MFHA hunt staff seminar, part 4: Wiley Coyote

In the last 50 years, coyotes have spread widely across the United States and are now frequently found in city limits and in the suburbs, as well as in the countryside

IN the months leading up to the Master of Fox Hounds Association’s biennial hunt staff seminar, we’d already heard a lot about Dr. Stanley Gehrt and his urban coyote presentation. He’d done this presentation at an MFHA meeting in January that had everyone talking, so we were especially curious to hear it ourselves. And, boy, was it worth the price of admission.

Gehrt is an assistant professor and extension wildlife specialist at Ohio State University. His urban coyote study in Chicago started in 2000 and is the longest-running coyote research project in North America. Using radio tracking collars, the study has followed 440 coyotes in 10 packs and revealed fascinating details about their lives, including how they form packs, which ones don’t pack up, how they develop their territories, what they hunt, and how they adapt to living in an urban environment. The results, as presented in his lecture “Uncovering Truths and Debunking Myths about City Coyotes,” were eye-opening.

The first startling fact: coyotes, once found almost exclusively in the southwest as a prairie animal, has spread throughout North America, Central America, and up through Canada and Alaska in the last 60 years or so. That rapid, widespread expansion tells you something important about the coyote: it is a highly adaptable animal that can adjust to rapidly changing environments. And they don’t just adapt by, say, changing their hunting habits or other behaviors. They adapt in more surprising and fundamental ways, like by producing larger litters in time and places where food is readily available and smaller litters when coyote populations are peaking and food is in danger of running low.

Keep in mind that the American coyote’s expansion in population and territory since about 1945 has taken place even as urban areas, highways, and development have also been expanding.

“Coyotes could handle everything thrown at them, and all they did was increase their population and increase their range.” Gehrt said.

As a result, Gehrt said, the coyote is the nation’s “most unprotected game animal,” and many states allow year-round hunting of them because their populations tend to increase so quickly. “They don’t need much protection,” Ghert explained. “They are built to withstand that kind of pressure. And because of that, they view us as their predator. And we are their pretty much only predator.”

We should note here that even though coyotes can be hunted in many areas year-round, the foxhunting season still attains. Foxhunters only chase game, whether fox or coyote, from early fall to spring, and do not hunt year-round.

Ghert’s study area in the Chicago metro area covered 300 square miles and included such seemingly un-coyote-friendly areas as the O’Hare airport, the Navy Pier, and the Sears Tower. The area encompasses about 18 cities in the Chacago metro area and contains about 1.5 million people. And yet Gehrt and his team found coyotes almost everywhere. One, a near-legendary female that is one of the study’s oldest at age 10 and was the first Gehrt put a radio collar on, has her main hiding place immediately behind a local post office. Another managed to get through three sets of fences and into a county jail, where “it scared the crap out of the prisoners,” Gehrt said.

Coyotes mate only once a year, in February, and they are monogamous for life. When one mate dies, the survivor generally will take on a new mate, but only then. The resulting litters typically range from four to seven pups that usually are born in April (which is one reason foxhunters who chase coyote generally have wrapped up their season by then), but litters can range up to 15 pups; in ghert’s study area, the urban Chicago coyote litters averaged eight.

Most coyotes, he found, are killed before their third year, and in urban and suburban ares, not surprisingly, the chief cause of death is the automobile. In rural areas, hunting and trapping are the leading cause of mortality.

But coyotes can live much longer if they are crafty or in safer environments, and Gehrt still has one of his original radio-collared coyotes in the study at age 12. Another significant cause of death: sarcoptic mange. Ghert noted that mangy coyotes are seen more often near houses, usually because they are attempting to stay warm.

Packs typically number anywhere from two to eight coyotes, but–and here’s a surprise–coyotes, or at least urban ones, rarely hunt in packs unless the environmental conditions demand it.

There are three main types of coyote:

  • The resident, who remains in its particular territory, usually covering about seven to eight square miles in rural settings (and less than five square kilometers in urban settings);
  • The solitary, often seeking its own territory, that is just passing through and is not yet settled in a location, and
  • The disperser, a coyote that has left its natal territory and is roaming over long distances.

