The wildlife around us

Henry Laurita: Coyotes, turkeys and gulls

Posted:  Wednesday, February 20, 2019 - 2:15pm
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Since writing my last article I’ve gotten several interesting questions about wildlife, so I figured I’d answer them together and all at once. 

Do coyotes always howl when they are in a pack and chasing wildlife?

Coyote howling is a form of communication for the pack. Unlike the larger packs of wolves, a coyote pack consists of the breeding pair (who mate for life), a few younger offspring, and the occasional transient. Howling probably has many meanings, but right now its generally thought to possess two functions- one, to reconvene the pack after wandering and hunting, and two, to announce the presence and strength of the pack to other coyotes. Packs typically consist of four to five individuals, but the acoustics of their howling can make their presence seem more numerous. This is likely an adaptation for packs to appear stronger and more intimidating. 

 

I see coyote tracks in fresh snow. Since my big dog died, and I only have a little elderly dog, the coyotes now come close to the house. I had to open my window the other night and yell at one to stop the noise. It did. Was it hunting deer close to my house? What are its habits?

 Henry Laurita, of Hope, is currently studying zoology at the University of Maine in Orono.

He will take your questions about Maine wildlife and track down the answers, which will be posted here.

Send your wildlife questions to news@penbaypilot.com

January/February is generally the tail end of the time young coyotes disperse, leaving the pack and wandering up to 100 miles in search of new territory. It’s also the time of year for mating and den digging in preparation for April pups.

Any season is time for hunting and foraging, so there’s a chance they were nosing about for food by your house. Mostly coyotes eat what easiest to get, and usually that’s only scavenged deer, although they actively hunt them on occasion. Come spring and summer, a large amount of the coyotes’ diet will become fawn, as they’re easier to catch. 

Coyotes are opportunists and omnivores and their highly flexible diet has no problem accommodating your trash. In fact, human changes have increased the coyote’s range by 40 percent.

Human persecution of the wolf in the 1800s left a niche for coyotes in the Northeast. As the wolf was killed and moved away, they Western Coyote marched up from the Southwest.

Some interbreeding occurred in passing, and now we have the Eastern Coyote, a larger species. Genetic analysis shows the Eastern Coyote to be 64 percent Western Coyote, 26 percent wolf and 10 percent domestic dog (don’t ask me how that happened).

The result is a highly adaptable and clever species. Most of the coyotes we see and hear are passers-by in suburban areas, hopping from wood to wood, but human areas are swiftly becoming areas of opportunity for them as their numbers rise.

In 2005, Pennsylvanian hunters took 20,000 coyotes, and the population still showed growth.

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Ducks in Rockport Harbor at the outflow of the Goose River, in January 2019. (Photo by Lynda Clancy)

I am curious about how wildlife hunkers down in the bitter cold that will be streaming in tomorrow. I watch the ducks at the harbor and the seagulls in the back yard, but where do the turkeys go when it is so cold?

As winter comes, the insects, seeds and mosses the turkey feeds on in summer disappear (or become inaccessible). The turkey then takes to the woods to hunt for nuts and dig for insects. The forest provides another advantage — shelter from the snowfall, which represents more of a problem to the turkey than cold temperatures. They can only dig so deep, so hanging out under the conifers gives them the best ground access. 

Birds have many adaptations for cold weather. Feathers keeps them warm for the same reason a down blanket keeps you warm — insulation.

Some birds even puff out their feathers in cold weather to increase the volume of warm air next to their body.

The legs present a challenge however, as they are often uninsulated. Birds beat the cold by having their blood vessels close to each other in their legs.

A seagull standing in nearly freezing water sends blood circulating down its leg and back up to its body.

Blood on the way down is warm from just being in the core and gives its heat to the cold blood rising from the foot. This minimizes heat loss and prevents shock from frigid blood entering the heart. 

 

What's the name of the bird we always hear in the Summer, very common. Starts with one long sound then three short ones; best way I can describe it.

My guess would be a mourning dove because I think it would be most common. If it sounded soft a and a little bit like an owl, that’s your bird.

But bird identification is a tricky business. In all cases, the more information you have, the better.  Something as simple as what time of year you saw/heard it can narrow the field drastically- as many birds are migratory. Other good questions to ask are- Where did you see it? What was it doing? How big was it? What shape was it? What color was it? Any memorable patterns? What sound did it make?

All these can help you hone in on possible species- until there’s only one left and you have your bird! It’s also important to have a good field guide if birding is something that interests you. 

 

Why are there so many seagulls in Orono?

Interestingly, Maine is the only state where Herring Gulls are found year-round and across its whole area. These birds are especially drawn to water and I would wager they follow the Penobscot river up north. I mostly see them congregate in the parking lots and around the composting center. They probably like the (comparative) warmth of the concrete and definitely scavenge in the compost piles. 

 

 
If you have any animal or wildlife related questions ask away in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them in another Q&A.