WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
It happens every summer, a coyote is noticed for a fleeting moment in Oakland County and suddenly neighborhood Facebook chat groups explode with sensationalized reports of a coyote that is “lurking” about.
Words have power. “A deer was lurking in the woods and watching me” would be a laughable sentence. But when it comes to coyote sightings, “lurking” seems to be a word that makes its way into a descriptive sentence. Coyotes don’t lurk. They watch. They listen. They sniff. They observe. They act. And they respond to human behavior.
It is natural to have apprehension about, or fear of, what we do not understand. But all too often, when it comes to the eastern coyote, many people act and thrive on manufactured fear and irrational hatred without even trying to understand the witnessed behavior. One thing is certain; coyotes in wilderness areas and coyotes in developed areas, such as Oakland County, are learning from and adapting to our behavior far more quickly than we even try to understand their behavior. That should not surprise us, for coyotes are highly intelligent and possess great curiosity that is tempered by caution. Our worlds overlap.
With those thoughts in mind, and the reminder of the power of that single word “lurking,” I’m sharing the story, that will perhaps set minds at ease, of a coyote I came to know well. He is the coyote pictured in all of the accompanying images. They were all captured in late May and the month of June on South Manitou Island, a wilderness gem of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I just returned a few days ago from a 40 day tour of duty as the National Park Service’s volunteer lighthouse keeper and almost always had my camera with me as I meandered about the trails, climbed 100 feet up to the catwalk of the 1871 lighthouse tower or traversed across the windswept perched dunes on the island’s western shore. The entire island is coyote habitat. Oakland County is also coyote habitat. Coyote habitat is found in every county in Michigan.
I saw that coyote at relatively close range more than a dozen times, and on a few occasions we were just separated by about 30 feet. Some of the encounters were during the day, others towards dusk. I am certain, based on tracks observed in the sand, that he saw me many more times than I saw him, without me being aware of his presence. I am also convinced he came to know my behavior very well because we shared the same surroundings and our paths crossed frequently as I was living in his hunting and foraging habitat. The coyote was never lurking, but simply going about his daily routine, just as I was.
Naming wildlife is not something I typically do, but I initially referred to the coyote as the “breakwall coyote,” for the majority of our crossing path encounters occurred at or within a few hundred feet of the breakwall that protects the 1871 lighthouse tower from storms and rising waters on the Manitou Passage.
The most dramatic encounter – which I will always cherish – occurred early one morning while I sat on the steps to the entrance of the lighthouse. I was casually watching the Herring Gulls that build their nests on the breakwall. Suddenly, the gulls sounded alarm calls and took flight as a female Common Merganser paddled away from the breakwall. My assumption was a Bald Eagle flew overhead or people were approaching for a tour of the lighthouse and perhaps walking on the breakwall. I was wrong.
Seconds later, the coyote emerged from the water side of the breakwall and climbed up to the closest gull nest. With what seemed like an extraordinary amount of care, he took an egg in his mouth. He spotted me as I raised my camera, gave me a passing glance and trotted down to the end of the breakwall and then into the woods to enjoy his breakfast treat. I was delighted at his slow retreat, for it told me that he did not consider me a threat, but just a human to be wary and watchful of when it was time for a morning omelet.
Several days later while up on the catwalk, I watched him emerge from the woods, pause, look about, sniff the air and then proceed to the water’s edge to scrounge about for alewives that had washed ashore during a stormy night. He kept glancing upwards at the catwalk. I presume he noted my movement and perhaps thought to himself, “He’s lurking about again.” I have no doubt that just as I came to recognize him by his behavior, gait, and rather thick coat, he recognized me by my behavior, my attire, my scent and my daily routine, for if other humans came near he would do his vanishing act.
I believe that coyote practiced situational awareness of intruder humans and realized I was not a clear and present danger, just someone to be watchful of when he went about his routine of foraging for berries, eating gull eggs, hunting snowshoe hares or just “patrolling” and scent-marking his territory.
I always respected the fact that the “breakwall coyote” is a wild animal, but one windy day while walking down the remnants of what was once a road during the late 1800s, the era of sailing ships and steamers coming into the harbor, that coyote and I almost met on a curve. That encounter left me smiling. We spotted each other at the same moment. He rapidly moved way off to the side and climbed a small bluff, but continued his purposeful walk, passing me about 40 feet away. We both turned back to look at each other at the same time. From that moment on, the “breakwall coyote” became “brother coyote” to me.
Occasionally, in the closing days of June, I would notice him when he was in the foredunes hunting for wild strawberries. Yes, strawberries; and I did the same. His scat confirmed that observation. Coyotes are omnivorous creatures and South Manitou provides many seasonal treats in addition to the abundance of Herring Gull eggs, chipmunks and snowshoe hares. I tried to understand “my” coyote’s behavior and wanderings and reached the point where I could easily differentiate him from others I had fleeting glimpses of on several occasions while hiking the high dunes or walking the shore at sunrise. I emphasize that point since no two coyotes behave exactly the same and they are territorial creatures. In the world of nature there are few certainties, but I am certain that “brother coyote,” whom I first encountered last summer during that long term island stay, came to know my behavior rather well and did not look at me as a threat, just a human to be wary of.
Although my official role with the National Park Service was as lighthouse keeper, I often morphed into “the nature guy” when day visitors and campers tossed wildlife questions my way. I shared some of the coyote encounter details with island visitors who heard coyote yips at night or on rare occasions had a fleeting glimpse of the coyotes of South Manitou. Most were delighted to know that coyotes lived on the island; a few expressed concern, and that’s when I slipped into my educator role, and preached coexistence.
I made a habit of asking visitors to the lighthouse where they came from and a found a surprisingly large number were from Oakland County; some shared their wildlife encounter tales with me. The conversation often started when they inquired about tracks on the shore that “look like dog tracks.” I mentioned that dogs are not permitted on the island for many reasons and even the presence of a single dog living on the island would alter coyote behavior in response to the canine intruder. With a constant presence of even a single dog, the possibility of territorial conflict soars and even more seriously, just one dog coming onto the island as a human companion could introduce ticks that are not native to the region, as well as diseases not present on the island that could threaten the lives of the coyotes, a keystone species of the islands.
If you have read along this far, it’s time to reemphasize that coyotes do not lurk on South Manitou Island – or in Oakland County. Coexistence is very easy by practicing common sense and being aware of the diversity of wildlife in a given area. Coyotes are not picky eaters and their opportunist feeding behavior allows them to not only survive, but thrive on wilderness areas such as South Manitou and in urban–suburban areas such as the parks, neighborhoods and even cities of Oakland County.
Coyote sightings increase in Oakland County in summer because we are out and about more now, and sometimes as a direct result of humans providing a food source, intentionally or accidentally. Rumors of “packs of coyotes” roaming Oakland County are unfounded and most likely are based on a coyote or two paying repeat visits to an easy to find food source such as fallen tree fruits, an overflowing bird feeder that attracts mice and rabbits, or even the scent of a compost pile or pet food left outside.
Facts overcome fear and make coexistence easy. Two organizations I have communicated with have excellent detailed information on coexisting with coyotes, as well as ways to keep coyotes wild and away from a property. For facts, not fiction, about coyote behavior, explore the websites of Project Coyote and Coyote Watch Canada. And just perhaps the next time you hike a trail in Oakland County and have a chance sighting of a coyote, you will come home with a good story to share and not report a lurking coyote with fear-mongering content akin to the fable of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf.
Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.