Coyotes often heard, rarely seen



“The Moon on the breast of the new fallen snow, gave a luster of mid-day to the objects below…” These words came suddenly into my mind as I looked out of my window Sunday night and noticed the beautiful, snowy scene in my woods. I would like to have seen a coyote strolling by. I sometimes do hear them howling their territorial songs when they are in my neighborhood, but I rarely see one. Their range in the winter covers many miles.

The presence of coyotes is welcomed by some and feared and misunderstood by others. Actually, the coyote is no real threat to the deer population and is a big help in natural population control. There are no other large predators here on Mount Desert Island, and since hunting is restricted in many areas, coyotes play an important role in trying to keep the deer herd in balance. They are opportunists in their choice of food and will eat a variety of dead and living animals, as well as some berries and insects. They try to avoid humans.

Coyotes first appeared in Maine in the 1940s, but it was not until the 1980s that documented sightings were confirmed here on MDI. Their territorial howlings can now be heard at times anywhere on this island. I really enjoy the sound. The resident wolves at the Kisma Preserve in Trenton readily break into a group howl when the fire sirens or police sirens on Route 3 sound either day or night. Even domestic dogs sometimes join in the chorus, like some ancient, ancestral ritual.

A bird feeder provides great entertainment for anyone on this island. Birds gradually find it and make it a regular feeding place. Because it is a feeding area where birds concentrate in numbers, it also becomes a good place for hawks and any other predator looking for food. A friend in Southwest Harbor saw a goshawk swoop into her feeding area this past week and grab a duck. She regularly puts out duck food, thus creating a handy, “gourmet feeding area” for such a bird. Unnatural gatherings of birds at any type of feeder create an opportunity for any hungry bird or mammal to grab an easy meal.

Goshawks are large hawks living here year round. This large, fierce accipiter nests in the woods of MDI and lives in dense woodland on both sides of the island. It is a solitary hunter, and the birds at your feeder instinctively know to hide from this bird and try to avoid being caught. A slow individual, for whatever reason, will then be the hawk’s lunch. Goshawks frequently take ruffed grouse, some smaller birds, hares and squirrels. Goshawks are only aggressive around their nests, so if one of these birds screeches at you in the woods some spring day, take yourself away from the area. Their warnings are loud squealing and cackling sounds, so there’s no doubt that the birds wants you to leave.

It is also quite possible to see a visiting gyrfalcon this month. This large falcon is 22 inches in length, as compared to the goshawk’s 21 inches. Ravens are 24 inches long, and crows are 18 inches long, just to give you some size comparisons. Sometimes, immature gyrfalcons come down from Canada and into this area in the winter. They are impressive birds to see with their heavy bodies and wide wings. They have a general look of fierceness and power. Gyrfalcons breed in the high Arctic and south to Labrador and Quebec. Their method of hunting is to catch a bird in mid-air.

Frigid winds and swirling snows keep many of us indoors this month and others revel in the sports available and being outside. Birds and mammals still abroad outside in fields and forests battle the elements to stay alive. The small chickadees, so beloved by many, seem to enjoy a good snow storm, and tiny kinglets feed unconcernedly in the pine branches groaning beneath heavy snow.

Shrews hunt even in sub-zero weather, for no matter what time of year it is, they must eat continuously in order to survive. Because of the shrew’s secret habits and its small size, they are not usually seen unless a cat kills one and brings it home. Shrews are very beneficial in their ability to catch mice and are superior to cats in doing this.

The shrew has an added advantage in hunting, for it can go anywhere a mouse can go. Shrews are mouse-like mammals with long pointed snouts, short legs and tiny eyes hidden in short, thick, soft and velvety fur. On Mount Desert Island, four shrews are found; the masked shrew, the northern water shrew, the pigmy shrew and the short-tailed shrew.

The pigmy shrew is one of the smallest mammals in the world, weighing only two ounces. They are reddish brown or grayish brown above and smoky gray below. These little mammals spend much of their time under old stumps and rotting logs, among the ground litter of sedges and ferns, and in heavy spruces and pine areas bordering the water. They are fast moving, and when excited, they give off a powerful musk. Shrews are active year round. You may only get a glimpse of them now and then, but they are welcome neighbors to have.

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Columnist
Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.
Ruth Grierson

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