Sunday, November 19, 2017

Coyotes Prepare for Winter

coyoteEight years ago, my husband and I planted 128 fruit trees on a hillside, mostly apples, but the back few rows included stone fruits. Our apples began producing with gusto after only a few years. We made gallons of cider and sold bushels of heirloom apples. But the plums have required patience. Their blossoms are so delicate and our springs so unpredictable that after eight years, there are still varieties we have yet to taste.

Over these eight years, we have been loyal. We have not eaten anyone else’s plums. This year, we were rewarded when all five of our small Stanley plum trees produced dark blue fruit. By the end of September, they had almost ripened.

Then one morning, all the plums were gone. At base of the trees, I found torn and pierced skins, and barren pits. My later discovery of a long, tapered blue scat, found on a raised rock, confirmed my suspicion.

Eastern coyotes, I should have known, also like to eat plums. Canis latrans var. and I share a similar world view. I would have eaten all the plums too. Greedy, some might say, but I would describe it as opportunistic. Coyote researchers agree that coyotes are fluid when it comes to diet. They are true localvores, eating what is available, when it is available.

Fall is fat times for the coyote and the farmer. We are both busy preparing for winter. My family is stockpiling food. Our root cellar is full, the jam is put up, and dried peaches, like slivers of the sun, are secreted away until the dark of winter. The coyote’s cellar is its body. It is fueling up on the sugar from fall’s fruits, proteins from prey and fats from seeds and nuts. Its varied autumn diet prepares its muscles, flesh and even fur for the hard winter. Its ragged summer coat falls away and a thicker winter coat takes its place. With its long, coarse guard hairs and thick undercoat, the 30 to 50 pound canine assumes a much heftier appearance.

There is much for these generalized opportunists to eat in the fall, but it’s their frequent consumption of small rodents that lets me forgive them for eating my plums. In the earliest hours of an October morning, I saw this in action as I watched a lone coyote pause with ears tilted toward the ground. It leaped forward, thrusting its snout into a tangle of dead grass, and came back up with a small rodent gripped in its jaws. If you are a fruit farmer, a worse fate than a coyote stealing your plums, is a vole gnawing your trees.

This autumn’s nights have been filled with the howls and yips of the local coyote pack. In winter, this sound may dwindle. Male juveniles tend to leave in search of their own territories and mates, although young females will often stay with their parents for an additional year or two. These females will help to maintain the pack’s territory, hunt larger prey such as deer, and raise the next litter of pups.

Only once in my twenty years of winter tracking did I ever come across a fresh coyote kill. A young deer, scattered and torn – fresh tracks laying out the tale of its final moments, pulled down by three coyotes. When I returned three days later, all that was left of the deer was a few ribs and one hoof.

Winter is hard on coyotes and clearly hard on deer. Evidence from many coyote studies conducted throughout the eastern United States, show that deer are the dominant winter food for coyotes, but it doesn’t follow that coyotes are the main reason for deer mortality. According to Will Staats, a New Hampshire Fish and Game regional wildlife biologist, most deer consumed in the winter by eastern coyotes are winterkill or roadkill.

As fall tips towards winter and the night grows quiet, I reflect on coyote and me. We have much in common. We eat what we can, when we can. My family lives large off our farm during harvest season. We eat like kings, or perhaps coyotes. We pack it on ahead of winter, and thicken our coats to endure the cold. If I could, I would grow my underfur too, and howl at the night sky as my own growing children begin to slip away to new terrain.

Susie Spikol Faber is Community Program Director for the Harris Center for Conservation Education in Hancock, New Hampshire. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine, and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

30 Responses

  1. W. Davis says:

    Beautiful article and I commend your style and grammar.

    I wonder what proportion of coydogs are mixed in with the pure population in the Adirondacks.

    In northern NJ the local coyotes/coydogs circle my area in a howling pack at night. I do believe they are pining for my German Shepherds. One approached me and my female GSD in my backyard to within 20 ft one time, I had to shoo it off. It was standing still just eyeballing us. Luckily my well-trained Lola did not go after it.

    • AG says:

      If you have multiple German Sheperds it is very unlikely they would want to challenge them.. A single coyote – unless a female with a pup – would avoid a grown German Sheperd. Wolves are a different story.

    • Terry V says:

      Nice piece.
      In my area downstate the coyotes eat only small dogs

  2. Byron Hadley says:

    I have experienced coyotes attempting to eat roadrunners, also have seen coyotes standing next to US Mail boxes, waiting for their delivery from the Acme Company.

  3. Diane O'Connor says:

    What a great article. I was not aware of coyotes eating fruit, but it might explain the seed-filled scat I sometimes find near my roadway.

  4. Tim-Brunswick says:

    The above article isn’t quite Disney like, but painting the coyote as an occasional consumer of road kill, sick deer is a bunch of baloney. I travel in the woods all year round and find plenty of evidence that coyotes will kill a deer every chance they can.

    Their primary impact on the deer population is felt by their devotion to locating/killing/consuming newborn and young fawns and this they do frequently. Its also incorrect to label coyotes as a pack animal. In the winter trail cams show undeniable proof that they do indeed pair up, but the young are dispersed by that time and seldom do they hunt in more than groups of two.

    • John Warren says:

      Tim’s theories about coyote predation have been debunked many times here. Pay him no mind.

      • Paul says:

        This is a nice article:

        Here is what the scientists that have studied the coyote in the Adirondacks have found:

        “For the past 30 years deer have dominated winter diets (80-90%); spring and summer diets consisted mostly of deer (50-60%) with lesser amounts of beaver, snowshoe hare and insects and berries in late summer.”

