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 (click to book title above to go directly there). You can also find out more online at

MFHA hunt staff seminar, part 3: The Old Guns

THE “old guns” that took to the stage at the recent Master of Fox Hounds Association’s biennial hunt staff seminar have seen a lot of hunting. The “young guns,” some of fox hunting’s rising stars among huntsmen, touched on everything from choosing whippers-in to engaging field members in the hound work. But the older huntsmen had a tighter thematic focus. Most talked about two of the most important developments North American hunting has seen since these men first picked up a hunting horn: the change in quarry from fox-only to predominantly coyote, and the loss of hunt country due to urban and suburban development.

The old guns’ panel was moderated by Iroquois joint-Master Jerry Miller, and panelists were Dr. Marvin Beeman (Arapahoe Hunt, Colorado), Marty Wood (Live Oak Hounds, Florida), Jody Murtagh (Moore County Hounds, North Carolina), and Mason Lampton (Midland Fox Hounds, Georgia).

One man on the panel, Marvin Beeman, was the odd man out, in that he hasn’t had to face a change in quarry or the kinds of development that have threatened other hunt countries.

In Arapahoe country, it’s always been about coyote chasing over the wide Western acreage. So Beeman was in a good position to talk about the coyote and its behavior on open plains, and his talk provided an interesting glimpse at hunting conditions we (relative) Easterners never have to contend with. Like hunting at 6,000 to 6,500 feet. In the high winds that whistle across the plains, Beeman estimates, about 90 percent of the time you’re hunting. Where “covert” is more likely to mean a slight dip in the land rather than 10 acres of woodland or scrub. Then there are the plains themselves: mostly flat, open land that provides little opportunity for sneaking up on any game, least of all the acutely sensitive coyote.

Photo of the Arapahoe Hunt by Kathy Tourney. To see more, click here!

Beeman pointed out that the Arapahoe often see their first coyote a half-mile away. That’s quite a challenge, especially considering that scent only lasts, on a good day, from three to six minutes, far less in the 40 to 50 m.p.h winds that can blow across Arapahoe territory.

“Seldom will you jump them,” Beeman said of Colorado’s  plains coyotes. “But sometimes, if the wind is just right, you might find one sitting under a yucca and you can get upwind and come up closer to them.”

In these conditions, Beeman picks his hounds up (they’re English, by the way) and takes them to the coyote line. “A lot of people say that’s not fair, they should work the line,” Beeman said. “Well, if you want to have sport, you can work the line all damn day if you want to, and it won’t be there when you get there if you don’t get them started.”

Whatever difficulties Colorado’s geography and climate throw at coyote hunters and their hounds, they do get one advantage in return: few roads and miles of open space. In a country Beeman estimates to be about 35 square miles, there are only two roads, and they’re seven miles apart. Some of the individual pastures in the Arapahoe country are 5,000 acres, so it’s hardly surprising that Beeman uses both radios and tracking collars for his hounds.

Beeman also expressed admiration for the coyote’s iron constitution. “It’s amazing how tough they are, and how far they can run,” he said. “It’s hard for us to stay hooked on one coyote, because of the conditions I’ve mentioned.”

It might surprise you to know Arapahoe hunts with English hounds, whom many American hound proponents believe are too slow for coyote-chasing. That’s a debate that once raged about fox-chasing, too, as you might recall from the English v. American debate that resulted in the Great Hound Match of 1905.

“A lot of you have asked me, ‘How do you hunt English hounds? They’re too slow!'” Beeman said. “Let me tell you, if they ever got any faster, we couldn’t find them!”

Marty Wood of the Live Oak hounds

Marty Wood of Live Oak remembers the changeover from red fox to coyote very clearly, and chasing the wiley coyote has left a mark on him.

“I have a love-hate relationship with coyotes,” Wood began. “I think they’re the greatest quarry a good pack of hounds could ever chase. They’re fast, they’re smart. At times they give off really good scent, and at times you think they’ve pulled an Indian rope trick on you. I love them for that reason. I hate them for the reason that I’m standing here and no longer riding a horse anymore because I’ve busted myself up pretty badly in the past 20 years chasing coyotes.”

The Live Oak hounds ran their first coyote back in 1984 or 1985.

“I’ll never forget it,” Wood said. “It was the day after a really hard thunderstorm, early in the morning. We got to the meet and unboxed the hounds. My kennel huntsman was on his horse looking down at the sand road, and he said, ‘You’ve got to come look at this. It’s the biggest damn red fox track I’ve ever seen.’ I didn’t have to go look at it, I trusted his judgment. We put the hounds on it. Let me tell you something: we crossed five plantations, taking gates off their hinges. We didn’t cut any wire, but we damn sure unstapled some. Daphne and another whipper-in finally caught up with the hounds. We were way, way, way far behind them. ”

One of the tip-offs that this was not a red fox, Wood said, was that this quarry, this coyote, ran roads through the woods and avoided the swampy brushland that dominates Live Oak country. “Obviously no fox was going to run like that, and no bobcat was going to run that way, and for damn sure no deer would,” he said. “He just took off and went and went and went. Finally, we picked the hounds up and hacked waaaaay back to the meet. And a few days later I had a call from a man. He and his wife had been sitting out back on their terrace having a drink in the evening, and this thing walked up into the yard, and he got a rifle and shot it. He took it into a taxidermist, and it was a coyote.”

