Coyote America, by Dan Flores

Here is a review of the book Coyote America which I wrote for the November/December 2016 issue of The Gnatcatcher, published by the Juniata Valley Audubon Society:

If you, like me, are a fan of coyotes, this book will both delight and sicken you.  Subtitled A Natural and Supernatural History, Flores covers every aspect of coyotes’ lives, present and past, the Native American fables and stories that feature Coyote, and the western settlers as well as present day Americans’ approach to these amazing and resilient creatures.

coyote-america-coverTheir story begins in the American Southwest 3.2 million years ago when coyotes split from gray wolves.  While wolves crossed into Asia and Europe, coyotes remained here and eventually became the heroes of Indian folk tales.

Early American explorers called them “prairie wolves” and seemed to admire them.  But the farmers, ranchers, and hunters of the late nineteenth century demonized them along with larger predators such as wolves.

Our “Hundred Years War,” as Flores calls it, against these animals, has been subsidized by taxpayers beginning in the early twentieth century up to the present day.  Unlike wolves, which are pack animals and were easy to kill with poison bait, coyotes are known for what scientists call their “fission-fusion” adaptations in which they can be either pack or solitary animals, depending on outside pressures and are not as easily drawn into bait.

Despite killing more than six and a half million coyotes from 1945 to 1971, the Animal Control Board, renamed the Division of Wildlife Services in 1997, under the Department of Agriculture, has continued their war against coyotes, most recently killing 512,710 coyotes from 2006 to 2011. But coyotes can adjust their population, having as many as 20 pups if they are persecuted or as few as two if they are not.

They also began their incredible expansion to the East and as far north as Anchorage, Alaska and lately have discovered the safest places to live are cities where they are not hunted and there is plenty of food.  So while a coyote requires 10 square miles of territory in the country, it only needs 3 square miles in a city.

Flores covers the many human heroes in Coyote America as well as the villains.  Mammalogists such as Olaus and Adolph Murie, who studied coyotes in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Yellowstone back in the 1930s.  Olaus concluded that coyotes were not arch predators of game animals but omnivorous generalists that mostly ate mice, gophers, and hares and that only fed on elk carcasses.  Adolph agreed and added grasshoppers and crickets to their diet as well as the weakest mule deer fawns and antelopes.  But coyotes are opportunists and in the cities they not only prey on the occasional pet, especially cats, but they also eat the eggs and young of Canada geese and white-tailed deer fawns.

Still, despite the championing by informed mammalogists, the killing continued unabated.  It took an unlikely person, namely Walt Disney, to begin a sympathetic portrayal of coyotes that reached the general public.  In 1961 Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color ran a six-part series entitled “The Coyote’s Lament.”  At the time federal poisoners, bounty hunters and state trappers were killing between 250,000 and 300,000 coyotes a year.  Disney ended his series with, “When the time comes when you can’t hear the song of the coyote, the West is going to seem a mighty dull place.”

Since then more and more people are opposed to the war on coyotes.  Still, that war has brought bigger coyotes to the East.  Scientists now claim, based on genetic studies, that coyote hybridization with gray wolves began 550 to 950 years ago in the Great Lakes region and have resulted in as much as 20% wolf genes in Great Lakes’ coyotes and 40% in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park.  They also claim that the South’s red wolves are a hybrid of southern gray wolves and coyotes that began 290 to 430 years ago.

And so the coyote, fact and legend, has become larger than life.  As we know here in Pennsylvania our so-called eastern coyotes are bigger than those of the West.  They continue to evolve and adapt to us and our ways.  For instance, studies of urban coyotes find that fewer and fewer are killed by cars every year.

But, as Flores wonders, will we adapt to them, stop killing them and allow their populations to stabilize?

Living with Bears Redux

Most summer evenings after the heat of the day has faded, I walk Butterfly Loop. This trail encircles a portion of our 37-acre meadow we call First Field.

A bear family photographed by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow.

A bear family photographed by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow.

Often I’m treated to a stunning sunset, and always I hear and see songbirds that prefer a meadow of forbs or the edge of a wooded ridge.

