Predators and gunshots: Will there be harmony?
Photo from a neighbor's trail camera mid-September, 2020
The predators have been seen...and heard! A number of bobcats, mountain lions and coyotes have been spotted in our area both on trail cameras and live. Their presence sets in motion the human instinctual notions of fear, repulsion and desire to "thin them out!" But, I wonder, why are they here in seemingly growing numbers, and should fear be my response, or is there some other understanding to be found regarding their presence?
When I first bought my farm in 2013, I was quite shocked by the sounds floating up out of the woods at night. It's not uncommon to hear the yips, yaps, howls and cries of coyotes in the distant ravines and woods. I suspect my spinal reverbs and shivers are the likely result of Walt Disney's Wile E. Coyote impact on me as a child (Grimm could be charged as well), and the human visceral response to recoil at the thought or sound or sighting of a predator nearby.
However, I am beginning to wonder about the place of the these predators here in Wisconsin not as a scary thing, but part of the circle of life, or repercussions from human choices. And, as I see Mother Nature in a raging fury showing her might with firestorms out west, hurricanes in the gulf and COVID-19 ravaging humans, I am wondering if our human practices and attitudes towards predators isn't all wrong somehow.
For the last few months, in addition to their haunting COVID CURSE soundtrack in the wee hours of the night, our coyotes have been out and about in daylight hours, too. I have occasionally seen a lone coyote standing in a field or on the road ahead of me on my walk. Fortunately, they move off as I nervously continue on my way with the brave idea that I'm the boss! More recently, in the late afternoon or evening, both William and I have spotted a pack of five or six crossing from my yard into one of the adjacent fields. When William went out to combine the barley in August, he reported a coyote out in that field the entire time he was harvesting. It struck us as odd that it be out in daylight so close to human activity (the adjacent field was filled with sunflower tourists!), but also quite logical that it was simply taking advantage of easy hunting. As the combine travels through the field, the little rodents who have found safe harbor, are now scrambling to find safety. I suspect the smart coyotes have learned that the sound of machinery in a field means lunch is served!
After hearing reports of a mountain lion spotted in our neighborhood last week, William woke up the other morning and told me he dreamt one of the calves had been killed by a large cat. Going out to check, he found the calves in good shape, but our last three ducks missing. When he first discovered the ducks were gone, we assumed that because coyotes have been so loud and visible lately, the guilty party to our duck demise would be a pack of coyotes. Searching the farm, he found piles of duck feathers and scat... from raccoons. Raccoons may actually be the most destructive predator of all as they are attracted to animal feed, eggs, ducks and garbage - things we humans have close to our homes. They come in the cover of night as we slumber, and when we wake, we see the mess they've left behind.
All this talk of predators makes me wonder if we shouldn't "thin them out?" Is it even true that our population of predators is increasing? It certainly seems that the coyote population is growing and they are more brazen in the sense that they sound too close for comfort, but why is that? Why are sightings of big cats also more common the last couple of months? What causes predator populations to increase, and should we work to "thin them out?" Of course, all these questions lead me to "Ask Mr. Google," as my father likes to say.
Here's what I found.
From Ted Williams' 2018 article Coyote Carnage: The Gruesome Truth About Wildlife Killing Contests, I learned that coyotes, indeed, are opportunistic hunters. Williams cites coyote "seminal" researcher, Robert Crabtree, from Yellowstone Ecological Research Center, who explains that coyotes tend to prefer small animals like mice, rats, gophers, rabbits, lizards, frogs, pet food, garbage or anything convenient and easy. Larger animals are not easy, so these predators typically will not attack calves or even large deer. That makes sense, coyotes are finding easy lunch in our yards, fields and edges, and as the cornfields provide a wider edge, they are closer to our buildings only because the protective "edge" grows where we planted it. Ah, humans.
These researchers found that when coyotes are hunted, and adults removed from their pack, only then do the younger abandoned coyotes tend to get more aggressive and go after larger game. With fewer adept adults to hunt and feed the young, those remaining are willing to take on a big fight for more food. It turns out, our inclination to "thin them out," actually results in more, not fewer, coyotes. Crabtree found that for coyote populations to actually be reduced and stay reduced, we would need to eliminate at least 70% of them EVERYWHERE all the time. He observed after numerous coyote control programs or competitions that the population of coyotes quickly returned to numbers prior to the hunting. He noted that coyotes will migrate into areas thinned out, and that pup survival rate increases quickly as there is ample food in the area. When coyote populations are left to Mother Nature to manage, only 1-2 pups survive a mother's litter, but where "management" practices are in place, 5-6 pups survive. We may well have higher numbers of coyotes out here because of immigration and survival - a direct result of people hunting them.
I should take a moment to state the obvious reason why we have large numbers of predators in the area. We have large numbers of deer. Why do we have large deer populations? Because we feed them! They have ample habitat in our ravines and woods and the luxury of a never-ending-buffet of corn and soybeans to enjoy. This my friends, is the circle that we have created. Humans provide a HUMUNGOUS food source for deer, who in turn, advance in numbers because the habitat will support them. This brings in predators to the area who dine on fawns in the spring and young deer the rest of the year in addition to the other small animals they enjoy. Humans and their farms attract the small animals that are lunch for coyotes and raccoons. There you have it. I would conclude, that wildlife is quite capable of balancing itself, and perhaps human intervention isn't necessary.
Those wiley coyotes still set my nerves on edge when I hear them in the driveway at 8:30, but I believe they are here for a reason, and I would prefer to not meddle. It doesn't sound like thinning them out works, anyway. I'm happy I don't have any rabbits taking out my garden and no woodchucks getting into the old farmhouse basement this year. I'll thank a coyote for that!
What did I read?
Wildlife News Dr. Robert Crabtree – Little scientific basis to justify control programs that indiscriminately target adult coyotes 2012
Yale Environment 360 Coyote Carnage: The Gruesome Truth About Wildlife Killing Contests
WHAT'S NEW in the FARM STORE this weekend?
As this lovely cooler weather moves into the area, there is nothing better than a hot bowl of soup served up with a thick slice of cheddar cheese and a pile of tortilla chips. I have two offerings in the fridge:
Tuscan White Bean Soup with Onions, Garlic, Kale, Herbs and Old as the Hills Parmesan (Vegetarian)
Lima Bean Chili with Red Onions, Red Peppers, Garlic and Chili Spices (Vegan)
Farmhouse Bars: The RASPBERRIES won't stop, so although apple or pear seems the logical choice, I think berries are much more fun! This week's bar is called "Raspberry Coconut Pie." It won't let you down unless you aren't one for coconut. More for the rest of us!
Candied Tomato Jam with Ginger and Cardamom: Here's a new chutney that's great on crackers with stinky cheese, scooped onto a roast meat, or dolloped onto a plate of Indian Curry served with Naan.
NEW CBD PRODUCT:
We have a new CBD Lemongrass Massage Butter. This product is a blend of sunflower oil, beeswax, CBD oil, Vitamin E oil and lemongrass essential oil. We whip it to make it spreadable. A great product to use if you need to cover large areas for soothing relief.
The FALL LEAVES are still spectacular, but ephemeral like Spring! I encourage you to take a drive to the farm this weekend before you miss out.
We're open Thursday - Sunday 9-5. I'm not always at the store these days, but my phone number is on the chalkboard if you need anything. One of us is usually close by to give a hand if you need.