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March 01. 2014 12:32AM

Life and death in the New Hampshire woods: Deer carcass feeds coyotes and their fetal pups


 


A motion-activated camera strapped to a tree and focused on a deer carcass beneath the snow captured this ghostly image of a nocturnal visit by a large Eastern coyote. (Garrett Evans)

We first discovered the deer carcass simply by listening.

A raucous chorus of crows and a few smaller blue jays seemed suspicious. The scavenging "meat birds" flocked to pasture's-edge trees, circling on tilted wings to the natural funnel at the bottom of a steep, south-facing hemlock ravine located a mere hundred yards from the house.

The noisy scavengers, we knew, were harbingers of a meat source in snowy woods otherwise devoid of food.

CSI South Sutton

As expected, we found a freshly killed white-tailed deer - disemboweled, with entrails and spine pulled free of dangling legs, its neck and head still intact. A short walk uphill led to a half-dozen feeding platforms packed in the snow, each flecked with blood and bits of meat, hide and hair. Nearby, the discarded rumen sack contained the deer's last meal. A cud of partially digested tree bark and sapling buds looked as foreign as grass clippings spilled on the snow.

The coyote pack fed first on the liver, heart and other vital organs while leaving the gall bladder. It cleaned the deer's spine and ribs of meat, leaving the neck and legs for later, just as we might eat a lobster: choice tail and claws first. The hide was peeled back from the carcass. The back haunches had been pulled free of the hips, dragged uphill and carried off into the forest.

Trees at the perimeter of the coyotes' nocturnal dining room were marked with bright yellow urine - territorial claim and clear warning to interlopers. By day, crows and jays left wing prints while scattering bits of nutritious frozen venison. The coyotes were not happy to share their kill. The race had begun to dismember and move the deer carcass uphill into the jumble of ledges and boulders overlooking the Lane River valley.

Annual travel patterns

The steep ledges and talus boulders overlooking the forest of oak and hemlock are ruled by a pack of coyotes that howl - often startlingly nearby and always unexpectedly - from beyond the cultivated fringes of our small tree farm.

Deer highways are re-established every winter where a brook exits the woods and crosses beneath the dirt road, emerging into a wide alder swale and meadow at the edge of a larger wetland.

Stone walls and a former fenced sheep pen constrict wildlife travel nightly. The open barway in a stone wall at the edge of the road had made a perfect spot for a coyote ambush. Coyotes are cunning in using natural ambush sites for driving deer into cornered positions for a group kill. It's happened very nearby before - perhaps for decades.

We hear coyotes howling more frequently over the course of winter as deer weaken in the deep snow and as the late-February coyote breeding season arrives. The tracks and signs in the snow become easier to read with more intimate knowledge of our local topography.

The deer move laterally across the hill randomly but tend to ascend and descend in the wooded corridors between adjacent fields and houses. Coyotes drive deer uphill into ambush positions where steep terrain slows the prey and hinders escape from pursuing hunters as other coyotes wait at the base of the ledges or bottlenecks where trails converge.

Caught on camera

My neighbor Garrett Evans shared stunning wildlife images he captured using remote game cameras. I had asked him to attempt to capture a portrait of the successful coyotes.

The deer carcass was going fast by the time Garrett strapped two infrared cameras with cable locks to trees at the ambush site. One focused on the carcass, the other on the wider angle of approach. The likely path coyotes would follow would have them moving the meat uphill, away from the road.

Feeding visits abruptly stopped for several very cold nights, curtailed by human scent after we initially visited the carcass. Then the coyote visits accelerated while we avoided the area entirely after a heavy snowfall.

Cyclical food chain

Cute coyote pups conceived during the late-February breeding season will be born in April. The pups are now growing and developing in utero from the protein and fat of winter deer kills. We mourn the deer and malign coyotes. Until the "awww" moment when pups appear. Why coo at a photo of cute coyote pups in a den without acknowledging they are born of venison?

Naturally skilled predators, they one day will pursue the fawns born to surviving does in June. The recurrent annual drama of coyotes hunting deer is writ large in our forests, the New Hampshire version of hyenas hunting gazelles.

Our human predecessors might have gladly taken a share of the meat we found - alerted by crows to the largess. Perhaps native trappers would have set snares to obtain coyote pelts when the predators returned to claim the balance of a deer kill. We're insulated from the realities of "survival of the fittest." Our status as alpha-predator is blurred by the convenience of the supermarket butcher shop. Meat gives life to many and brings death to others. This is business as usual in the winter woods. Coyote-deer dramas illustrate an ancient and elegant local food chain.

Despite following tracks and finding kill sites and scat, I've never caught even a fleeting glimpse of a coyote while I was on foot. They're ghosts inhabiting our shared landscape. I know they follow my scent and perhaps have even watched me on snowshoes on winter nights walking in the pool of blue halogen light from a headlamp. Often I squint into the dark woods and coil in anticipation of their wild, celebratory howling on winter nights.

"Forest Journal" appears every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Naturalist Dave Anderson is director of Education and Volunteer Services for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Email him at danderson@forestsociety.org or through the Forest Society Web site, forestsociety.org.


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