If you've noticed a crescendo in the eerie choruses of coyotes lately, you're not the only one. Officials from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, local farmers and area residents said Monday they have been hearing — and seeing — the animals more than ever.
“I hear them constantly,” said Lester Bourke, who owns Dirty Girl Farm in Andes. “It used to be that you'd only hear them at night, but lately I've been hearing them during the day, too. As early as 4 in the afternoon. It definitely seems like they're on the increase.”
Bourke said he has also seen more coyote droppings than usual around his home and driveway. However, because he takes special precautions to protect his goats with fencing, Bourke has not had any problems with coyotes killing any of his animals this year, he said.
Mike Clark, a fur-bearer biologist with the DEC, said the increase in coyote vocalization and sightings is common this time of year. The majority of coyote sightings happens from late summer through early fall, when coyotes are most numerous and highly vocal, he said. Coyotes are most often seen alone or in small groups of up to six coyotes.
“Right now, they're feeding multiple mouths, so they're trying to get a lot of food for their pups,” Clark said.
Coyotes are related to wolves but are lighter and smaller, according to the DEC. They have long tails, which are usually carried down, and range in color from gray to reddish blonde to tan to black. Legs, ears and cheeks are usually reddish in color and many coyotes have a white chin and a dark spot just below the base of the tail. Their ears are erect and pointed.
This summer, there were about 14,500 breeding pairs of coyotes in New York, according to the DEC.
The recent increase in sightings is partially attributable to coyotes' increasing populations during the past few decades and also because of the coyote's ability to adapt to almost any environment, including areas of human development, Clark said.
“There have been coyotes in Central Park in New York City,” Clark said. “They're extremely adaptable. If there is enough room for them to hide and food to live on, they will absolutely settle in suburban neighborhoods.”
Lt. Douglas Brenner of the Oneonta Police Department said he remembers seeing a coyote in the city several years ago but has not seen or heard any lately.
Clark said one of his jobs is to keep track of local coyote "incidents." Most of the time, reports consist of someone calling and saying 'I saw a coyote in my yard, what should I do?' Sometimes, a report calls for a site walk-through, such as when Clark recently visited a Fly Creek home because the homeowner had seen several coyotes and was getting nervous, he said.
Although their presence and mournful voices may be nerve-racking, most coyotes avoid interaction with people, Clark said. They are naturally afraid of humans.
However, because they are related to wolves, coyotes are commonly misunderstood, Clark said. They are not as dangerous as they are made out to be, and sightings are not necessarily evidence of dangerous behavior, he added.
“Many people think seeing one in the backyard deems it must be destroyed,” Clark said. “People overestimate them,” Clark said. “Coyotes are fairly small animals, only about 35 to 45 pounds."
Coyotes are omnivores and commonly eat mice, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits and deer. But they are also highly adaptable and resourceful, Clark said. When seen by suburban residents, it's most often because the animal has spotted an opportunity for food, such as cat food or dog food left outdoors, bird seed, compost or garbage.
"Like most other animals, they're just looking for their next meal," Clark said.
The problem comes when that meal is someone's pet or farm animal, Clark said. Sheep, calves, chickens and ducks commonly fall prey to coyotes.
Kelly Morrissey, who lives outside Oneonta near Goodyear Lake, said she frequently hears the howls and high-pitched yelps of coyotes and sees the evidence of their presence, including carcasses.
“It makes going out for a walk just a little bit unnerving,” Morrissey said.
Morrissey has seen coyotes in her backyard, she said, and her neighbors have lost several outdoor cats because a coyote found them.
Cats are more frequently the prey, but small dogs can fall victim to a hungry coyote, as well. More often, a coyote will come after a dog if it feels threatened because both creatures are territorial, Clark said. He suggested keeping pets indoors at sunset and overnight in rural areas.
Tom Warren, who owns Stone & Thistle Farm in East Meredith, said he has five dogs to keep coyotes away from the sheep, goats, chickens and turkeys on his farm.
"Prior to using the dogs, we did have trouble with coyotes," Warren said.
Bourke said a fellow farmer in Andes, David Burris of Argyle Farms, has had “a lot of trouble” with coyotes killing his sheep lately. According to Bourke, Burris has had to kill 22 coyotes recently to keep his sheep safe. Burris was unavailable for comment Monday.
Burris is one of 30,000 New Yorkers who participate in coyote hunting each year, according to the DEC's website. Opening day for coyote season is Wednesday, Clark said. A small-game hunting license is required, but individuals are not required to report a coyote harvest and there are no limits to how many coyotes can be harvested. The end of the season is March 29.
The Environmental Conservation Law allows 'problem coyotes,' such as the ones on Argyle Farm, to be killed at other times of the year, Clark said. Coyotes that are "injuring private property may be taken by the owner, occupant or lessee ... at any time in any manner," according to the law.
Trapping coyotes is also popular, Clark said. More than 3,000 New Yorkers participate in coyote trapping, according to the DEC. All of upstate New York is open for coyote trapping from Oct. 25 until Feb. 15 and a trapping license is required, Clark said. Coyote pelts are “very popular” and are often used for trim on jackets and hoods, he added.
If you're bothered by the presence of coyotes, the easiest solution is to remove any unintentional food sources around your house, including bird feeders, pet food and garbage bags, Clark said. Without a food source, the coyote will likely leave, he said. If you are still uncomfortable, call your regional DEC office, Clark said. The DEC's Stamford Wildlife Office can be reached at 652-7367.
If you have pets and small children, it's also a good idea to fence in your yard, just to be safe, Clark advised. The fence should be tight to the ground, at least 4 feet high and buried at least 6 inches. Removing brush and tall grass from property also discourages the presence coyotes by reducing protective cover.
In the slim chance that a coyote approaches you, be aggressive in your behavior, Clark said. Stand up tall, hold your arms out to appear larger and make loud noises; this kind of activity helps maintain the fear coyotes have of humans, he said.