Check the backyard. Bring in the cat. Leave ’em alone.
By Ranjit Singh
Every environmental non-profit within 50 miles of Potomac Creek takes the great blue heron as its mascot. Or at least it seems that way. The overexposed herons are always depicted in profile, too; is there something especially hard about drawing a heron from another angle? From behind? Or in flight? Lazy, overpaid graphic designers.
The blue heron’s iconographic popularity must be related to the fact that the birds, with their trademark S-shaped necks, are charismatic. Well, sort of. As aviators they fly straight, without imagination or playfulness, the opposite of starlings and songbirds. Standing still on spaghetti legs, they are certainly tall – adults average about four feet – and mostly elegant. That is, until you hear one. Among the uninitiated (like urban kayakers) the typical reaction to a blue heron call is “What the f—k was THAT?” Herons emit belching, ungodly croaks that seemingly rise from their ancient anuses and carry over water for miles. It’s the sound pterodactyls made as they were going extinct. If you did that near a child care facility, you’d be arrested.
The good thing about being a blue heron is that people usually like you (at least until you open your beak). The herons of Potomac Creek nest high in trees. They like to group together, with a penchant for apartment-style living in the white bones of sycamores. But they are smart enough to remain approachable to the human public. You’ll see them stepping purposefully along local ponds and canals, or posing on low branches, like philosophers looking for fish. They have good PR sense. That’s how you stave off extinction – herons are federally protected – or at least avoid becoming target practice for local cranks.
Coyotes, on the other hand, are lousy at public relations. In Virginia they are classified a “nuisance” species meriting a continuous open hunting season, no permit needed. The reason for this isn’t entirely clear, since the species enjoys many canine advantages. They are smart and good-looking, resembling the collie dogs so many people love to care for. But one appearance by this usually nocturnal predator can set off a frenzy of negative, and sometimes fatal, attention. For all their cunning, coyotes seem hapless. Looney Tunes captured something essential about the species in its portrayal of the most famous of them all – Wile E. Coyote, the bipedal, road runner-obsessed, self-proclaimed “Genius” (overconfidentii vulgaris, in one splendid cartoon). Those thousands of hours of Saturday morning cartoons really chipped away at the animal’s brand. Then there’s the coyote’s penchant for eating your cats, too.
I knew that by learning how coyotes came to Potomac Creek I would better understand the place itself. Like everywhere else, Potomac Creek lies within a far larger world shaped by human and other natural forces. The coyotes are a part of that irrefutable truth. And like many species around the Creek, their harrowing story raises big questions: Are we – nature’s self-appointed managers – really managing anything at all? Or are we more akin to Wile E. Coyote in his endless pursuit of a road runner dinner: hubristic, inexpert, and susceptible to backfires?
In short, looney?
At times, people just shuffle species around the map. House sparrows, starlings, stinkbugs – all were introduced to Virginia from somewhere else (stinkbugs as recently as 1998). There’s never been a plan. Just ideas. It’s as if we’re in a fog, barely able to see past our noses.
The largemouth bass and blue catfish, for example, were successfully brought to Potomac Creek to improve sport fishing, now a billion dollar-plus part of the state’s recreational economy. Ironically, in addition to competition from the imported snakehead – the world record snakehead was caught on Potomac Creek – the largemouth is now threatened by another fish that humans recently set in motion, the Alabama bass. Possessing a live Alabama bass in Virginia is a Class III misdemeanor with a $500 fine. For its part, the blue catfish – introduced as trophy fish in the 1970s – is well past any fantasies of human control. One study found it may represent up to 75 percent of total fish biomass in local rivers. An apex predator, the catfish are eating up treasured blue crabs and a lot else besides.
Official policy for managing both snakeheads and blue catfish now favors the creation of market fisheries; in other words: “Eat ’em!” This, in case you’re wondering, is how bureaucracies signal defeat. They are out of ideas.
Then there are the many times when people threaten the very existence of species.
