Unspoken accord with the coyotes

  • Scottish Highlander mothers will protect their babies from predators, like coyotes. Courtesy of Carole Soule

For the Monitor
Friday, March 03, 2017

After more than two hours in the woods searching for the lost calf, we all stopped. In that spot, the smell of death was overwhelming. The calf had been here, but it was obvious he was gone forever. Later, I realized I was smelling blood-soaked ground.

We were in the forest, just 50 feet from the edge of a Miles Smith Farm fenced pasture. I could see the cows grazing and hear their mooing. I’d seen this silver calf a few days earlier, just after he was born. He ran off across the field as I approached. In the time I took to get my ATV to follow him, he was out of sight. Completely invisible. I had been waiting for nine months for this cow to have her calf and now he had vanished. Usually, when calves run off they eventually come back to their mothers. The mother moos if she can’t find her calf, and the calf will return to nurse. We usually move a mother and her new calf into a pen near the house to observe them, but we didn’t find this calf until it was too late.

My biggest concern was coyotes. A pack lives in the woods that border the farm. Howling occasionally pierces the quiet of the night. I’m told sometimes the howling is just between two adults talking to each other but it sure sounds like a pack of 20 coyotes singing just feet from my window. It’s eerie and scary. I would not want to be in the woods when the howling begins.

The newborn runaway calf apparently decided to lie down, in what he thought, was the safety of the forest, within sight and hearing of his mom. What a bad mistake.

Calves will lie down next to trees or stonewalls and, to the human eye, become invisible. The coyote has a strong sense of smell and what is invisible to people can be dinner for the coyote.

Coyotes eat what is available which is typically insects, berries, rodents, sometimes sick deer or newborn fawns. Yet even though more than 200 calves have been born on the farm in 15 years, this was the first calf killed by coyotes.

I’ve lost more calves to “fly strike” caused by the common fly than to coyotes, making flies more dangerous than coyotes to my herd of beef cattle.

Because we’ve lost so few calves to coyotes, I like to think we have a truce with them. If the calves stay with their mothers in the fenced field they are safe. If they wander into the nearby woods, coyote territory, they are fair game.

A farmer friend of mine watched a female coyote chase rodents that were hiding in his cornfield. Rather than shoot the female, he let her be. His thinking was that this coyote was helping him rid his corn patch of mice and rats. She would raise litters of young who also would hunt rodents and not his calves. If he killed this female who knows, maybe a calf killing coyote would take her place.

I feel the same way. I can live with the local coyote pack if they continue to follow an unwritten treaty. Leave my calves alone, and we can live in peace. If a coyote comes into my pasture to take a calf, then the treaty is broken and that coyote is fair game. Of course, any coyote would have to deal with an angry mother cow. My cattle, with their long horns, can be very aggressive towards attacking coyotes.

While the coyotes obey the rules, we’ll live in harmony. I’ll do my best to keep newborn calves out of the forest, but if they do wander into the woods I can only hope on that night the coyotes are elsewhere and the calf will live another day.