        Coyote predation on deer is well understood by the scientists that are studying it.

        • Wally says:

          And almost everywhere there are too many deer.

          • Paul says:

            Deer density in most parts of the Adirondacks is pretty low. These deer harvest numbers show how low they are in region 5:


            There are certainly not “too many deer”.

            • Boreas says:

              Deer take numbers only involve hunting harvests and not overall deer populations. Residential areas harbor high populations due to lack of predation and year-round food. Mature stands of forest support few deer, so low numbers would be expected there ad high takes would be abnormal. “Too many” deer depends where you look and what is considered normal in that area – arbitrary at best.

        • AG says:

          Those winter deer must be the starved ones… Spring and summer must be roadkill. No way coyotes can kill that many healthy deer. Wolf packs don’t even do that.

        • The Chambers paper to which Paul refers readers also has this to say about coyotes and deer: “Although there is some evidence that coyotes may limit deer numbers in certain local situations, it is obvious that coyotes have not limited deer abundance on a regional scale.” And those concerned about forest ecology, including many hunters, recognize the damage to our forests done by deer. We are well served by any activity that reduces deer numbers including both hunting and animal predation.

          • AG says:

            Yeah – coyotes or even wolves and mountain lions never decimate deer numbers. They form natural balances. Nothing can compete with humans and their guns – nor the loss of habitat by humans.

            • Paul says:

              Not too accurate. A pack of wolves can easily kill 100-200 or more deer per year. Makes us human hunters look like a joke, of course we are limited in what we can harvest. Wolves are good at what they do. A single mountain lion collared in CO killed 130 deer a year – all alone!

              • AG says:

                If what you say is common then no predators would ever starve… Wolves and cougars starve every year… Full grown ones and the young ones as well. Nature is in balance when humans with guns or axes/saws aren’t affecting the landscape.
                The idea that animal predators are “killing machines” is just false. Prey get away the majority of the time. African wild dogs are often cited as the most successful hunters – and their kill ratio is still slightly under 50 percent.

              • Boreas says:

                The predation numbers may seem to be high, but natural predators do not decimate an ungulate population – it controls it. Ungulates (and most prey species) enjoy a high reproductive rate and can quickly bounce back from lows IF – and that is the qualifier – IF there is a sufficient food supply. Ungulates and their predators are also very good at eating themselves into starvation. When the food supply drops, they migrate or starve. End of story.

                Population numbers being “too high” or “too low” are human constructs based on our immediate point of view and arbitrary studies. These numbers rarely take into account the predator/prey balance and holding power of the area. Hunting is not predatory – rather it typically culls the healthy, mature animals – which is the opposite of predation. Vehicle “predation” is less selective – more random. Both effect populations to a point, but not in a natural way. Natural population dynamics involve predator-prey-food density cycles, which humans abhor. This is uncomfortable for humans who want to control everything and keep populations at a steady state, but it is the system that has worked over the eons and made us what we are – for good or bad. Trying to tweak the cyclical equations to provide a human-centered even-keel balance has had many bad results.

      • Charlie S says:

        I don’t usually agree with Tim John but so far as coyotes taking young deer he’s on the money on this one. My brother owns a bunch of rural acreage down in Schoharie County and he will attest to the coyotes in his area killing fawns. He has described to me deer crying at night and sure enough he would go up in his field the next morning and see what remained of deer, oftentime fawns. I’ve seen what little was left of a deer on his acreage once….a deer that was taken down by local coyotes. They are know to attack humans so a fawn would be no problem for this opportunistic animal.

        • Boreas says:

          Agreed, Charlie. Coyotes will take advantage of any food source – the easier, the better. While they may kill the occasional healthy, adult deer, it would be quite an effort and risk. Just like any predator they have to conserve energy and avoid risk of injury, so will take whatever is easiest – young, sick, or dead.

          • Paul says:

            Science shows that coyotes are pretty good at killing adult healthy deer. Check out the work done at the Huntington forest near Newcomb. Deer killed by coyotes have nice red marrow – perfectly healthy. They snag the weak ones too for sure.

            • AG says:

              Sure they CAN kill a healthy adult.. So can large breeds of dogs… Doesn’t mean they do all the time. Take a trip down to NYC and study the situations in Van Cortlandt and Pelham Bay Parks in The Bronx. 1100 and 2200 acres respectively… Herds of deer and coyote families have lived in both of these relatively small natural areas for 20 years. If coyotes were so successful at killing healthy adult deer – the deer population would have been eliminated already… They haven’t.

            • Boreas says:

              Predators do not want to expend any more energy than they have to to eat. If they are routinely taking healthy, adult prey, it is likely a sign that the local prey-predator balance is under stress. In those areas I would expect that the populations are such that the predators are being forced to attack healthy deer for lack of easier to obtain prey. Could be a temporary lack of small mammals, an over-abundance of deer, or an over-abundance of predators. The habitat itself changes over time causing shifts in the cycles. It all evens out over the centuries – if we let it.

  5. Steve Cooperdock says:

    Thank you, very informative, Steve

  6. Wally says:

    Love your content and style. When I lived in Georgia, there was a fig tree in the yard. It is very hard to tell when figs are ripe, and they should not be picked before they are ripe. The sure sign was coming home from work to find all of them gone! In that case it was birds rather than coyotes.

  7. Paul says:

    The coyote in the drawing with it’s dark tipped tail sure looks a lot like a fox.

  8. Paul says:

    The coyote in the drawing with its dark tipped tail sure looks a lot like a fox.

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