Coyotes And Deer, An Unwelcome Relationship
The predator-prey relationship between non-native coyotes and Southern deer.
Even after 10 years of watching with morbid curiosity, I find myself still enthralled with the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. I am fascinated by the raw, primal strength and mysterious beauty of the great white shark as unsuspecting seals are stalked from deep below. With a stunning flash of power and speed, the sharks rocket to the surface, breaching skyward with their severed and bloodied prey dangling from their savage mouths.
Something less dramatic, but no less curious, is the underwater camera footage of the great beasts slowly swimming in close proximity of a diver’s cage. It is these close-up filming opportunities that reveal the shark’s tag-along parasites, some attached and some not, but always swimming in close unison with their hosts. Later in the week, the aquatic scientist revealed some of the less common shark species that inhabit the deep pelagic zones of the vast oceans. One species in particular had a parasite attached to its eye, which causes permanent blindness in the shark. This reclusive shark species of the dark and deep oceans hunts without ocular ability and has adapted well. The parasitic attachment to their eyes, while almost vulgar in the natural world, causes no apparent harm to the shark.
I was 10 years old when I reeled in a thick, palm-sized bream from Berry College’s since-vanished Victory Lake and discovered a lamprey eel-like creature attached to the fish’s side. That grotesque discovery then brought to my mind a recent science class subject, but was no less revolting with its slimy-thin body and suction cup toothed mouth.
The teacher’s words were, “Everything living lives off something that is…. or was.”
At that young age, I did not have the maturity to grasp the grand scale of the food chain and all its complexities. Today, at my attained age, I am certainly mature enough, but still find myself as enlightened as a school boy by my ongoing discovery through exposure and experience, in my own relative backyard of north Georgia, of the intertwined relationships between predator and prey, host and parasite.
I love hunting coyotes, anytime, anywhere. They are a constant challenge, smart and cunning, requiring excellence of a hunter’s skills, if he is to take fur from the field. My passion for hunting the grass eaters has receded because of all their associated fees, restrictions and expensive lease or membership requirements. But I learned plenty through my decades of hunting deer before the grand heritage was reduced to sitting in heated, elevated cabins in close proximity to freshly strewn golden micro-acorns. A great friend of mine recently reminded me of a wonderful line from the movie, Wyatt Earp, where the actor portraying the character of Doc Holiday says, “There is a limit to my hypocrisy…”
The line certainly applies to me, and it is at this exact point where deer hunting and coyote hunting collide, and the predator/prey or host/parasite relationship comes full circle. I offer the following examples for consideration.
For more years than I care to remember, I have had the privilege of being able to hunt and trap predators on tens of thousands of acres of prime, leased, membership-required, high density deer and turkey properties, for which I am forever grateful.
Sometimes I was paid for my efforts, other times not, but I always enjoyed the time afield on those otherwise restricted-access, vast tracts of private land, and I was very respectful of the owner’s desires for protecting the game species they managed. Along with that, a certain wildlife management premise is often set aside because it is counter to what hunt club members want.
I can still see in my mind’s eye my old, wise professor saying, “Anytime a property is managed to the benefit of one species, it is done so at the peril of others.”
The deer hunters pay for and want to see deer, a lot of deer. Food plots are planted, timber is managed, prescribed burns are rotated, and supplemental rations are provided for increasing the carrying capacity of the land. In times of dietary abundance, female production is higher and antlerless numbers increase. Yet, despite liberal antlerless harvest opportunities, societal barriers persist which limit antlerless take, resulting in ever higher numbers of mouths for feeding (and prey for four-legged predators).
A deceased Georgia career biologist friend of mine routinely said, “As prey numbers increase or decrease, so do the numbers of their associated predators, but always in trail.”
In one year, from the third week of May until the first Saturday in August, while calling coyotes using a white-tailed fawn distress, I called into my set more than 150 adult does, with most appearing within one-minute of call activation. That period of hunting covered more than 60 sets in varied terrain and cover, exclusively in Floyd County. Typical of hunting eastern coyotes in and around heavy cover, I come away without taking a shot far more times than I squeeze the trigger, but every trip is a learning event with practical field experience being the quintessential teacher.
On a Friday morning the first week in August, I received the latest in a series of such learning experiences.
The first set of the morning came and went without a coyote sighting. But typical for this time of year, within one minute of the e-call beginning its bleating cries, two large does came racing in with thundering hooves on the hard, sun-parched ground in search of the injured fawn. For five minutes they stomped, snorted and darted about trying to discover the injured one’s whereabouts before wandering off in confused dismay. As soon as I would switch to a different bleat tone, here they would come, again. When 30 minutes of the non-coyote producing charade had passed, I gathered up my implements for coyote combat and walked back to the truck.
After a short drive to the other side of the mountain, I parked beside the driveway entrance of another large private land tract that has a membership-only deer hunting program. I shouldered my gear bag, grabbed my rifle, locked the truck and made my way to a nearby vantage point where a buddy and I had recently tried to attract coyotes but had only called in more does.
By the first week of August, native vegetation is high; so are the corn, cotton and soybean crops in my agricultural calling areas, all of which limit my calling to a few hayfields and open woods.
