Originally created 07/31/05

Digging deep into coyotes' past



Most Georgia trappers will tell you their best customers are landowners wanting to get rid of coyotes.

The secretive predators, which have quietly infiltrated the Southeast, are accused of offenses ranging from destruction of melon fields to slaughtering livestock, waterfowl and whitetail fawns.

Is it true?

Experts like I. Lehr Brisbin say their reputation is often more folklore than fact - but there's also a lot more to be learned.

"I think they get a bad rap in terms of their impact on wildlife," said Brisbin, a senior ecologist at Savannah River Ecology Lab. "But they're also very adaptable and can live almost anywhere."

Brisbin is working this summer with University of South Dakota student Caleb Caton on an unusual project, designed to help separate fact from fiction when it comes to coyotes and the impact their spread has had on other predators, such as foxes.

Caton has been visiting natural history museums and private game rooms, where he is diligently snipping hair samples off mounted coyotes and foxes in the 50-year-old range. Those samples will be compared with hair from recently trapped or killed coyotes.

What can be learned from old hair versus new hair?

Plenty, according to Brisbin.

"It's a relatively new process called stable isotope chemistry - a tool that can be used to determine the position of an animal in the food chain."

Prior to the arrival of coyotes in Georgia and South Carolina in the late 1970s, and their saturation of the region in the 1990s, the other major predators were foxes and bobcats.

Today it is possible, perhaps even likely, that the coyote now lives near the top of that food chain.

The analysis produces an isotope ratio number showing elevation on the food chain, and also a carbon number that shows the extent to which the animal existed in agricultural settings versus natural settings where no fertilizers or cultivation occurred.

"In other words, coyotes eating mice in a cotton field will show up differently than animals in a dense swamp eating rabbits," he said. "The idea is to compare before coyotes to after coyotes."

The lifestyle of the coyote makes it an important species to study, especially since it develops different habits tailored to the habitat in which it lives.

"Coyotes are elusive and very hard to study," said Caton, who - so far - has gathered hair samples from 100 coyotes and 104 red and gray foxes.

Locally, they typically live in small groups and subsist on small mammals, such as rabbits, mice and squirrels.

"Coyotes are known to eat and kill small dogs," Brisbin said. "And urban coyotes are getting to be bold as brass - eating cat food right off your porch if they can get away with it."

Confrontations with humans are being reported with increasing frequency, even in the Augusta area, he said.

"We've had seven or eight reports around Hitchcock Woods (in Aiken) where coyotes have confronted people," he said. Although they typically pose no dangers to humans, they can attack or kill pets.

Caton said it is likely coyotes do take a number of deer fawns, and occasionally newborn livestock. But such killings also occur with great frequency by wild or roaming dogs.

"People will tell you 'til they're blue in the face that coyotes are killing all the deer, chickens, livestock , whatever," he said. "They do, but it's with such a low frequency that it doesn't have a huge impact."

Brisbin and Caton hope to publish the results of their findings next year.

STRIPED BASS HEARING: Two public hearings are scheduled this week to offer the public an opportunity to comment on the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' plan to lift the longstanding moratorium on keeping striped bass caught in the lower Savannah River.

The 7 p.m. meetings will be held Tuesday at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum in Savannah; and Wednesday at Augusta Technical College, Room 612, Building 600, in Augusta.

The proposal, which has been agreed to by South Carolina authorities, would allow a two fish daily harvest limit, with a 27-inch minimum length in waters downstream of Thurmond Dam beginning this fall.

Any participant may present data, make a statement or comment, either orally or in writing. Those unable to attend the hearings may submit written statements. Such statements should be received no later than Aug. 22, and should be mailed to: Georgia DNR, Ted Hendrickx, 2123 U.S. Highway 278, SE, Social Circle, Ga., 30025.

RECORD CATCH: A North Augusta angler set a new South Carolina marine game fish record this month for Atlantic spadefish, according to fisheries officials.

A 14-pound, 1.8 ounce Atlantic spadefish caught by Stacey Nickleson, 19, is the new state record. Nickleson caught the record fish July 2 while bottom fishing with a jelly ball strip out of Station Creek, Beaufort on the Betsy Ross Reef with a 14-pound test line.

She fought the fish for 30 minutes aboard the boat "Marked Man," captained by Monty Bates of Aiken.

Anyone catching a potential state record must have it weighed on certified scales with two witnesses and should immediately contact the DNR Marine Resources Division in Charleston.

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119 or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.

Favorite Coyote Foods
- Rabbits, cotton rats, field mice and squirrels
- Carrion (must be fresh), reptiles, turtles
- Feral piglets (often protected by sows)
- Berries, wild fruits, muscadines
- Watermelons, canteloupes and tomatoes
Source: I. Lehr Brisbin, SREL