A solitary’s regular roaming area runs between 30 and 100 square kilometers, while dispersers, the great long-distance travelers among the coyotes, have been known to travel within a space as large as 352 square kilometers. And as hunters well know, coyotes will jump fences if they need to, but they prefer to cross man-made boundaries–fences, in other words–by going under them.

And how about that howling? It’s a chilling sound when you hear a pack of coyotes singing together with yips, barks, and long sustained notes. Gehrt says coyotes howl primarily to determine how many other coyotes are in an area but also as a way to call a pack together, usually to defend a territory.  Unlike wolves, he says, they aren’t known for carrying a tune or holding notes for very long.

“They’re the rappers of the canid world,” he said.

Here’s an especially interesting thing Gehrt and his colleagues found. When only two coyotes are howling, it tends to draw alpha pairs from other ares in, as if for an “alpha meeting.” But if five or more howl together, coyotes in the area tend to run the opposite direction, away from the howlers. That suggests that large groups in concert are advertising their readiness to fight any invaders in their country.

According to the Chicago study, packs do tend to respect each other’s territories, as marked by scat or by the howling described above.

Coyotes are mostly nocturnal, and their diet, even in urban ares, reveals that they scavenge from human garbage less than you might imagine. Studies of coyote scat show that their preferred food items are rodents, especially meadow voles, which make up about 42% of their diet,. “They really are rodent-catching machines,” Gehrt said, recounting that he once found nine rodents, including several large rats, in the belly of a coyote that had been killed by a car. Coyotes also seem fond of goose eggs.

Coyotes increasingly are appearing in urban and suburban settings, and even rural coyotes are adapting to traffic and other products of human civilization as development encroaches on the countryside.

“The eggs are basically McDonald’s meals,” Gehrt said. “It’s something you can pick up and take with you, and they are loaded with fat, which is good for these animals.”

Fruit (23%), deer (22%), and rabbits (18%) are also common components of the coyote menu card, but human garbage accounts for just 2% of the diet, which might say more about us and our eating habits than we’d like to know. Interestingly, Gehrt said rural coyotes do not rely heavily on deer in their diet, again preferring small rodents and rabbits, but they will eat fawns in spring.

Easy prey is appealing to any predator, but that doesn’t mean coyotes aren’t afraid to tackle larger potential food items when they need to, and they can be surprisingly clever at this. Gehrt recounted how one pack in his study repeatedly would herd healthy bucks onto an iced over pond, harass each buck until it fell and could not get up on the slick ice, and then killed it.

People living in rural communities have long known that coyotes will kill cats and dogs. Gehrt confirmed this but noted that, except in unusual circumstances, coyotes rarely eat the cats and dogs they kill. But keep those pets locked up, all the same, as coyotes present a real danger to them.

In Gehrt's study, red foxes survived predation by coyotes better than gray ones did. But fox populations of both kinds drop precipitously when coyotes move in, Gehrt confirmed.

Foxhunters who have seen coyote populations take over in former fox territories have long suspected that the coyote has a negative impact on local foxes. Gehrt confirmed that popular assumption.

Citing a study in Illinois from 1980 to 2000, Ghert said, “They saw coyotes increase dramatically during that time. Red foxes, as you might imagine, decreased but then rebounded a little bit in recent years, but not to their previous levels. Gray foxes crashed. Gray foxes seem to have crashed in a number of states, and we think that’s due to coyotes.”

To find out, Gehrt’s team also put some radio tracking collars on some of the few remaining Chicago-area gray foxes.

“It took us quite a while just to find them, and, when we did, we found that coyotes did kill over half the animals that we monitored, and the other half died from distemper,” he said. “Basically, in two years, all the animals we had radio-collared were gone and we couldn’t find any more.”

The study area’s last group of fox holdouts retreated to a cemetery and made dens there. “It was a Jewish cemetery in a pretty rough area on the south side,” Gehrt said. “The headstones are really close together, and the foxes could run in between the headstones but we couldn’t. They burrowed in those places, but eventually coyotes found their way to that and ended up wiping out that family. So coyotes do have an impact on foxes.”

Gehrt said red foxes, strangely enough, seem to survive coyote predation better than grays–and that’s another surprise, because, unlike reds, grays are known for their ability to climb trees. But Gehrt said red foxes tend to live “in the cracks between coyotes territories,” or, in rural areas, by getting as close as possible to human habitations, where healthy coyotes are less likely to appear.