Sometimes I glimpse a herd of deer before they see me and run off. Once I watched a raccoon set out for the evening along the edge of First Field, and several times I’ve encountered a porcupine grazing on the grasses.

On my July birthday last year I had made a note of the abundant ripe huckleberries on the powerline right-of-way near the Short Circuit Trail and had stood in the cool morning eating them by the handfuls.

That evening, on Butterfly Loop, I scanned the right-of-way with my binoculars. To my surprise, I spotted a large black bear doing exactly what I had done in the morning—picking and eating huckleberries.

A black bear eating huckleberries

A black bear eating huckleberries (Photo by Harvey Barrison in Wikipedia, Creative Commons license)

Although bears are omnivores, meaning they’ll eat almost anything, more than 80% of their diet is vegetable matter—grasses and weeds in the spring, wild berries in the summer and nut species in the fall. They are especially fond of blueberries, huckleberries and blackberries.

On my birthday evening, I was pleased to see a bear without it seeing or scenting me and to watch it for half an hour as it moved methodically from patch to patch, peacefully harvesting huckleberries by using its paws to hold the bushes while it broke off berries with its teeth.

Sometimes I could see its face and what appeared to be a single silver disk in the middle of each ear, but I was too far away to tell if they were ear tags. Finally, it disappeared into the taller brush.

We’ve been living with bears for almost four decades, but that was one of the few times I had a chance to observe a bear without it detecting me. Often I’ve turned around on trails when I’ve seen a bear in the distance before it sees me or I step into the underbrush and wait for it to pass. But if it’s too close, I have to stand my ground.

The Laurel Ridge Trail of Plummer’s Hollow, a good place to see bears

The Laurel Ridge Trail of Plummer’s Hollow, a good place to see bears (Photo by Dave Bonta)

For instance, late last May, as I ambled along Laurel Ridge Trail on my morning walk, a large black sow emerged from the right side of the forest at the top of a steep incline. I expected her to cross the trail, but instead, she turned and started toward me, followed by her yearling cub.

I froze in place and considered my options. She was less than 100 feet away and moving quickly so turning around didn’t seem like a good idea. Because nearly always, talking to wild animals scares them away, first I said quietly, “You don’t want to come this way.”

The bears paused and then haltingly continued moving forward. Next I clapped my hands, a maneuver I had never tried before, and immediately the sow turned and ran into the woods on the left side of the trail.

A bear mother with her yearling cub

A bear mother with her yearling cub (Photo by beingmyelf on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

But the cub still hesitated until I clapped my hands again. Then it ran after the sow, and I proceeded on my way, surprised to realize that after numerous peaceful encounters with bears, I didn’t even have an elevated heartbeat.

A week later on the first of June, my husband, Bruce, went for a walk in the foggy dawn and saw a bear on Laurel Ridge. During my walk, I found many fresh scratches on the Laurel Ridge power pole, reminding me of a time, many Junes ago, when I heard and then watched a boar raking a power pole with his claws and then turning and rubbing his back against it. This was another case where the bear didn’t see or scent me even though I was only 50 feet away from him.

Powerline pole on the ridgetop marked by bears (Photo by Dave Bonta)

Powerline pole on the ridgetop marked by bears (Photo by Dave Bonta)

Researchers still aren’t certain why black bears do this, but tree or, in our case, pole-marking behavior does occur more often during the June breeding season. However, Bruce once watched a bear shredding a power pole near the Short Circuit Trail in August. And the power poles atop Sapsucker Ridge have even more claw marks, administered throughout the year, than those on Laurel Ridge. Because of this, I’m more inclined to consider them message poles that inform other bears of their size and presence.

Lynn Rogers, who has been studying black bears in Minnesota for decades, found that most of his radio-collared tree-markers were male bears. Right after they marked a tree, Rogers was able to smell their scent on the tree. Since bears have a much stronger sense of smell than we do, Rogers thought that bears could smell the trees long after they had been marked. Perhaps, he theorized, such trees may warn males that other males are near so they can avoid fights.

