unchecked.  They’re not going away and we need to cohabitate with them, just like we do with foxes, raccoons, opossums, weasels, raptors and other local predators.

So what to do?  First off, do not – not – ever feed them.  That is that unkindest thing you can do to them.  Having them become unafraid of humans and seeing us as a food source is dangerous for both them and us.

If you encounter one or more?  Scare them.  Make yourself look as big as possible and make a lot of noise.  The more they fear humans and avoid us, the better for all concerned. 9

1 General Information About Coyotes | Urban Coyote Research

2 Nagy, C.,  (2017)  New York’s Newest Immigrants:  Coyotes in the City.  Anthrozoology Graduate Program, Canisius College

3 Coyotes and people: What to know if you see or encounter a coyote | The Humane Society of the United States

4 Coyotes are everywhere and breeding season is here, so watch your pets (newbernsj.com)

5 Gerhart, S. and McGraw, M. (2007) Ecology of Coyotes in Urban Landscapes.  Proceedings of the 12th Wildlife Damage Management Conference

6 urbancoyoteresearch.com/coyote-info/disease

7  Suburban coyotes, foxes favor wild prey over pets and trash – THE WILDLIFE SOCIETY

8  How to Protect Your Pet from Coyotes | PetMD

9 What To Do If You See A Coyote – CoyoteSmart (coyotesmarts.org)