In the early decades of the twentieth century Virginia seemed on its way to becoming an ecological boneyard. Something like this had happened before: In what paleontologists call the “Quaternary extinction event,” prehistoric humans (and maybe a warming climate) killed off numerous species of megafauna, animals typically larger than people. But in modern Virginia the common human, by clearing habitat, hunting, spraying pesticides, etc. was doing in (or nearly so) an ark-full of species of all sizes: white-tailed deer, black bear, wild turkey, elk, peregrine falcon, Atlantic sturgeon, and so on. Add to that the storied passenger pigeon, and even more species that would soon go into decline like the bobwhite quail and several kinds of salamander. And the many disappearing insect, aquatic, and plant species that most people never knew were here.
In response, a handful of endangered or extirpated animals – deer, beavers, peregrine falcons, etc. – got their own official reintroduction programs. The success of these programs can be alarming. Take the case of the white-tailed deer, restocked in the 1930s. The deer population exploded in the absence of predators. Virginians now experience thousands of deer-vehicle collisions per year; DVCs, as the state Department of Transportation calls them. Insurance companies estimate your chance of hitting a deer is more than twice as great of being audited by the IRS.
Tossing eradicated species back into an altered ecosystem is always a crapshoot. One unpredictable element may be shifts in human behavior: People who would have become deer hunters in past generations, it’s posited, now don their camouflage caps and “tactical” pants to blast villains on PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo. Who wants to shiver for hours up a frozen tree stand in mid-winter, sleep deprived and waiting for the sun to rise (as I did on my only attempt at a deer hunt)?
One obvious response to unwanted deer is to revive the predators nature itself provided from the start. Researchers speak seriously of restoring to Virginia the red wolf, one of the rarest predators in the world. Originally a state native, the species was declared extinct in the wild in 1980. (European enmity toward wolves runs deep, and Virginia enacted its first bounty on wolves in 1632). Attention shifted to a zoo-based captive breeding program, and red wolves were reintroduced earlier this century in neighboring North Carolina.
No one polled the wolves on any of this. But things looked good for a few years. The wolf population rose to about 130. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. A recent study finds that a small group of “self-identified male hunters” is illegally shooting the wolves faster than they can reproduce. Obviously, some guys are still able to set down the Xbox. At time of writing, seven red wolves are all that’s left.
Oddly, this bad news arrived just as the species garnered a different sort of attention. Washington DC’s professional football team – 40 miles north of Potomac Creek – was seeking its third name in as many years, and “Redwolves” was reported to be a leading option. Adding insult to extinction, the team’s owner, Dan Snyder, is easily the most despised human native to the Middle Atlantic, a billionaire credited with destroying a once-beloved franchise through scandal and ineptitude. Seventeenth century Virginians would have placed a bounty on him. True to form, Snyder ignored the team’s dwindling fan base (“Redwolves” actually polled well) and chose a name nobody wanted: the “Commanders.” Association with his scandal-plagued football team may be the only bullet the red wolf has ever dodged.
It takes about one long human lifetime for Potomac Creek’s ecology to start resembling a frantic Broadway adaptation of the Jurassic Park movie. Species enter the stage singing and howling, then exit in silence, sometimes forever. Like humans, the Creek’s flora and fauna are in constant motion.
Now is the moment of the coyote’s big entrance. It’s evident that from here the plot is taking another turn. But there is no pre-defined middle or end; the remaining pages of the play script are blank.
Potomac Creek’s coyotes aren’t like its deer or beavers. Their appearance is no comeback from extirpation. That’s because coyotes are natives of the American West and were unknown in Virginia until recently. The mercenary explorer Captain John Smith experienced many things, including having his nuts blown off, but he never saw a coyote unless someone showed him an imported pelt. Yet even without the benefit of a reintroduction program, humans helped to make coyotes what they are today. Our obliteration of stouter predators like wolves and cougars opened a gaping hole in a region that we eventually replenished with food – deer. Soon, hungry coyotes were moving east.