Wood pointed out one of the classic maneuvers that coyotes will pull in an attempt to evade pursuing hounds: “For you future huntsmen, when you’re on a coyote and you’re putting pressure with a capital P on him, you’re going to see him going from covert to covert to covert. He’s looking for another coyote to throw you off. The biggest problem you’re going to have as a huntsman hunting your hounds is controlling the bombshell when he goes into one of those coverts and four others come out. The only way I know to do that is to trust your experienced hounds. They’re not going to want to change. If you can possibly figure out which one of those bombshells has the experienced hounds on it, pick it right away. But a huntsman must make an almost instantaneous decision as to which pack he’s going with, so that the whippers-in can stop the others.”

Between panel sessions, MFHA seminar attendees could shop for stock ties, MFHA merchandise, and hunt-themed accessories.

Wood also noted that he likes to hunt large packs of 25 to 30 couple. “I think that helps you find the quarry better,” he explained, “because they spread out. When one opens up, they hark to that like filings to a magnet.”

Moore County huntsman Jody Murtagh knows what it’s like to hunt free-running coyotes in a small territory. Moore County’s country, he said, is about 5,000 acres in total, with the largest portion being 3,000 acres. Murtagh hunts a pack of Penn Marydels, another breed often reckoned to be slow, though Murtagh says, “They’re not, especially on coyote.”

“A few people think they’re slow and run heel or dwell,” Murtagh said. “But, believe me, folks, the people in Moore County wish they did all those things. When we started running coyote, at the end of the run there were about five or six people left out of 60 or 80. It just blew them away.”

Not a coyote.

Luckily for Murtagh, not all of the coyotes in his country leave it. The resident coyotes tend to stay in his country. By contrast, coyotes that come into the country from nearby Fort Bragg, which covers about 60,000 acres, are the ones that tend to run back across the road to their home territory.

Murtagh said that he does occasionally have a good run on a gray fox, something he tries to take advantage of, because the gray foxes provide great sport for his field on a limited territory.

“The coyotes will basically stay in the territory, and we’re running for about a hour to an hour and a half, which is about the most anyone can stand, and then we basically stop the hounds. The problem we have is that the territory is so small, and the boundaries are so significant, and the coyotes love to run across the road into Fort Bragg. So the whips have to be right on the number. When they see them going for the road, the whips have to be at the road first. That happens in seconds. You have to make that decision in seconds. It makes things very, very difficult.”

In closing, Murtagh related a story about hound breeding. Some years ago, he talked to Ben Hardaway, the Master of Midland so famous for his hound breeding program. “He said, ‘You oughta pick up those Penn Marydels and give ’em some pizzazz,'” Murtagh recalled. “Well, Mr. Pizzazz, I wish I hadn’t of listened, because we gave ’em pizzazz and we can’t stay with them most of the time! What I think I should do now with my breeding program is breed for bad feet, long ears, out at the hock, and a straight hind leg. Maybe I’ll be able to stay with them!”

Hardaway’s son-in-law, Mason Lampton, is carrying on the tradition at Midland. He started hunting and field-trialing hounds in Kentucky with his grandfather, Mason Houghland, well before moving to Georgia. His hunt career, too, has spanned the arrival of the coyote–a development Lampton called  “a very exciting change.”

“It’s been a whole different kettle of fish,” he said.

Lampton, like Wood, agreed that a coyote “is the only thing that will run a road.”

“The Fitzpatrick part of our country is about 15 miles by six miles, on average,” he explained. “You’d think that’s a nice size country. But in February we hit this coyote, and he pushed out two does and a buck. We had a few hounds speaking pretty hard on it, but the majority of the pack weren’t speaking. Finally the does and buck peel off, and, boom, we were away. One fellow had GPS on, and we went 10 miles in about 45 minutes. It was just a screaming run. It was amazing. But then the son of a gun went out of the country. Well, we stopped the hounds, and the horses were all spraddle-legged, so we came back. Everything was pretty well cooked.”

Lampton said he drew the same spot the next two hunts, trying to get up the same coyote, and, when he did, the hunt went exactly the same, with his staff having to stop hounds at the same edge of their country.

“These coyotes, when they find a spot where you’ll stop your hounds, they’re gonna go every time to that spot,” he said.

Lampton called a coyote run a “mail train,” a description anyone who has ridden on one of these blistering chases will agree with. To chase coyotes, Lampton said he likes to cast his hounds wide “at a big distnace, almost a quarter-mile,” he said. “I like them spread out, not all balled up.”

trial-9.jpg (21288 bytes)

The Midland Fox Hounds

In fact, the days of hunting a close-bunched pack might well be over anywhere coyotes have become the main quarry.

“I think the coyote is very tough on the English ‘throw a blanket over them’ style,” he added. “When you’re on an hour-and-a-half run on a coyote, it’s a whole different kettle of fish. You’re hunting something different.”

“Your horse has got to be fit, you’ve got to get that Advil out,” he added. “The hounds are bounding around, you go and hit that covert and the first hound speaks and the pack breaks away, and they start screaming. They blow gone away and you’re galloping that Thoroughbred horse as fast as you can across that beautiful country, you’re in a rush, things are good! An hour and a half later, you’re red-faced, you can’t blow the horn. … That’s coyote-hunting for me. When it goes right, it’s about as exciting as anything I’ve ever done. How often it goes right? I’m not going there.”

Next time: Dr. Stanley Gehrt on the life of the urban coyote!

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.