Howl of the Wild

Coastal coyotes are now just part of the neighborhood

By Virginia Holman   •   Photographs by Todd Pusser

Afew months back, one of my neighbors in Carolina Beach turned on her kitchen light at about 5 a.m. Her house abuts a highly vegetated area near a vast expanse of woods. She heard a yap, then a yowl, then a chorus of coyote yips and howls began. She recorded the impromptu concert on her phone from the safety of her back porch and posted it on social media. After a couple of minutes, she exhaled a whispered, “Wow!”

I’ve lived in the Cape Fear region for more than 15 years, and I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen a coyote — usually while driving at night at the edges of undeveloped areas. I do, however, hear them regularly, particularly in the vast protected acreage of Sunny Point, which is a federal no trespassing zone. Sometimes, when an ambulance siren passes by, these “song dogs” will wail along. If you think you hear coyotes in the distance, listen closely. You may find it hard to determine how many coyotes are present, and you may vastly overestimate how many you hear. That’s because even tiny groups of coyotes, two or three, vocalize in such a way that they sound like a pack of six to eight. This complex vocalizing is known as the “Beau Geste” effect, and is an effective way for coyotes to reduce unwanted interactions.

Are there more coyotes in coastal areas than there were a few years ago? Not really. According to NC Wildlife Resource Commission’s black bear and furbearer biologist, Colleen Olfenbuttel, coyote populations in coastal areas “remain stable overall.” But that doesn’t mean we aren’t seeing them more. Although coyotes prefer living in wild areas, they are quite capable of thriving in suburban and urban environments, dwelling in what we may perceive as “human territory.” When wild areas decrease, the wily coyote adapts, looking for more abundant sources of food and new places to raise its offspring. People are also documenting their coyote sightings on social media with increasing frequency — a tool that often has a way of overemphasizing fear at the expense of facts — and may make it seem as if a population has increased suddenly.

In urban environments, coyotes have occasionally appeared in some unexpected places: a walk-in cooler at a Chicago Quiznos, curled up on a train car seat, and even on an elevator. In the vast majority of these cases, the animals aren’t behaving in a manner imminently threatening to humans — in the case of the Quiznos coyote, it appears the canid was just looking for a cool place to nap. Most of us aren’t thinking much about coyotes at all, until we see one, hear one, or are invited to think about them.

A survey conducted by UNC Wilmington professors Chris Dumas and Rachael Urbanek indicates that most of us are fairly neutral about the presence of coyotes in New Hanover County — that is, until they are within a mile of our home. Their questionnaire, which was sent to 4,000 residents of New Hanover County, found that people’s support of coyotes diminishes the closer we think we are to them.

Urbanek says that the survey gathered responses to statements such as, “I support having coyotes” in the county, or, “I like coyotes.” 

“And the general response we received was that people were kind of neutral. They weren’t like, yeah, I really love coyotes or I really hate coyotes. Everybody in general was neutral about the presence of coyotes in the county.”

But, Urbanek continues, “Then we started asking, ‘Do you support coyotes within a mile of your home?’ At that point we started seeing a bit of a decline, and most respondents did not support the idea of coyotes on their property.” However, for those that did support coyotes within a mile of their home or near their property, Urbanek says the average response was along the lines of ‘It’s a little bit scary, but I’m OK.’”

Like it or not, Olfenbuttel says, “It is normal now in North Carolina to see a coyote in your neighborhood.” Surprisingly, she also says it is normal to see a coyote during the day: “Daytime activity of a wild animal does not indicate that there’s something wrong. You know, the main reason certain animals used to be more associated with nocturnal activity is one, that they were trying to avoid people; and two, there was a readily available food source.” When one of these is lacking, you may have daytime sightings of nocturnal animals; not because they are sick, but because they are pressured.

She points out that coyotes are very adaptable; if they don’t have small wild prey available, they’ll eats rats, squirrels, feral cats or small domestic pets (cats, rabbits, and even small dogs). New Hanover County does not permit unleashed pets in the county — even cats — and it’s for their health and safety. “Coyotes are omnivores. They’ll eat trash, road kill, berries, you name it,” says Olfenbuttel. “If you find that coyotes are straying into your immediate area, make sure that all of your outdoor trash is secured with a lid.”

She also suggests you try to engage in “hazing” the animal, which includes behaviors such as tossing a handful of gravel, yelling, and clapping your hands — effective ways to get coyotes to leave. Hazing also reinforces their natural wariness of humans, which in turn reduces human-wildlife interactions and conflicts.

One thing Olfenbuttel emphasizes is the need to make sure that businesses and other high-density areas keep trash secured and to never let it overflow. This is especially important in our tourist-heavy beach towns: “If you’re seeing coyotes on the beach strand, it is because the coyote is attracted to something. Those open-style trash barrels are really attractive — especially if food is left in them.” They can also attract “all kinds of base prey animals — rats, raccoons — that coyotes eat.” She recommends that all public areas use trash containers with flap-style lids or other secure coverings.

Trash isn’t the only thing that can lure a coyote to the beach. In recent years, coyotes have discovered that an abundant sea turtle nesting season may mean an easy meal. If there’s one thing we love in coastal North Carolina, it’s our sea turtles, and coyotes love sea turtle eggs. Beth Darrow, senior scientist at the Bald Head Island Conservancy, says that last June, Bald Head Island began seeing nightly predation attempts of endangered sea turtle nests.

According to Darrow, “The first line of defense is to install wire cages, made of wire or plastic fencing material,” which can be placed over the nests to keep coyotes and predators like foxes from easily digging up a nest. Other methods such as hazing are useful, but only to a point. Darrow points out that if you use the same hazing technique consistently, coyotes can become used to it. Certain individual coyotes preying on turtle nests can become immune to hazing. During nesting season, “We patrol the beaches from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. in UTVs. If we see a coyote at a nest, we’ll yell at it or throw a stick or something at it.” says Darrow.  “Identifying a problem coyote is easy because it has learned not to be afraid of humans or hazing. We’ve hazed coyotes who will just go up to the dunes to wait while we repair a nest. As soon as we start to leave, it will come down to the nest again. It becomes a game of whack-a-mole.”

After repeated issues with several problem coyotes, the conservancy brought up the idea of lethal predator management to the Village of Bald Head Island. LPM is another technique that is commonly used by sea turtle protection programs, and it’s something she says has been successful in Florida and Georgia. Says Darrow: “It’s not just for coyotes. It also used for red foxes, sometimes armadillos, raccoons, and even native predators who are really interested in the nests of one of our most treasured endangered species. The goal of LPM is not to trap the entire population of coyotes. It’s to reduce the total number of individuals, especially the individuals who have figured out that endangered sea turtle eggs are a food source.”

It’s also a last resort.

Coyotes are relative newcomers to North Carolina’s barrier islands. Darrow says the first anecdotal reports of coyotes on Bald Head started in the early 2000s, after Corncake Inlet shoaled in, creating a land bridge between Pleasure Island and Bald Head. And coyotes as a species weren’t reported in North Carolina before 1938. “In general,” Darrow says, “so much of what we know about coyotes and the research that’s been done pertains to inland coyote populations. Now all of our barrier islands in North Carolina have coyotes, and each municipality deals with them differently. I think that it might be time for the different organizations to get together and talk about management, especially as it comes to coastal communities.”

Humans must adapt, because these intelligent creatures are here to stay.

Author and creative writing instructor Virginia Holman lives and writes in Carolina Beach.

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