Bears mating

Bears mating (Photo by the North American Bear Center on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

There’s no doubt that male bears are excited during mating season. The only time I was chased by a bear was when a male apparently mistook me for a sow. I had been sitting quietly in First Field near some shrubs when I heard a bear and stood up. As I started walking around the shrubs, I realized the bear was close behind me. Again I turned around and spoke to him. He stopped short, wheeled around, and headed off to find a female of his own species.

By the time females are in estrous, they have chased off their yearlings. Two weeks after I encountered sow and cub, first Bruce saw a yearling streaking across Greenbrier Trail near its confluence with Bird Count Trail and later our son Dave saw what was probably the same yearling still running straight out, this time across Ten Springs Trail. Probably either the sow or her paramour were chasing her persistent cub away.

Female yearlings will stay in the sow’s territory, researchers have found, but male cubs have to leave the area and try to find a place that has no bears. Male territories are larger than those of females and usually include two or more females. Territory and range size vary depending on food sources.

Bears of both sexes have been known to wander off their ranges for miles in search of food, especially in autumn when the acorn and/or beechnut crops fail because they rely on the high fat content of those foods to put on weight before winter.

Last summer our berry crops were huge, especially blackberries, and we picked over 50 quarts. Our lowbush blueberry crop was poor; our huckleberry crop adequate. Later, the black cherry crop was also poor, the wild grape crop average, and the acorns, hickory nuts and beechnuts scant.

Black bear scat filled with berry seeds

Black bear scat filled with berry seeds (Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

We didn’t have any other bear encounters, but I did find piles of bear scat filled with berry seeds and later with corn, presumably from the valley farms. Unlike bears in wilderness areas, our bears can depend on cultivated crops if the wild ones fail. Here in Pennsylvania, there are many sources of food from farms and forests—carrion from domestic as well as wild animals and fresh insects, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals and even new born fawns.

As the years have passed, we’ve had our behavior shaped by bear appetites. When we heard a bear overturn the garbage can with what we thought was a tight lid to cover itself with sunflower seed, we put the bird feeder cans in our basement. When we were awakened another night by a bear emptying our washed recycled cans, also in clean garbage cans, we put them in the basement.

We bring in our bird feeders every night during November, most of December, March and early April and then retire them until the following fall. And since a sow with her cubs broke through our kitchen screen door two years ago and was climbing in when we sent her off one summer night, we close all doors and windows in our kitchen in the evening, no matter how stifling the weather.

But even that sacrifice is worth it to live with bears. Here is a video of a bear family filmed by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow.

Two Book Reviews

I’ve decided to start periodically putting up book reviews I’ve been writing for our Juniata Valley Audubon Society’s The Gnatcatcher in the belief that reading books with a nature theme is important for those of us who love the natural world. Here is the one from the November/December 2015 issue:

Above the Waterfall coverRecently I’ve read two novels steeped in their natural surroundings.  Above the Waterfall by poet and novelist Ron Rash takes place in western North Carolina.  The chapters are related by two alternating voices.

Becky is a state park ranger, psychologically damaged by a childhood trauma only helped by a summer she spent nearby with her grandparents.  To her, life in the Appalachians as an adult is a return to the safety she felt then, and hers is the poetic voice—“the hummingbird nest at the meadow edge—a strawy thimble, the hummingbird’s wings—stained glass alive in sudden sunlight shimmer, wildflowers sway in their floral abundance, the grasshopper’s rasping papyrus wings…”

Les is the fifty-year-old, soon-to-be-retired county sheriff who is tired, after 30 years, and wants to return to a simpler life in a dream cabin he has designed after making what he thinks were major mistakes in his life.

Both Becky and Les are faced with an environmental mystery.  Who poisoned the local trout stream?  Neither think the obvious suspect poured kerosene into a stream he loves.  How this mystery is solved provides the plot, but I will remember Becky’s poetic voice long after I forget the story line of this satisfying novel.

Martin Marten coverMartin Marten by poet, essayist, and novelist Brian Doyle takes place in the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest.  Dave is an honorable, young teenager, Martin Marten is a wild creature, facing adversaries, both wild and human, but who is fascinated by Dave.