In fact, at least one of the “old guns” on the older huntsman’s panel at the MFHA seminar, Marty Wood of Live Oak, confirmed this finding in his own experience in the Live Oak country in Florida. Once a fox-chasing pack, Live Oak has been pursuing coyotes increasingly since the mid-1980s and now only finds some red foxes in its country, particularly in areas close to houses, Wood said.

Part of the coyote’s ability to survive and even thrive in conditions that have decimated less resilient animal populations comes down to one character trait: paranoia. That extends to an unwillingness–except when chased or when giving birth and nursing young pups–to go into their own underground dens.

“We have video of mothers coming to their own den with their own pups inside,and it takes them forever to go in, to work up the courage to go inside their own den,” said Gehrt. “When you think about it, coyotes have incredible senses of hearing, sight, and smell, even touch. Those senses are of no use when they are underground.”

A single mating pair might have four or five dens. “The mother likes to have those different dens as an option, because if she thinks you know where that litter is, she’ll move them. And she moves them all the time. We often go through a game of multiple dens trying to find that litter.”

“One thing I hope you take away from this is that there’s still a whole lot of stuff that we don’t know about this animal, and I mean a whole lot,” Gehrt concluded. “They remind us of this every day. Every day they do something that we didn’t think they could do or didn’t think they would want to do.”

For more information on Gehrt’s research, check out the book Urban Carnivores (which also includes information on foxes). It’s published by Johns Hopkins Press and is available on Amazon.com (click to book title above to go directly there). You can also find out more online at http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/urbcoyot.htm.

MFHA hunt staff seminar, part 2: Masters of their craft

Some of the Iroquois members at Sunday's MFHA hunt staff seminar. Left to right: Nancy Clinkinbeard, Mary Moraja, huntsman Lilla Mason, and Gene Baker.

IF Saturday at the MFHA biennial hunt staff seminar was field trip day (for a tour of the Iroquois Hunt Club’s kennel and a visit with our retired hounds), Sunday was more of a lecture series. But not some musty, fusty maundering on by dull speakers, no way. There were panel discussions featuring some of the hardboot Masters and huntsmen from hunts around the country and from the “young guns” of a new generation of hunting stars. There was a meaty and highly entertaining presentation by a scientist who studies the urban coyote. And there was a panel on the eternal question: how do I get and keep my horse hunting fit?

The houndbloggers attended three of the four discussions, missing the equine fitness one, and so we can offer a summary of the presentations that related to hounds and coyotes.

It's all about the hounds!

The Young Guns

We should say right off the bat that Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason was among the presenters as a member of the “young guns” panel. She was the only amateur huntsman, and the only woman, alongside fellow huntsmen Peter Wilson of the Grand Canyon Hounds (Arizona), Ciaran Murphy of Golden’s Bridge Hounds (New York), Reg Spreadborough of the Orange County Hunt (Virginia), Adam Townsend of the De La Brooke Hunt (Maryland), and Ken George of the Moingona Hunt (Iowa).

Lilla Mason (Iroquois) focused on the process by which field members become hound lovers, just as she did. Like many of us, Lilla was drawn to hunting primarily due to her passion for riding, but the more she learned, and the closer she got to the hounds, the more she came to love hound work–a process that eventually led to her carrying the horn as the first female huntsman at Iroquois.

Lilla emphasized the success Iroquois has had through inviting hunt members to help with summer walk, leash training for the puppies, and other similar activities that give members a window onto the hounds’ everyday lives and the hunt’s breeding and training programs. She noted that giving the field printed out hound lists at each meet has also given riders an opportunity to learn the hounds’ names and follow them through each hunt day. And other initiatives, such as Lilla’s “Hound of the Day” reports, also help give the field (as well as Iroquois social members) a connection to the hounds and a different perspective on the hunt day.

IHC member Cooper Lilly and Payton: kennel visits are mutually beneficial!

“It brings the members closer to the hounds,” Lilla said. “It’s important to open up those doors for them. … The more you bring the members into the hound program, it helps enhance their enjoyment of the day, their enjoyment of the sport.”

