This young coyote was seen in a Town Hill back yard bordering the woods the winter of 2018. Coyotes live in family groups which vary in size, since coyotes can have up to 12 pups, according to Shevenell Webb, a biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Coyotes are more often heard than seen. “Their natural instinct is to avoid people,” Webb said. PHOTO COURTESY OF EMMA BRODEUR

The call of the wild: Coyotes on MDI

BAR HARBOR — They might be the most vocal of animals on Mount Desert Island.

Known to wake residents up out of a sound sleep, their chorus of howls can be heard at night, and sometimes even during the day. For animals so loud however, they make themselves elusive.

“I can hear them at night sometimes,” said Town Hill resident Amy Van Meteren. “Even when it wakes me up, I kind of like it. It sounds like this symphony, a celebration, like they’re so happy. It’s kind of a weird, scary sound too.”

Van Meteren is talking about the coyotes that live in the woods of Town Hill. These common animals are often heard and sometimes seen on every corner of Mount Desert Island. As a species they’ve been here for almost 40 years, according to Acadia National Park Wildlife biologist Bik Wheeler.

“They were first confirmed in February of 1981 near Sand Point in the Salsbury Cove area,” Wheeler said. “Tracks were found, and then confirmed.” Because of the location, Wheeler said, coyotes either came across the bridge, or across ice near the head of the island. “They can travel a long way at night,” Wheeler said. From then on, the coyote population expanded and spread across the island.

From 1988 to 1994, park naturalists conducted population and territory studies by tracking coyotes with collars, according to Wheeler. Typical coyote ranges on the island were comparable to elsewhere in the state, he said. Coyote home ranges are variable according to what food is available, but can be up to 50 square kilometers.

By the end of the study, naturalists confirmed six coyote territories extending over the whole island, while avoiding “the more urban areas,” Wheeler said.

“Since then,” Wheeler noted, “we’ve had reports of [coyotes] being seen in every nook and cranny.”

Eastward bound

When coyotes arrived on Mount Desert Island in 1981, it was toward the end of a long eastward expansion of the species, from the North American deserts and prairies to the east coast and everywhere in between.

“Coyotes have an interesting story,” said Shevenell Webb, a biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. When wolves were nearly eliminated from all of their former range in the lower 48 states, “this allowed coyotes to expand their range,” Webb said. They began moving east.

As they did so, coyotes bred with wolves around the Great Lakes, whose populations were dwindling. “Wolves and coyotes and dogs can all interbreed,” Webb explained.

The first reports of coyotes in Maine came in the 1930s. By the 1960s, reports were more frequent. “People didn’t know what they were,” Webb said. Along the way from the prairies to the east coast, coyotes had changed.

The addition of wolf DNA to the gene pool made coyotes larger. Eastern coyotes average 35 pounds, Webb said, as compared to western coyotes at 25 pounds. “They kind of evolved to take larger prey,” Webb said, “partially filling the niche” of top predator left vacant by wolves.

Flocking together, turkeys intimidate a single young coyote in Town Hill one February morning. According to Shevenell Webb of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, coyotes are omnivores and will supplement their diet of nuts and berries with hunting and eating carrion. A coyote will hunt alone when pursuing small prey such a grouse or snowshoe hare. Larger prey such as deer are hunted in groups. PHOTO COURTESY OF AMY VAN METEREN

“Wolves are a lot bigger and can take down larger prey like moose.” Coyotes, on the other hand, will “take down prey between a moose and a mouse,” Webb explained. “They can switch to whatever [food] is available. If there’s a lot of snowshoe hares, they’ll eat a lot of that.” They also commonly eat turkey and grouse. Beech nuts and acorns can be foraged in the fall. Winter is a good time for finding carrion and teaming together to hunt full-gown deer. Coyotes hunt fawns in the spring and summer, Webb said.

Unlike wolves, coyotes’ diverse diet and ability to adapt allow them to thrive, even when living close to people. “They’re really able to take advantage of a variety of habitats. They thrive in northern Maine, and in some pretty urban areas,” Webb said. “We have family groups of coyotes living in New York City and Chicago.”

Webb once participated in a radio-collar study of coyotes in urban areas, and said they were able to avoid people by being active when most people were sleeping. Radio-collared coyotes would carry on their business foraging and hunting small game, avoiding human activity and looking both ways before crossing a road, Webb said.

Living with coyotes

“Coyotes tend to keep their distance, and it’s uncommon for coyotes to approach people. They tend to be fearful of people,” said Webb. But having food around can draw coyotes into peoples’ yards, she said.

“Never feed or approach wildlife,” Webb advised. “Try to animal-proof your garbage and compost. If there’s a food source in your yard and they find it, they’ll be back.”

Food sources could even include small domestic animals, Webb noted. “Put away chickens at night. Put up electric fencing for livestock.”

As for cats and small dogs, Webb warned, “Small pets are more vulnerable to predation: keep a watch on small pets.” Dawn, dusk, and overnight hours are when most predators are active, Webb said, and coyotes are only “one of many predators” in the Maine woods who would prey on a small domestic animal.

Wheeler recommended keeping dogs on leashes, which is required in the park, but always good practice to avoid possible interactions with wildlife. “Coyotes will stay away from a dog on a leash,” he noted. “We haven’t had anything like an interaction between coyotes and domestic animals in the park that we know of,” even though coyotes are common in the park.

“We get reports of people seeing coyotes from time to time,” Wheeler said. “Mostly reports of tracks or scat. But there are a few lucky folks who actually get a good sighting.”

He cautioned that people need to keep a safe distance when viewing any wildlife. “The rule we tend to tell people: if you’re impacting the animal’s behavior, then you can be sure you’re too close.” If animals are far enough away “that they’re enjoying themselves,” Wheeler said, then it’s safe to stay and watch them from that distance.

Most people never see them, but hear them. If it sounds like coyotes are getting louder, they are, but that could be explained by the season. Coyote mating season is late January through February, according to Webb, with pups being born in the spring.


Becky Pritchard
Former Islander reporter Becky Pritchard covered the town of Bar Harbor and was a park ranger in Acadia for six seasons.
Becky Pritchard

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One comment
  1. AffiliateLabz

    February 21, 2020 at 3:36 am

    Great content! Super high-quality! Keep it up! 🙂


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