How both learn and grow and the quirky adults they associate with, including a sympathetic portrait of a trapper, is the major theme of this book.  There is a touch of magical realism that appeals to all of us who wish for a similar relationship with a wild creature.

Unfortunately, martens were extirpated from Pennsylvania around 1900 by trapping and the elimination of old growth coniferous and mixed deciduous/coniferous forests, which are their preferred habitats.  Smaller than a fisher and larger than a mink, this sleek, handsome member of the Weasel Family only lives in the East in New England, the Adirondacks, northern Michigan and northern Wisconsin now.

But the inquisitive, curious nature of martens is well-known and Brian Doyle’s portrayal of Martin is spot on.  We can only regret the extirpation of such a fascinating creature from our state after reading this wonderful book.

 

Chipmunk Lives

It was eight degrees at dawn on February 6, and once again I was out on snowshoes looking for animal tracks. That’s when I spotted eastern chipmunk tracks emerging from a burrow hole beneath one log and moving over the snow to a hole underneath another log. Possibly it was a male checking out the females in his vicinity. Still, I was surprised he was out when it was so cold and snowy.

During mild winters with little or no snow on the ground, I have watched mating chases in February. Male chipmunks track down receptive females by sniffing along their paths, and several males chase a single female in what biologists call “mating bouts.” If she is not ready to mate, she leads them on a merry chase, diving into hollow stumps or under logs.

Chipmunk emerging from its two-inch burrow on January 21, 2008

Chipmunk emerging from its two-inch burrow on January 21, 2008 (Photo by Gilles Gonthier on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

But last winter remained cold and snowy and yet, on another day, at zero degrees Fahrenheit, chipmunks were abroad. Of course, all chipmunks wake every three or four days to eat the food they have stored in several football-sized chambers in their underground burrows. Each chipmunk burrow has a single, two-inch diameter entrance hole in use at any one time, which leads to a complex of tunnels as long as 100 feet and as deep as three feet. It also contains a separate 24 by 15 by 10 inch nesting chamber, filled with chewed and crushed leaves. Although a female chipmunk uses this for her young, both males and females use it during hibernation.

Scientists have proven that chipmunks are true hibernators by surgically implanting temperature-sensitive radio transmitters in them. When chipmunks are in a torpid state, their normal 60+ breaths a minute decline to less than 20 breaths and their usual body temperature of between 96 to 106 degrees F. falls to between 42 degrees to 45 degrees F. Unlike woodchucks, which live on fat they have accumulated before hibernation, chipmunks depend on their food stores to keep them fed over the winter.

Studies have shown that chipmunks adjust the depth and length of their torpor based on the size and composition of their food reserves, and since there was an abundant acorn mast here in the fall of 2014, despite the cold and snow, the chipmunks may have had enough food reserves to emerge at their usual time. And, in fact, males, which emerge at least two weeks ahead of females, may eat more than females during hibernation so that they are in top shape for early spring mating. Females, on the other hand, may maintain deeper torpor and save their food hoard for pregnancy and nursing in the spring when fresh food is scant.

Chipmunk eating birdseed in the snow in March 2015

Chipmunk eating birdseed in the snow in March 2015 (Photo by mwms1916 on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

In early March, the chipmunks stepped up their game. Even though we still had 18 to 28 inches of snow on the ground, along the Far Field Road I found a myriad of chipmunk tracks emerging from beneath logs and moving 100 feet or more before doubling back. Chipmunks rarely venture beyond 150 feet of their burrow entrance except when males are in search of females. Then they may briefly leave their home ranges of between 1075 square feet to 2.5 acres.

After a few minutes, from beneath a pile of fallen trees above on the road bank, I heard and then saw two chipmunks. Five days later, wherever I snowshoed, I found chipmunk tracks and holes through the ice and snow. In the woods near our deer exclosure, three chipmunks chased over the snow. Mating bouts were in full swing.

