HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. - The other morning not too long after daybreak I was out checking fences when I startled a red-tailed hawk feeding on the ground in my neighbor's field. When I got a little closer I saw the hawk had been eating the remains of a sheep.
The sheep hadn't been slashed and worried to death, and then abandoned. It had been consumed, leaving only scraps for the hawk, and for the buzzards that would be along later. Most pasture-killed sheep in Maryland are done in by dogs, killing for fun. I knew right away that this was the work of a coyote, killing for food.
Josh Sandt, an upland wildlife specialist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, says that coyotes have been seen occasionally in Maryland for more than 20 years. But I had never heard of them around here until Dan Curry over on Cooley Mill Road the other side of Level trapped one three or four years ago.
Now, as was probably inevitable, they're becoming part of our local landscape. Last spring a female was seen with a litter of pups. A friend of mine, in a tree bowhunting for deer on my place, saw two adults this fall close enough to be certain what he was looking at. And a couple of weeks ago, on a spooky-looking night with a bright moon and patches of drifting fog, I heard coyotes howling.
On the whole, I was pleased to have them around. They eat groundhogs, a public-spirited activity, and seem to have slightly reduced the deer population, which in my view is also commendable.
Whether they have killed deer or just intimidated them I don't know, but I had significantly less deer damage this year to my corn and alfalfa. Mr. Sandt of the Department of Natural Resources says that in parts of the Midwest, coyotes, by picking off fawns, have made real inroads in the fast-breeding deer population, which otherwise has no enemies except humans. Deer are thick hereabouts, and I told my deer-hunting friends that when in my woods they shouldn't even think about shooting a coyote.
That was before I saw Gina and Terry Stancill's coyote-killed sheep, and before I learned that other sheep had been killed in the neighborhood. Sheep, which suit the kind of part-time farming popular in the farther suburbs, are on the increase in Maryland. The sheep-raisers are not as pleased as I had been about the advent of Mr. Coyote.
All this raises some knotty philosophical and, perhaps, political questions. We don't need to encourage Mr. Coyote; he'll do fine without our encouragement. But do we want to be neutral toward him, or try to run him out? And if the latter, how to go about it?
Out west, he's clearly Canis non grata. There's a bounty on his head, and he's poisoned, trapped, shot and hunted with dogs. But he flourishes anyway. The Maryland General Assembly, if pressured by the sheep lobby, might pass coyote-control laws, but there's no reason to believe they'd be any more effective than Wyoming's.
Personally, I'm torn. The environmentalist in me says the coyote is moving into a niche in Maryland where a predator is needed, and he ought to be left alone for a while to see what happens. But the cattleman in me looks ahead to February, when my calves will start coming, and wonders if they won't be mighty vulnerable out there in that hilly pasture field that backs up to the woods.
A bird magazine I read touched off quite a ruckus this year by printing a photograph of a blacksnake gobbling up a nest of baby birds, robins as I recall. Some readers canceled their subscription. Others demanded to know how the photographer could have stood by while such an outrage was occurring. A few made tentative comments about the harsh realities of Nature, red in tooth and claw.
The plain fact is, Nature is pretty bloody, and some of her most wondrous creatures -- I'm not referring to Homo sapiens -- are the bloodiest. Tyrannosaurus Rex and the sabertooth are gone, the lions and grizzlies are going, but plenty of smaller killers remain, and what they do day in and day out is cruel, uncouth, and possibly illegal.
Ever see a sharp-shin hawk knock down and eat a cardinal? Not pretty, but efficient and beautiful. A world without sharp-shins would be a lesser world. And by the same token, a countryside with coyotes in it is a richer place than one without.
In Indian legend, Coyote was a savvy and engaging trickster, though occasionally -- like that other trickster, Brer Rabbit -- too smart for his own good. But even when he got himself in deep trouble, he always managed to get out. And he still does. That's how he's managed to populate most of the United States, even congested little places like Maryland.
I guess, if he goes on killing sheep in my neighborhood, I'll tell the deer hunters that if they get him in their sights they can shoot. And when the calves start coming this winter I might carry a gun in the truck. But if I get a chance to use it, I just might not do so. It all depends.
Note: Two weeks ago, a column of mine referred to my seeing ''scooters'' on the Chesapeake. Typographical error. Believe it or not, I can tell a scooter from a scoter, as well as a hawk from a handsaw.
Peter A. Jay's column appears on alternate Mondays.