When I left the roadbed and turned uphill, I saw that this was going to be a woods set, just short of my typical overlook vantage point I typically use. The 6-acre hilltop is predominantly large pine. The land manager includes this area in his annual burning program, and because of the density of the mature trees’ canopy, there is very little surface growth that limits visibility or shooting opportunities like the limitations of my usual unshaded calling spots. The slight wind was just right, into my face, as I quietly climbed the grade. Once on top of the shaded, rounded pinnacle, I quickly analyzed my view for potential coyote approach points, wind direction, sun direction, shooting lanes and angles. Then I selected the base of a large, thick-barked pine as a back rest where I unloaded my equipment from the bag.
From my sit site, I selected a spot downhill in a slight draw to my front for the e-call’s location and silently made my way there, being mindful to select the “ON” switch position while doing so. (I get quite aggravated at myself when I get all set up and press “PLAY” on the remote and the e-call does not come on! It is annoying to no end having to get up from the carefully positioned hide, quietly make my way back to the call, turn it on, and return to my hide again, without being discovered by my quarry.)
Once back and seated comfortably, I put on my head-covering and gloves, adjusted my shooting sticks to hold my rifle at a neutral height and visually scanned my operating area one last time before I started the music.
Per usual, the e-call’s distressed bleats broke the muted sounds of the morning. Being that I was in the woods on this set, I wondered to myself how far the cries were travelling. But almost as quickly as I had pressed play, I saw deer at a distance bounding through the high weeds just outside of my wooded area as they raced toward the sounds of a distressed fawn.
Once again, over and over this summer, the same scenario has excited and fascinated me. I have often wondered how close I have crept in on those deer while developing my set. This time the count was four adult does lured to the call.
How can it be that I am in perfect deer habitat, basically a protected herd, and see four mature, adult does in late summer but not a yearling or fawn to be seen? The four did as the others had done at my previous site that morning; they stomped their hooves, snorted and bolted about in short dashes, trying to discover the source of the distressed cries.
Just as quickly as the does had made their way through the briars, tall grass and weeds and into the darkened shade of the wooded round top, I noticed another low, brown figure emerging from the bramble and into the wood’s cover. A coyote! His pointed nose, coal-black eyes and white ears contrasted heavily against his otherwise muted brown body.
He was up the slope some 20 yards from the disturbed does and walking directly toward me, while his attention was downhill toward the deer and the music. Given their quick response time to the distress calls, both species had to have been in close proximity to one another before I began my ruse. Had they been aware of one another’s presence then? How much were they interested in one another’s presence now?
I silently thumbed the safety off and let the crosshairs settle on the coyote. The brilliance of the scope’s ED glass allowed me to marvel in great detail the coyote’s thin and slick summer coat. When the rifle cracked, the coyote bounced, bucked and yelped as life’s air left him. The clueless deer scattered like a flushed covey of quail.
Wow. Start to shot, two minutes. Discipline to be quiet and knowing the wind direction while going in paid dividends yet again.
With the expired coyote lying down the hill from me and the deer evacuated, I slowly worked the bolt to the rear and quietly fingered the case out of the action and placed it in my pocket. Then I smoothly advanced another live cartridge into the chamber. To demonstrate to myself once again that white-tailed does do not know the bleat difference between their kind and that of a pronghorn antelope, I selected the latter on my e-call’s remote and began round two from my effective hide in the pine shade.
While being a similar cadence, the antelope distress is in a higher key, and its cries seemed sharper, crisper in the restored quiet of the early morning. Amazingly, but not totally unpredictable, within seconds of the e-call’s reactivation, those same four adult does were back within 10 yards of the call, with looks of befuddlement on their faces.
Previously, they were not responsive to the coyote’s presence during their moment of concern for the fake fawn’s cries. Even with the dead coyote lying between the call and them, they again seemed to pay it no attention. I was thinking to myself that surely they can see and smell it. Then I heard the familiar soft patter of rapid feet on the leaf litter on the opposite side of the round top from me. Within seconds, out of the corner of my right eye, I glimpsed another coyote racing in, low to the ground, passing within 20 yards of me as if on a string-line to the e-call. There was no time to bark or turn the call off in an attempt to get a shot at a stationary target. This in-bounder was on a beeline, and I was out of time. The same time the coyote’s teeth were about to bite into the e-call, its pointed nose detected my human scent, and the flash of fur bolted into the heavy cover. Instinctively, I barked sharply, but just as fast as it came in, the coyote made it out of my kill zone and into the tall grass at the pine forest’s edge. Rifle still at the ready, I barked again as my eyes were trained on the spot where it disappeared. The next second, it reappeared from mid-neck up, its body obscured by thick grass. That was all I needed, and the crosshairs effortlessly made their way to a point center-neck. The rifle cracked again, and the coyote disappeared from sight. Even then, the four big does remained unalarmed by the shot and the two four-legged, furred parasites with large teeth that lay before them.
Total calling time—four minutes. Two dead coyotes, each came in from different directions. Four adult does with no yearlings or fawns in tow.
My recent field experience has shown more adult does without fawns than those with fawns, generally on properties with high deer populations.
How can that be? Why is it relatively easy to take coyotes on those properties? Like free-swimming sharks of the oceans, our deer now have four-legged parasites, close neighbors that might as well be attached.
Long term, how will our deer adapt to the increasing presence of Mr. Wile E.?
GON has heard numerous anecdotes of rural deer having their fawns right against houses and basically raising the fawns in the yards.
Another biological axiom is that we cannot have one without the other. Like Josey Wales said, “Buzzards and worms got to eat, too…”
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