“On the first day of cubhunting, the measure of success I hold myself to is, did I come with a pack or did I come with a bunch of individuals? The training program is about bringing each individual to become part of the pack. It’s like a symphony: each violin has had to practice and practice until they’re really good and can be part of the symphony that is the finished product.”

Lilla, the hounds, and hunt members at the 2009 Blessing of the Hounds

Lilla recalled vividly the first time Iroquois joint-Master Jerry Miller handed her the horn and gave her the opportunity to hunt the hounds herself.

“I wasn’t going to back down from a dare,” she quipped. “So I left the meet, tooted on my horn, and all of a sudden my whole world changed.”

The most startling change: suddenly, no one else seemed to know what they were doing, from Lilla’s new perspective as huntsman. All the whippers-in Lilla knew and had worked with on the hunt field as a whipper-in herself suddenly seemed to have become inept fools.

“They weren’t in the right place, I wanted them here and they were over there,” Lilla said, laughing along with the audience as she recalled her bemusement. “And nobody was back there, where I wanted somebody. And they were all walking, why weren’t they trotting? Why weren’t they doing anything?

“All of a sudden, this ball started rolling that I couldn’t stop,” she continued. “I was having to decide this, and that, and this,  and there was this fieldmaster with all these people breathing down my neck, and it was just overwhelming.”

Summer hound walks provide a good opportunity for Iroquois members and guests to learn about the hounds and their training.

“If you hold your thumb out in front of you and stare at your thumbnail, everything else is a blur,” she said. “When you’re hunting the hounds, all of a sudden you’re using your eyes to collect information from the whole world. You’re looking for every opportunity to get information: what the body language of the hounds is telling you, what the temperature is, where the wind’s coming from, what you see in the coverts. Collecting information to try to take advantage of any opportunity that might help you help the hounds produce good sport. And when something interrupts that canvas, it’s really irritating.

“I made a promise to myself after that day that I would never belittle or think worse of an ill-tempered huntsman, because you have no idea until you do it what that feels like!”

Iroquois Driver with one of his friends at the kennel. When members visit the puppies, they learn about the young hounds, and the hounds gain confidence around with new people.

All of the huntsmen on the panel except Lilla were professionals, and a majority advocated a quiet attitude in dealing with hounds, something the houndbloggers were gratified to hear.

“I think handling hounds on a loose rein is an art form,” Peter Wilson of the Grand Canyon Hounds said. “A pack that is sensitive to what the person who is hunting them wants is a wonderful thing. Hounds that go along without any chasing, whip-cracking, and turning by staff is great to watch even on a poor hunting day. In my opinion, the hounds’ legitimate ideas have to be followed and honored by quiet huntsmen. Getting wound up at the wrong moment because of anger or excitement can mess up a day’s hunting very quickly. It’s easy for a huntsman to get frustrated without realizing how much it affects his hounds. So much of what the hounds cue on is the tone of voice and posture and body language, so it is easy for them to mistake your general frustration for being angry at them. Their keenness and confidence will go way down if a huntsman is too preoccupied with his own mood rather than doing what is best to help his hounds.”

Many of the "young guns" on the panel recommended a quiet style with hounds.

One common concern the huntsmen voiced: loss of country, a complaint that almost every hunt has as rural land is eaten up by development.

Ciaran Murphy, who hunts Penn Marydel hounds at Golden’s Bridge outside of New York City, noted that his hunt has a “small, tight country.” That means, he said, “Radios are absolutely essential.”

Like Iroquois, Murphy uses radios as well as road whips to help protect hounds in an area where roads and development are encroaching. One of the more interesting things Murphy said, at least to us, was that he is still chasing both fox and coyote at a ratio he estimates at about 50-50. It’s been a long time since we’ve heard of a fox percentage that high, as most countries seem to have all but made the switch from foxes to coyotes as coyote territory has expanded (more on that in our next post, when we report on the outstanding presentation Dr. Stanley Gehrt made on the urban coyote!). Murphy said his tactic, when he’s chasing coyote in a small country, is to try to turn the coyote to persuade it to stay in the country.

