September 12, 2017
The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press
By Mike Bottini
Last year marked the first time that a pair of coyotes successfully bred on Long Island, producing a litter of eight pups in a den near LaGuardia Airport in Queens.Although coyotes can live as long as 14 years in the wild, their average life expectancy is six to eight years. The Queens crew did not last nearly that long. Airport officials decided that the coyotes posed a threat to their employees, and ordered all eight pups, the breeding pair and a sub-adult “helper” coyote—11 animals in all—trapped and killed. According to Chris Nagy of the Gotham Coyote Project (gothamcoyote.com), 10 were disposed and one managed to elude capture.
This was longtime coyote advocate and founder of the Wild Dog Foundation Frank Vincenti’s worst nightmare. Frank has been working hard to educate the general public, and public officials, on how to co-exist safely with coyotes, and he spent many nights observing the Queens pups over the summer and fall of 2016. Vincenti noted that there were no incidents that justified destroying the animals.
Today, the coyote (Canis latrans) is widely distributed throughout North and Central America. It is found in every state, except Hawaii, every Canadian province, and every Central American country except Panama.
That wasn’t always the case. Prior to the arrival of Europeans in North America, coyotes were not found east of the Mississippi River or Hudson’s Bay. Biologists theorize that the coyote expanded its range eastward to fill the ecological niches left vacant when the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and cougar (Puma concolor) were extirpated. In the early 1900s they reached western Ontario, and by 1920 they were established in northern New York State.
Along the way, the coyote somehow managed to change its size and some of its key behavior traits. Those found in New York and New England, called the eastern coyote, are significantly larger than their western cousins. They also exhibit a wider variety of behavioral traits depending on the environment they inhabit and the type of prey available to meet their energy needs. Among ecologists, the latter characteristic is known as a species’ plasticity, a noteworthy feature in terms of a species’ ability to adapt to change, for example change in prey availability, cover, and habitat in general.
When the coyote first colonized New York State in the 1920s, biologists debated the creature’s genetic origin, with many deducing from its size that it was a coyote-dog hybrid, or what many called the coy dog. With advances in DNA testing in recent years, the debate was settled. The eastern coyote is one of 19 recognized subspecies of C. latrans, with a genetic soup whose main ingredient is western coyote (62%) with western wolf (14%) and eastern wolf (13%) components along with some domestic dog DNA (11%).
Long Island is the largest island in the United States outside of Hawaii and Alaska, and remains the only major island in the coyote’s current range that has not been completely colonized by breeding pairs.
Coyotes have resided in the Bronx since 1994, and today there are four breeding pairs documented by wildlife researchers in that borough of the Big Apple. Making their way from the Bronx, which is situated on the mainland adjacent to some significant greenbelts in Westchester County, and across the Harlem and East Rivers to Manhattan Island and Long Island is a bit more challenging. But neither is an insurmountable obstacle for this wily and adaptable creature.
Off the tip of the other end of Long Island lies Fishers Island, another home to coyotes including at least one breeding pair. This small island, although situated much closer to (within two miles of) the Connecticut and Rhode Island mainland, is a portion the Town of Southold and Suffolk County. Fishers Island’s closest point on Long Island is Orient, 11 miles away. That route includes an archipelago of small islands with a maximum open water span of 4.6 miles and strong currents at “The Race” and “Plum Gut.” Even utilizing the archipelago of islands as resting and feeding stops, it is a formidable swim for a coyote.
Out here on the South Fork, an apparently solo coyote was first sighted in 2011 by Scott McMahon north of Water Mill and photographed by Rick Wesnofske two years later in 2013. It has been photographed and videoed several times since between there and Wainscott, including a video shot this year just north of Southampton Village.
Is this a single individual, or has another coyote made a home on the East End? Dell Cullum, a professional photographer who is very knowledgeable and experienced in wildlife matters, and one of the few people who had photographed the South Fork coyote, surmises that the photos are of the same individual. Depending on how old the coyote was when it reached the South Fork, it is at least seven years old. Will it hang on until a mate arrives?
It is simply a matter of time before this wily and adaptable creature thrives here on Long Island, where a huge banquet of deer, geese, feral cats, raccoons and rodents awaits. This raises some interesting questions that a group of wildlife biologists from the American Museum of Natural History, Hofstra University, and Brookhaven National Laboratory hope to answer by establishing some ecological monitoring stations throughout the island.
What types of habitats will the coyotes initially utilize on Long Island? What impacts will they have on our deer population, and what will be the cascade impact on the vegetation deer browse and the ticks that use deer as a host? Will our red fox population decline, will it cease its wild fluctuation cycles, and will we continue to witness the dramatic cases of mange among our red foxes? Will our feral cat colonies disappear? Will the coyote hinder ground nesting birds and shorebirds through predation, or will they help these species by reducing fox, feral cat and raccoon predators?
And how will Long Islanders deal with this new species? One of the biggest challenges the “trickster” faces here are the folks who feel that wildlife need handouts. Feeding coyotes can result in some serious problems. As with all our non-domesticated fauna, keep the “wild” in wildlife and please refrain from feeding them.