Where the Coyotes Howl, and the Tide Flows Free

March 17, 1993|By ANNE STINSON

EASTON — Oh, give me a home,

Where the watermen roam,

Where the crabs and the

Coyotes play . . . Easton.--It has a nice ring to it, if you can get past the lyrics. Coyotes? In Talbot County?

Somehow it doesn't surprise me. I knew no good would come of putting up ranch houses in our tidewater terrain, where there's not a real ranch closer than Texas.

They're here. Ranch houses and coyotes.

It's not that coyotes have never been in these parts. But until recently they haven't been here since prehistoric times. The only evidence of coyotes' residence on the Eastern Shore is in fossil remains. When Captain John Smith sailed up the Bay to check out the real estate there hadn't been a coyote around for a millennium.

Wolves? You betcha. The land was covered with dense forests when the English settlers arrived. That's prime wolf country. As late as the 19th century wolves roamed the mountains of western Maryland, although they had been exterminated or driven out of the Eastern Shore.

Meshach Browning's ''Forty-four Years of the Life of a Hunter'' describes his methods of hunting wolves in what is now Garrett County from 1795 to 1839. Browning was a formidable hunter of deer, bears, panthers, catamounts and wildcats, as well as small game and turkeys. (I have been unable, incidentally, to discover Browning's distinction between panthers and catamounts, which most dictionaries define as synonyms for mountain lions.)

Knowledgeable as he was about native game, Browning wouldn't have recognized a coyote if he fell over one. Coyotes were creatures of the Plains states west of the Mississippi. Wolves and coyotes don't share the same terrain. Wolves want dense forests and coyotes thrive in open grasslands.

A funny thing happened in the 350 years since the settlers looked on thick tidewater woods with resolve. Their destiny, they figured, was to clear the forest and tame the wilderness. The ring of the ax was their song of progress as they felled timber for houses and barns, boats and fences, firewood to burn and fields to cultivate.

No wonder the wolves didn't survive. The surprising thing is that it took the coyotes so long to move into what was now prime habitat. It's only recently that game departments in the East have been alert to the silent ''invasion,'' as they label it, of coyotes. The trek east across the Mississippi has been plotted in a northeast band, starting about 1910, from which it spilled into every state except possibly Delaware, according to the Wildlife Division of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources.

The new residents are more than just an interesting phenomenon. Farmers along the river valleys of the Susquehanna, the Monocacy and the Savage have reported losses of farm animals, particularly sheep, in the last year or two as coyotes have moseyed down from southern Pennsylvania. And the coyotes continue to drift south -- stealing chickens in Tilghman; harassing housecats in Tunis Mills; crossing a field at dusk beside the Miles River.

The anecdotal accounts mount up, although Peter Jayne, manager of the state's Furbearer Program, says there's no documented evidence like tracks or scat, as biologists call droppings, although there are too many reports of sightings elsewhere on the Shore to dismiss. Farther south on the Shore, he says, there is hard evidence of coyotes along the Pocomoke River.

Oddly, while the invasion is spotty on the lower Maryland Eastern Shore, there's irrefutable proof that coyotes are on Virginia's Eastern Shore. It's unlikely that the coyotes swam across the Bay, Mr. Jayne says, so the assumption is that they are traveling the entire length of the Delmarva Peninsula. Whether these animals are numerous enough to constitute a breeding population or are simply travelers moving through is still a mystery.

Coyotes are sometimes spotted during daytime hours, but they're most frequently seen at dawn and dusk. As Westerners have found out, they are devilishly adaptable, bold enough to appear in urban backyards. It would be a mistake to underestimate their ability to make do. They prefer to make their dens in rocky outcrops or brushy hillsides, neither of which is common in the flat, marshy Shore country, but coyotes will happly take over the dens of other animals, and they are doubtless finding accommodations here.

Nor are they fussy about what they eat. Poultry, sheep, goats and even calves and pigs are their most common farm targets. They can pull down a deer if the opportunity presents itself, although they most often prey on rabbits, small rodents, especially groundhogs, berries and fruits.

For dessert, they love housecats, so keep an eye on yours.

Anne Stinson is a free-lance writer.

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