Several huntsmen on both the "young guns" and the "old guns" panels advocated handling hounds loosely and letting them range rather than keeping them in a tight group, especially when hunting coyote

“We’ve had days where we’ve run a fox for 45 minutes and put it to ground, and then on the way to the next covert a coyote pops up and hounds are gone,” Murphy said. “It’s almost like following a different pack of hounds, in a way. Everything changes. Some hounds start to shine. I have some hounds that are good fox hounds and some that are good coyote hounds, and, on average, they run both equally well, but it’s really a humbling thing, when you have a fox and then you have a coyote, to see the difference in how they run and how it affects the hounds.”

Murphy also made one of the day’s nicer observations–and one that got a knowing laugh from the huntsmen in the audience–when he observed that his job “is one of the few things you can do where every morning there are 60 to 80 faces that are happy to see you!”

Diminishing hunt country remains a concern for nearly every huntsman and Master.

Reg Spreadborough of the Orange County Hounds–home of the unique red ring-neck hounds we’ve written about before–hunts two packs, divided by age. “The younger pack goes to the grasslands with open fields,” he said. “They stay together a lot better, they honor each other when the first strike hounds open up. When they cast themselves and they’re trying to find their quarry, they get together a lot quicker, honor each other, and go.”

Spreadborough said, in his experience, a mixed-age pack is more liable to get strung out on a run as older hounds pull ahead of younger ones; stringing out, he said, is “my pet hate, if I have one.” But he acknowledged that he still hunts foxes, and that allows for different tactics.

“With foxes, we don’t tend to get the hour-and-a-half, two-hour hunts that the other packs would hunting coyotes,” he said.

Spreadborough made an interesting point when he said that, just as there’s ideally a “golden thread” of communication between huntsman and hounds, there also should be a similar thread linking huntsman and hunt staff.

“If you find a whipper-in that you can key off, you almost don’t even have to say anything,” he said.

It's ideal if the huntsman and whippers-in also have a "golden thread."

Also on that point, Lilla recalled a story in which an English huntsman she knows once stood ringside with her at the Peterborough foxhound show and relayed what one of the judges was saying as the class progressed some yards away. “He was able to do that because he had served as whipper-in to the judge for many years and had learned to read his lips!” she said.

Adam Townsend of the De La Brooke Foxhounds spent a good bit of time discussing the importance of whippers-in to a huntsman’s work.

“I translate a measure of our success out hunting to our staff,” Townsend said, adding that the De La Brooke’s whips are all volunteers. “Each of the individuals that whipped in had a different background, and each made the commitment that the job requires. The De La Brooke pack hunts three days a week from September until March. In looking for the right individual to help with the pack and effectively whip in out hunting, several factors had to be taken into consideration. I try to look at their first attempt at correcting a hound. Many people take an aggressive approach, believing if you yell at it, it will obey. To me, this would not be the proper first response in dealing with a hound on exercise or even, in some cases, out hunting. Less is more.”

Many huntsmen prefer a quiet, relaxed whipper-in, believing they help keep the hounds relaxed in their work as a pack.

Townsend explained that. on hound walk, he walks the hounds “loosely, not in a restrictive form.”

“I’ve found that new whips tend to be ‘whip happy’ and want the pack to be tighter,” he said. Townsend added that he does not encourage his staff to crack their whips unless it is truly necessary, as in a safety situation out hunting, when, for example, hounds might need to be kept off a road.

“I don’t like tense whips, because that makes for tense hounds,” he observed.

Ken George of Moingona proved an able storyteller and kept the audience’s attention with his vivid description of hunt days on the Iowa plains and, more recently, to newly opened country in Kansas.

Do whatever it takes to get out with the hounds!

George explained that he Moingona pack is a bitch pack of mostly Crossbred hounds, and their quarry is almost entirely the coyote. He has drafts from a variety of hunts, including Midland and Fox River Valley, “so there are straight July dogs from Midland that can flat fly. We’ve got some nice English dogs that can flat fly. We’ve got big dogs, little dogs, pretty dogs, ugly dogs–but they are a pack. They hunt as a pack. They sound like a pack. They look like a pack. From a hundred feet, you can tell the difference between them. But from a hundred and fifty yards, we have the best pack class in America. They’re demons, that’s what I call them.”

Unlike Spreadborough, who hunts fox exclusively, George said he didn’t mind if hounds get strung out on a run and viewed it as a natural effect of chasing the coyote.