Since a single female is only receptive for about six-and-a-half hours, each one is beset by several suitors and mates numerous times. But once the eight-day mating season is over, the normally antisocial chipmunks return to their own burrows. Far more than one burrow is found on an acre in most forests because each chipmunk’s home range overlaps its neighbor’s by as much as 75% so there can be as many as 10 to 30 chipmunks an acre. And most of those chipmunks are related because young chipmunks usually set up home ranges close to their mothers and siblings.

Chipmunk youngsters photographed on a lawn at Skeleton Lake in Ontario

Chipmunk youngsters photographed on a lawn at Skeleton Lake in Ontario (Photo by Patty O’Hearn Kickham on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Thirty-one days after mating, a female chipmunk has three to five young. She cares for them during their 44 days in the burrow nesting cavity before they emerge above ground. Then, except for giving the young access to her burrow or another she has dug for them, she ignores them. Instead, the siblings learn to forage, box, play, and aggressively fight and chase each other as preparation for their future solitary lives in which they are constantly defending their burrows and the territories around them.

They also practice their high-pitched, birdlike “chip, chip,” which may be uttered as many as 130 times a minute for at least 10 minutes. Their “chuck, chuck” may occur after an aerial predator crosses the area, because Lang Elliott, who studied chipmunks in the Adirondacks, noticed that when one chipmunk spotted a predator, it would start “chuck, chucking” and other chipmunks would respond in a warning chorus that spread across the forest. In any case, they whistle when fleeing a predator and during mating chases.

Although chipmunks have a second breeding period in July, the spring breeding period is more successful. Only some females breed during both the spring and summer and a previous year female may breed for the first time in July. Most have life spans of over a year, in time for one breeding, and few live more than two or three years, but there are those who have survived as many as 13 years in the wild.

A chipmunk, its cheeks bulging with birdseed

A chipmunk, its cheeks bulging with birdseed (Photo by Pete Markham on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I often wonder if that is the case of the chipmunk that eats our fallen birdseed in late fall and appears to have a burrow near the base of a veranda column. We sit on our veranda during warm autumn days as the chipmunk dashes past us, cheeks bulging with food it has gathered from our overgrown front yard, and once I put up our birdfeeders on the back porch in early November, that chipmunk crams its cheek pouches with oil sunflower seeds as late as December. Such oil-rich food keeps it well-fed even when the mast crop fails.

Still, we may be seeing a succession of chipmunks because burrows and good foraging areas are at a premium and young chipmunks are always looking for their own homes, so one will quickly occupy an empty burrow. This is especially true in autumn when the chipmunk population is at its highest point. Then the forest is filled with young chipmunks searching for burrow systems and establishing home ranges while older chipmunks are defending their territories and burrows from the youngsters. In addition, all of them are gathering food for winter.

In Pennsylvania, the favorite wild winter storage foods are beechnuts, maple seeds, acorns and hickory nuts. Throughout the rest of the year, chipmunks also eat insects, including cicadas, earthworms, fungi, especially the underground fungus Endogone, small snakes, birds and their eggs, snails, flower bulbs, frogs, unfolding new leaves, roots, seeds, salamanders, wild and cultivated fruits such as strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries, and young mice.

They, in turn, are eaten by large snakes, hawks, crows, foxes, bobcats, and domestic dogs and cats. But their most successful predators are weasels, which can enter their burrows and chase them down.

A chipmunk in a mulberry tree in Plummer’s Hollow

A chipmunk in a mulberry tree in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

The eastern chipmunk’s scientific name, Tamias striatus, means “striped steward,” a tribute to their brownish black and white stripes and their food hoarding. “Chipmunk” comes from the Chippewa name for red squirrel “chetamon,” meaning “head first,” which refers to the way it descends trees. The Pennsylvania Dutch called it “fensermaus” or “fence-mouse,” because this wild creature also lives comfortably in human-modified environments.

The Delaware Indians of southeast Pennsylvania knew January as the “ground squirrel month” when chipmunks emerged from their burrows. However, the naturalist William Bartram from Philadelphia, back in the early nineteenth century, noted that “on February 17 the ground squirrel came out of his winter quarters frisking about in the warm sun,” proving that not much has changed in the lives of these fascinating creatures.