This history, some argue, makes coyotes a responsive, not invasive, species. Such technicalities matter little to most humans, and not at all to other animals. Experts believe Virginia may be the last state colonized by coyotes (excepting Hawaii), arriving from both the north and the south. The coyotes that now call Potomac Creek home were open-minded along the way, too. DNA studies of eastern coyotes confirm substantial interbreeding with wolves and even dogs, and the rarely-seen black coyotes can thank them—the dogs—for their fur color. Interbreeding explains this coyote’s larger size compared to its western counterpart. With time, it may even evolve into a new species. Unfortunately, some people have taken to calling this hybridized coyote a “coy-wolf”: an ugly portmanteau of coyote and wolf. In an age where we’re choosing our own identities freely, Smithsonian magazine, in an article headlined “Coywolves are Taking Over Eastern North America,” asserts these hybrids “aren’t true coyotes at all.”
Eastern coyotes seem to have avoided the rank commercialism that followed the sudden appearance of invasives like the snakehead fish – there is actually a “Frankenfish” movie making the straight-to-video rounds, but as yet no “Frankenwolf” available to rent. But, as with other animals that recently made their presence known, fear and hatred have attended the coyote’s arrival.
In general, scientists see popular perceptions of any harm coyotes are doing to Virginia wildlife and livestock as a bit overstated. Coyotes certainly do eat deer, especially fawns. Unlike wolves, they seldom hunt in packs large enough to consider an adult deer; a wounded or crippled deer is a different story. Despite many hunters’ beliefs, though, there isn’t much clear evidence that coyotes are reducing the overall deer populations. Beyond that, the animal’s diet is pretty much anything goes, as coyotes love fruits, nuts, and insects about as much as they like foxes, rabbits, squirrels, voles, and the occasional farm animal. The latter are particularly vulnerable in early spring and summer when livestock give birth and coyotes are raising their own young.
Perceptions – not facts – are what drive policy, however. Public officials must appear to respond to the voices of voters. Significant resources have therefore been allocated to managing (e.g., killing) coyotes and recouping what damage they do inflict on livestock. In the most recent data I could find, from 2015, the USDA’s Wildlife Sciences Division reported that Virginia coyotes killed 218 sheep, 60 calves, and 24 goats in a fiscal year. Surely that’s an undercount, but it amounted to a roughly twenty-five percent reduction from the previous year. The Virginia Farm Bureau happily credited this success to a recent increase in the budget of the state-run “Virginia Cooperative Coyote Damage Control Program.” The increase let the program kill over 500 coyotes and add five new part-time staff, or not quite one new part-timer per word in the VCCDCP’s title.
Nobody knows the number of coyotes in Virginia. Conservatively, researchers estimate a minimum of 50,000, with signs the population may be stabilizing. Given the numbers involved, it’s not clear if such coyote control programs do anything more than prove our ears and vocal chords are working fine.
From the advent of European colonization, Virginians showed little aptitude for managing the colony’s abundance of life. Geographer David Hardin, in a book chapter titled “Laws of Nature: Wildlife management Legislation in Virginia,” writes that Colonial Virginians valued wildlife primarily for its economic worth. The results were usually perverse, because “the knowledge and sophistication necessary to manage sustained yields of certain species was greater than that required to simply eliminate others.” In other words, Virginians were better at killing than sustaining life, even the life that fattened their pocketbooks. And the biological record, to the extent data exists, shows it.
The methods people use today to try to limit coyote populations include aerial gunning operations, snares, foothold traps, den invasions (“denning”) and the M-44 ejector device, otherwise known as the “cyanide bomb.” The M-44 is a spring-activated device that is smeared with smelly bait and staked into the ground. An animal that tugs on the device releases a plunger filled with sodium cyanide, which is injected into its mouth. The cyanide reacts with the animal’s saliva, turning into a gas that should kill within minutes. The device is by nature indiscriminate. The US Department of Agriculture places bilingual warning signs where M-44s are sited, although it’s unsure what precautions other users (including private companies) may take. Despite protests by animal rights groups, Virginia is one of thirteen states still using M-44s.
The National Park Service reports that 400,000 or more coyotes are killed nationwide every year. Of course, many are killed for sport. But if the broader goal is to reduce coyote numbers to limit “nuisance” predation, this slaughter isn’t working. In fact, it’s often counterproductive. One major complication is what’s known as the “Hydra Effect,” named for the mythical Greek beast that grew two new heads for each one Hercules managed to chop off. Strong scientific evidence demonstrates coyotes are doing something analogous.
