Tri-State Study Fits 175 Coyotes With GPS Trackers
Coyote study reveals what deer hunters feared most—the dominant thing that coyotes in the Southeast eat is deer.
University of Georgia Wildlife professor Dr. Michael Chamberlain is recognized across the South for his research on the wild turkey and white-tailed deer. Pin him down and he’ll confess that deep in his DNA is also a fascination with coyotes.
In his early days of research, the role of the coyote in the lives of wild turkey and white-tailed deer was pretty much a footnote that focused only on how many of those two species the coyote ate. Years later, it became evident to him that something was missing. He says that gnawing feeling “stuck with me.”
His research that included coyotes began at LSU and moved to northeastern North Carolina in 2009. It was those years in North Carolina studying coyotes that he had realizations. First, previous research on coyotes focused on too small of an area, usually 100 to 150 square miles.
“We had one collared coyote in North Carolina that traveled 385 miles away from where it was collared, so studying what a coyote was doing on a single WMA or national forest was pretty ineffective.”
Secondly, previous research focused on how coyotes affected deer, not on understanding coyotes.
“In our research in North Carolina, we had meetings with the deer hunting community,” he said. “They all wanted to know about coyotes eating fawns and potentially eating adult deer.
“That’s when I realized we’ll never really understand how coyotes affect deer without first understanding the coyotes themselves.”
The University of Georgia professor said those realizations led to the Tri-State Coyote Project.
That project was a cooperative effort funded by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
“We hired professional trappers to capture 175 coyotes across sections of Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina,” he said. “We fitted each coyote with a GPS collar, which relayed their locations to us every few days. We programmed the collars to collect six locations each day so we could understand territory sizes, the habitat used and survival and interactions among coyotes.
“Once collars began sending data, it became clear we had coyotes using large areas.”
The multi-year study shattered many coyote myths. That provided important implications for deer hunters.
One of the discoveries was that in the Southeast, there are two types of coyotes, residents and transients.
“Coyotes are monogamous,” he said. “A male and female pair up, breed and produce pups. They breed once a year and typically produce four, five or six pups. The pups hang around in the summer and the early fall until about October, then the parents aggressively force them out so they can breed again.
“The two resident adults have a home range, and they aggressively defend it. That home range is usually 2 to 5 square miles, but sometimes as much as 15 square miles.
“The pups are forced out of that area and become nomads.”
Dr. Chamberlain says once the pups are forced out, they must find a new range or die. They make big loops and circles looking for their own range being careful not to venture into the urine-marked borders that another breeding pair has declared. He said that search routinely may take the pups on a 50- to 80-square-mile journey.
“Coyotes are territorial,” Dr. Chamberlain said. “Unlike red wolves, they do not live or hunt in packs. You’ll hear people say: ‘I saw a pack of coyotes hunting.’ What they saw was a breeding pair and their pups before the pups were forced out.
“The ranges of coyotes don’t overlap much, or not at all. If a coyote ventures into another coyote’s range, fighting occurs. Transient coyotes must stay out of areas marked by scent. Our radio-collar studies showed that these coyote ranges look like puzzle pieces. The transients stay out of areas with a lot of scent. They must snake their way around looking for their own range.”
The study also revealed that while coyotes prefer to take a mate for life, the death of one of the breeding pair alters things. The study found that if one of the breeding pair dies, another coyote is Johnny-on-the-spot to offer their services.
“We found that another coyote will fill that void in weeks, sometimes days,” he said. “It’s like you never touched them.”
Many landowners believe that trapping and shooting coyotes will rid them of their coyote problems. Is that feasible?
“The short answer to that is no,” Dr. Chamberlain said. “It’s true that if you shoot a coyote, that’s a coyote that will never eat another deer, but there are always transients around to take their place.
“Taking a coyote out just makes you feel better. Taking a coyote off a small tract really doesn’t do anything. To affect the coyote population, you need to have neighbors with thousands of acres of land and all of you need to be on the same page. And you can’t shoot and trap coyotes once and expect any long-term results. You have to do that year after year.”
While it may seem that landowners are fighting a coyote battle that they cannot win, that is not the case, Dr. Chamberlain said. Focusing on habitat improvement and removing coyotes from the property can have a positive result.
“Coyotes survive using their hearing with those big ears, their nose and their eyes,” he said. “They can only see what is front of them. If a coyote can run 300 yards after a deer, they have the advantage.
“Fawns need cover. There is only so much a mother can do for them. Fawns need some escape cover. If a coyote has to take its eyes off of a deer and go around a wall of stuff, it loses the advantage. A deer has a chance. It’s the ability to chase where a coyote has the advantage.
“You can get down on your hand and knees and look at your cover and see what a coyote sees.”
The Tri-State Study revealed what deer hunters feared most. The dominant thing that coyotes eat in the Southeast is deer.
“They eat deer year-round,” the professor said. “They will also eat rabbits, rats and mice. They occasionally eat chickens if chicken houses are around. They eat fruit. They love persimmons. When the persimmons fall, their diet will almost shift entirely to persimmons. They don’t have to chase persimmons.”
During the Tri-State Study, coyote droppings were collected, washed and the scat contents were studied under a microscope.
“The primary thing that they were eating was fawns from April through September,” Dr. Chamberlain said. “Around September, the fawns shed their coats and then you can no longer tell if the scat contains a young deer or an adult deer.
“There was also no way to tell if the deer they were eating was a live deer or a carcass. The data showed that there were some adult deer in their diets. They could have been scavenging, but coyotes are not really scavengers. They cannot consistently depend on car kills, so I think you can throw road-kills out the window.”
What turkey hunters want to know is if turkeys showed up in their diets.
“The loss of adult turkeys to coyotes is not tremendous,” he said. “We do see some nest loss, but it is hard to tell if the nest loss is to coyotes or raccoons as the bite patterns on the eggs are similar.
“What is impossible to measure is our suspicion that coyotes are an indirect predator to turkeys. Coyotes are there. They harass turkeys. They chase them. Turkeys may not have a direct risk of dying, but the coyote’s presence causes them to change the way they behave. Turkeys understand the threat. From a turkey’s perspective, that indirect threat may be just as important.”
History tells us that it took decades and decades for the coyote to migrate from the west to the Mississippi River, but once there, it was like they were shot out of a cannon. Their migration throughout the South was rapid. Why was the South to their liking?
“For years, the red wolf was the dominant dog in the South,” Dr. Chamberlain said. “People started removing the wolf and the coyote filled the void. The coyote’s diet was broader than the wolf’s diet, and they had little competition.
“The coyote finally made it to the Mississippi River in the 1950s, but they made it all the way to the Atlantic Ocean by the 1990s. They moved into the Southeast in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s at the same time that the deer populations exploded. They found interstate corridors and landscapes that made it possible for them to move around easily.
“The bottom line is that they basically filled the niche left by the red wolf which ate deer. They are the top dog now. They found habitat that maximizes their encounters with deer. They can take down an adult deer or a lot of fawns and still maintain a small home range. That makes sense because that saves energy.”
Dr. Chamberlain was asked that now that the specifics of a coyote’s territory are better understood, as is how they defend their territory, have parts of the South reached a saturation point on coyotes?
“Some areas have reached saturation,” he said. “On a broader scale, coyote populations at any point on the map are declining or increasing depending on how the landscape is changing.”
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