George’s main theme, though, was one every serious huntsman and hunt follower knows well: the true fox-chaser (or coyote-chaser) will do whatever it takes to watch those hounds work together to puzzle out a line. George pointed out that he shoes horses and works cattle for landowners, all free of charge, in order to ensure his country stays open and he can keep hunting. When the opportunity to open hunt country in Kansas some six hours south, George said he jumped at it.

“I drive six hours because I’m ate up with foxhunting,” he explained. “You have to do what it takes.”

Next time: The “Old Guns” panel!

MFHA hunt staff seminar, day 1: Iroquois kennel visit

Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason shows the BA litter to Live Oak MFH Marty Wood (left) and Iroquois joint-MFH Jerry Miller. Photos by Gene Baker--thanks, Gene!

THE Master of Fox Hounds Association’s hunt staff seminar only comes around once every two years, so imagine our delight when the governing body of North American foxhunting selected Lexington as the venue for 2010. The seminar weekend drew foxhunters from around the nation to the Iroquois kennel, and the gathering of so many hound people in our town provided a priceless opportunities to listen and learn.

On Saturday, April 10, the Iroquois Hunt hosted a kennel tour for attendees, and about 70 Masters, huntsmen, hunt staff, and members of many hunts showed up despite chilly temperatures. Two highlights really stand out for the houndbloggers: the warm reaction so many hunt members had to seeing the Hound Welfare Fund‘s retirees happily snoozing in their warm room, and watching Live Oak Master Marty Wood reunite with Paper, Hailstone, Gaudy, and Gaelic, young hounds that he bred that began their hunting careers this year with the Iroquois pack. Wood looked just like a proud papa when he saw how these puppies have developed, and he even joked that letting them go might just have been a mistake! And here’s another interesting note: asked to choose their favorites from our current crop of puppies, the BA litter and Driver, all scheduled to begin their training with the pack this summer for the first time, Wood and several other huntsmen present picked out Driver the pupposaurus for special praise, citing, among other things, his powerful, muscular hind end.

Driver (center): Not quite a year old, and already a muscle man.

It’s true: Driver has lost a lot of his baby fat and is showing distinct signs of turning into a hunk. But he’s lost none of his charm–or his energy. It was especially rewarding, by the way, to see how confident all the puppies were –not that Driver’s confidence has ever been much of a question!–around  a crowd of 70 strangers. Their lack of shyness under these unusual circumstances drew favorable comments from many and is a testimony not just to the puppies’ personalities, but also to their early handling and training.

Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason tosses biscuits for some of the new entry as MFHA hunts staff seminar attendees look on.

In addition to seeing the new entry and viewing many of the other hounds in the Iroquois active hunting pack, seminar attendees also toured the inside of the kennel. Many were especially interested in the tracking collars demonstrated by Iroquois kennelman Michael Edwards.

Iroquois kennelman Michael Edwards demonstrates the tracking collar and antenna that we use to help protect hounds when they are out in the country.

Iroquois joint-Masters Jerry Miller (left) and Dr. Jack van Nagell at Saturday's kennel tour.

Iroquois board member and former president Dr. Herman Playforth also explained how the hunt club itself is structured to allow both hunting and social, non-hunting memberships. Seminar attendees asked good, detailed questions that covered every imaginable topic: kennel management, hound feeding, the use of radios and tracking collars on the hunt field, and much more.

Thanks are due to everyone from Iroquois who volunteered to help with the morning. These included Cice Bowers, Christine and Gene Baker, Nancy Clinkinbeard, and Eloise Penn, and I sure hope we haven’t forgotten to mention anyone else! Thanks also to Michael Edwards and Alan Foy for their work with the hounds, and to guest Robin Cerridwen for her help, too.

One of the first-season hounds, Gaelic, gets some lovin'.

We’ll leave you with some images from the day that particularly caught our eyes, and tomorrow we’ll summarize the meat of the weekend: the seminar programs from Sunday, including  a presentation by coyote researcher Dr. Stanley Gehrt and a panel discussion that included Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason.

The visitors expressed interest in many of the kennel's features, including the retired hounds' warm room and the hounds' 15-acre grass-and-woodland turnout paddock

The kennel tour also drew new entry of the human kind!

Paper and his breeder, Live Oak MFH Marty Wood, do the cha-cha.

The hounds and their visitors enjoyed perfect weather once the spring chill wore off by mid-morning.