How? Coyotes are social animals and normally live in packs, although they don’t necessarily hunt in them. The pack is a small society of varying size led by an “alpha” male and female. (Some individuals, called “transients,” live apart from packs and tend to be young or injured.) As a unit, the pack is governed by mechanisms that can respond to mortality in ways that preserve – and even increase – their numbers. That is, coyote population densities rise in response to greater mortality. As the Park Service recently explained in a “Species Spotlight” on the Eastern Coyote:
The mass killing of coyotes leads to increases in their population by throwing their social structure into chaos. Left to their own devices, coyote populations self-regulate based on food availability and habitat/territory defense by resident family groups. Under normal conditions, only the dominant “alpha” male and female breed, while behaviorally suppressing reproduction among coyotes of lesser status.
However, whenever one or both alpha coyotes are killed, competition ensues and more pack members breed, and at younger ages. The result is more pups. Counter-intuitively, therefore, killing fewer coyotes usually means having fewer coyotes.
How powerful is the species’ survival mechanism? The average litter size for coyotes is six or seven, but can get as high as the upper teens. Going back to the 1970s, simulation experiments – since supported by later studies – have estimated that coyote populations would survive indefinitely even when 70 percent of the population is removed annually. It would take about fifty years of killing 75 percent of the population annually to get to zero coyotes.
Coyotes’ ability to persevere is truly remarkable. If they were human, they’d be wearing “I Survived the War on Invasives” ball caps and t-shirts. It doesn’t change my view that coyotes are hapless creatures, however. When people are trying to kill you with helicopters and cyanide bombs for being who you are, you’re bereft of hap, from the old Norse word for good luck. But coyotes are beautiful and extraordinary animals.
When a friend’s goats were attacked in a nearby county, allegedly by coyotes, my mother, a longtime dairy goat farmer, became anxious. She contacted a man who advertises as a coyote hunter. The man arrived at Unicorn Farm, which borders Potomac Creek, with a large truck and an impressive array of technologies. Apart from rifles, he had night vision cameras and digital hunting videos he eagerly set about sharing with my sons and me. He obviously enjoyed his work. To my mind, he also seemed to cultivate a roguish, bounty hunter aura very much in line with the popular reality TV shows of the time.
One video he showed us, taken at night with a thermal night vision device attached to his rifle, recorded the killing of two coyotes. The warm-blooded animals appear on the digital screen as white ghosts against an otherwise dark background. They trot out of the bushes, sniffing and glancing at each other. The video has no sound. One coyote collapses when struck by a bullet, gets back up and drags its body, leaking white, warm blood. The other coyote is also shot. It staggers, with copious amounts of liquid spattering from its body onto the leaves behind and below. Unable to see its attacker, it lopes forward and back. Another bullet comes, and the coyote goes off screen. Only a vividly white trail of blood remains. The first coyote lies on the ground, motionless, with a pool of colorless screen spreading around its pale, dying figure.
I never spoke with the boys about what they’d just seen on the digital screen. It seemed so obvious and not in need of clarification. Later, the man walked the wetlands behind Unicorn Farm, using an electronic coyote caller to elicit responses. He reported no sign of coyotes. This seemed improbable. The area comprises many acres of continuous wetlands connected to Potomac Creek and innumerable streams. It is habitat for bald eagles, foxes, deer, turkey, beaver, crayfish, mussels and anything a coyote may want to eat. The Unicorn Farm’s goats, which always overnight in the red barn overlooking the swamp, remain unmolested, but neighbors up the road tell me they have motion-activated pictures of coyotes, day and night, wandering through their yard.
Ranjit Singh is writing a book about the changing people and nature of Potomac Creek, Virginia, where his immigrant family has run a small farm for 50 years. He teaches politics at the University of Mary Washington and chairs the board of the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust. That he plausibly claims to be a Naval “Fleet Professor” always makes the editor laugh. Singh blogs at https://on-the-creek.blogspot.com/