Hound of the Day: Battle

Battle at work.

BATTLE is one of the Iroquois pack’s younger hounds. A member of the BA litter we’ve been following since their birth, he joined the working pack in 2010. But he’s already distinguishing himself.

The March 5 hunt was a great one, Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason reported. A gray fox led the hounds and the field of horses and riders on a rapid tour of the local coverts. “He came out of Bud’s covert and went to Tommy’s Dove Field, then through the Deer Covert, over to the Silo Pond Covert and on through the Cabin Covert, and then over to Murphy’s Covert, through Barker’s, and into the cliff behind the Schwartzes’ place,” Lilla said. “They finally lost the scent near there.”

Lilla collected the hounds, trotted them down a nearby road, and put them into a covert behind Pauline’s. “They immediately found a coyote, and we ran through Pauline’s Ridge, through Garden’s Bottom, through Gentry Cliff, over to the covert behind Robertson’s, through Athens Woods,” she said. “We went 14 miles in an hour and 15 minutes.”

On this outstanding day, young Battle came to the fore. “He’s always been in there doing the right thing, but all of a sudden that day he really came to life. He has the confidence to try to help on his own. When they would get at a check, he immediately would cast himself around like the older hounds do. Sometimes when a puppy does that they’ll keep looking up, like they’re wondering, ‘Am I going to get left behind? Do I really know what I’m doing? What’s the hound doing over there?’ They’re a little more jealous of each other. But Battle was doing what I call turning into a machine. That’s when they’re so efficient, and they know exactly how to frantically try to find the line again. They do it without even thinking; it’s instinct. He was just like an older, seasoned hound.

Battle on the trot.

“He’s gotten to be so big and rangy and strong,” she added. “He was always a confident hound, but now it’s the kind of confidence that if there’s a problem on a hunt, he can help with it.”

Battle’s BA littermates also performed well. “All day, you could have thrown a blanket over them,” Lilla said. “Everyone stayed up, and everyone was a help. And it went so fast. They were awesome.”

Hound of the Day: Sassoon

Sassoon, the giant woolly, showed his leadership qualities on Dec. 31, 2010

THE weather has played havoc with the season, but on one of the better days when it was safe for hounds and riders to take to the hunt field, one of our favorite hounds was the hero.

It was New Year’s Eve, and the hounds hadn’t had a good gallop over the hunt country in two weeks (weather, weather, weather, more weather again …). After the long period of freezing temperatures, the temperature climbed to about 45 degrees on a windy New Year’s Eve.

“You’d expect them to be obviously anxious to get out and a little bit hard to handle at first,” Iorquois huntsman Lilla Mason said of the hounds. “It’s not unusual when they’ve had that much time off. But what you don’t want is for them to just run through the first few coverts with their heads up. I had a feeling it was going to be a marginal scenting day, although I never really know for sure about that until the hounds let me know.

Iroquois huntsman Lilla S. Mason. Photo by Dave Traxler.

“The first covert we drew, I tried to move really slowly, because the slower I go, the slower they’re going to have to go. I wanted them to empty and settle down and start putting their noses down and focusing. They were surprisingly good. This litter of puppies is just so mature for their age.

“It was kind of weird, because, even though it was windy, in a way it was still: there weren’t any birds, we didn’t see any rabbits, nature was still. The wind was going to be a factor, because it makes it hard to hear the hounds.

“I drew the Silo Pond Covert, and then I went and drew the Cabin Covert, which I never do in that sequence, because that puts me going back west toward an road that’s the border of our hunt country,” Lilla continued. “But this pack is so easy to handle that I went ahead and did it. I put them in at the west end of the Cabin Covert and then asked them to come out the south end. They could have just kept going on west, on down the covert to the road, but they did just exactly what I asked. They’re such a good team together.

“From there we went into Barker’s, and in Barker’s they started feathering. Then they started speaking.”

Baffle's first litter for Iroquois, the puppies now in their first year with the working pack, learned a valuable lesson about geese. Photo by Dave Traxler.

The chase was on. The hounds headed due east, with their huntsman galloping just behind. “But straight east there was a pond with a gaggle of of geese,” said Lilla. “And if there was one, there were 500 geese. I’ve never seen so many. All at once, they took flight, and they sounded just like a pack of hounds. The puppies ran straight to the sound; it sounded like a pack of hounds from God! The puppies must have thought they were going to hark to the biggest cry they’d ever heard. It was funny, because they ran right out of the covert and then on to the pond, and then you could see them realize pretty quickly they’d made a mistake. They looked so disappointed, like, ‘Aaaw, darn.’ But when puppies get caught like that, it’s part of their learning.

“They were kind of hot, so I thought I’d regroup and let the older hounds catch up to the puppies that had made the mistake and let them all get some water.”

The gray fox can climb trees--a feat that probably will amaze the young hounds! Photo by Steve Wayne Rotsch/Painet Inc.

After that brief rest, it was on to Murphy’s Covert, where hounds spoke again. Lilla rode to the north side of the covert in time to see Sassoon and Payton pop out, noses to the ground.

“They tried to take the line north but lost it,” she said. “They swirled around and cast themselves back into the covert, followed closely by the puppies, who also swirled around and followed them back into the covert, right along the line Sassoon and Payton had taken.”

Lilla waited. Sure enough, out came Sassoon and Payton again. This time, Sassoon took the line a little farther north before circling around and returning to Murphy’s covert once again, speaking a little from inside the covert.

The Iroquois hounds earlier this season.

“This went on a little while, and it was just beautiful hound work,” Lilla recalled. “You could tell they kept losing that line to the north, and they kept going back into the covert and speaking. You just never know if a coyote is concealed in there or what. You just have to let the hounds work it out. But to see the leadership of Sassoon. It was so clear. He just took charge: ‘The line’s fine here, here, here—no, not here. Gotta go back and try again.’ He kept coming out of the covert at the same place. They’d come tumbling back out of the covert and make a big cast with Sassoon in the lead, then go tumbling back into the covert behind him. That’s the experience a hound like Sassoon can offer your pack when the pack really needs it. When things get complicated, they look to a hound like him for that kind of leadership.

“They couldn’t find anything in Murphy’s Covert, and Sassoon was telling me the line seemed to be going north. To the north is a kind of scrubby covert that all year I have called ‘a covert of interest.’ It’s not much of a covert, just a long strip of scrubby weeds, and it’s not that wide and not very high. We don’t even have a name for it. It’s just sort of a scrubby fence line. But every time I’ve put the hounds in there they’ve spent a lot of time in there, even on a bad scenting day. It’s been a good training covert for them. They draw it really thoroughly. But it was odd, because it didn’t seem like enough covert for a coyote to sit in there.”

Another sort of gray fox, outside the Grimes Mill headquarters of the Iroquois Hunt Club.

Kennel manager Michael Edwards, who also serves as a road whip on hunt days, was in a good position to see what happened next. Sitting in his truck on the opposite side of the covert from Lilla, Michael spotted what appeared to be not a coyote, but a fox, dashing by. He was too far away to see the quarry in sharp detail, but he could tell even from a distance that it was small for a coyote. Michael later speculated that it was a gray fox or, possibly, a red fox with a lot of gray in its coat. That’s an intriguing development that seems all the more likely given that two local landowners’ automatic wildlife cameras recently have gotten images of gray foxes.

Iroquois Hunt kennel manager Michael Edwards spotted the quarry.

Whatever it was, the hounds had captured its scent and got on the line, blazing out the west end of the unnamed “covert of interest.”

The pack flew back to Barker’s, circling around and around in that covert and running between it and the back of Schwartz’s in the small circles that are typically for running foxes. They eventually made a lose in Barker’s. They  worked back to Murphy’s Covert and spoke briefly there before making a lose again. At that point, with hounds getting hot in the warmer weather, Lilla called it a day, still pondering the appearance of a possible fox at a time when we rarely see them.

The Iroquois field members always welcome a variety of game. Foxes will add a different spice to a day’s hunting by providing some days when hound work is the feature of the day, instead of the fast galloping sport that coyotes provide. There’s room for both in the Iroquois hunt country, and, while we continue to love the bold moves of hard-driving coyotes, we also hope to the foxes stick around–especially for days like New Year’s Eve, when we’ve been buried under snow and ice for weeks and our horses are no longer at peak fitness!

Huntsman Lilla Mason and the Iroquois hounds

“It wasn’t clear whether it was a red or a gray fox, but I would tend to think it was a red,” Lilla said, “because I don’t know why a gray would run out in the open like that. Usually, by this time of year, we don’t have any foxes in our hunt country, so it’s interesting that we found one. And now I know what’s been in that covert all this time.”

A fox or two will add a new element to the puppies’ education, as Lilla pointed out. “Especially if it’s a gray,” she said. “That will be a whole new dimension for the puppies, because a gray fox will go up a tree, and foxes just run so differently from coyotes. I guess Sassoon will have to explain that to them.”

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.