By Bruce Burdett
PORTSMOUTH — People hold the property deeds but coyotes of the dominant South Portsmouth Pack also lay claim to a wide swath of town.
And lately, some members of the dominant and once well-behaved island pack have grown startlingly bold.
Not long ago, Tim Ferreira heard one out back barking at his house. Brandishing an aluminum baseball bat he went out in his bathrobe making threatening gestures and lots of noise.
“I’m going at the thing and it’s not running away. I thought, this is strange.”
The coyote slowly retreated through a gap in the stone wall and Mr. Ferreira followed. “I aimed my flashlight around and all I see is sets of green eyes everywhere. I backed up and went inside.”
Utility poles in neighborhoods near Portsmouth’s St. Mary’s Pond hold flyers posted by families seeking lost cats.
Mr. Ferreira said he has lost two and knows neighbors who have as well.
He actually saw a coyote carry one of his cats away — one-year-old Butters. He was alerted by a screeching sound. And the potato farmer next door said he once saw a coyote carrying a cat across the stone wall into his field.
Stories like this are worrisome news says Numi Mitchell, lead scientist for the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study — for pets and ultimately for the coyotes. Unless brought under control, “These confrontations never end well for the coyote.”
Carriage Drive is prime territory for coyotes, Mr. Ferreira says. His house is at the end of the street and looks out across a farm field and protected land to St. Mary’s Pond.
“There is lots of open land here, woods and thickets to hide in,” and neighborhoods with pets.”You hardly see a squirrel around here any more,” he said.
Living near the pond, Mr. Ferreira is closer to the coyotes than most, but others have coyote stories as well.
Kate Haslan said she saw a “huge, healthy” one cross her street, a short distance behind a bicyclist one day. Close to her house is a path beaten into the grass that neighbors say is a route that coyotes follow regularly.
Steve Horan, who lives next door to Mr. Ferreira said he and his wife have consistently seen coyotes around their yard.
“During last spring’s floods, one was sitting in our front yard howling and howling.” He said that they no longer let their cat out. “The risk is too great.” Mr. Horan said they actually see more deer than coyotes. “There was one out back last week big enough to put a saddle on.”
Mr. Ferreira said he was out on his riding mower one afternoon while his wife was grilling dinner on the deck. He glanced behind him and saw a coyote five feet from the back of the tractor.
“The tractor was running loudly and it didn’t care.”
A few weeks ago he and his wife were awakened to loud noise out back. Four coyotes were “zigzagging around the yard, heckling each other.” Another time he saw one peering through the back door window (he said he keeps dog food in that room). He threw three cans of soup at it before it jogged off.
“Our yard is our sanctuary, or it was.” He said one relative stopped bringing her small child over to play after one day when the youngsters were in the play area and the dogs started growling at something unseen beyond the stone wall. “That was it for her,” he said.
Asked why he still let his cat out with so many coyotes around, Mr. Ferreira said, “It is hard to keep cats in when dogs are coming and going.” His three dogs are kept in the yard by an electric fence.
Coyote detective work
“The behavior we are seeing is atypical for the pack of coyotes” and increasingly a concern, Ms. Mitchell says.
“The South Portsmouth Pack has always been very skittery around people, a good thing, But this year at least the younger members seem to have changed their MO.”
In hopes of getting to the bottom of the pack’s new-found bravado, she is working with the state Department of Environmental Management to learn what these particular coyotes are up to.
They have set traps in the vicinity and intend to attach wireless tracking devices to any coyotes they catch.
“We are hoping to solver the mystery of what brings them to these neighborhoods. Essentially tracking a ‘Judas’ coyote to learn where members travel and and where they return frequently. A healthy travel pattern appears scattershot, a typical wide-ranging search for food. Not so good is when the routes cluster repeatedly in a few locations. (Several are being tracked on the island now. For maps, visit their website — http://www.theconservationagency.org/coyote.htm)
When situations like this arise, “We usual find that there are food attractions” — pet food left out, food garbage, small pets.”
“Free ranging small pets are always at risk. There is no question that small pets are at danger,” Ms. Mitchell said.
If there is not an easy food source, coyotes will move along, “but if they are rewarded for passing through neighborhoods, they will certainly be back.
That coyote path shown to her by the neighbors may be just the easiest way for them to get from point A to point B, she said, or it may be evidence that they are returning to an easy source of food.
The goal in this, as in an earlier episode in Middletown, is to “create a sustainable, safe relationship between coyotes and people,” Ms. Mitchell said. How they accomplish that may be a model used in other parts of the country.
Shooting and poisoning coyotes does not usually have the desired effect, as Middletown has learned. “It may seem to work for a short time but suddenly there are more than before … the species takes care of itself” by increasing its reproductive rate.
The South Portsmouth Pack has long occupied a 13-square-mile territory ranging from Wanumetonomy Golf Club north to Melville and points east and west — much of south-central Aquidneck Island.
It is an unusually large pack and has numbered up to 21 members not counting puppies (five to seven adult members is the norm).
“We have a great bunch of vigilant farmers and these coyotes always knew the rules … If what we are hearing is true, something is changing that dynamic.”
Asked if, as some fear, these coyotes might be a threat to young children, Ms. Mitchell said, “I never use that word (but) it is not sustainable to have large predators foraging in neighborhoods, especially if they are not afraid. The lack of fear is reason for concern.”
Coyote droppings pointed out by residents in their yards are a territorial marking, she said. “Loosely translated, this means ‘mine.'” And when coyotes come upon a yard that holds dog waste, they can view that as a territorial challenge to be answered.
The presence of coyotes ought not be cause for panic or coyote killing spree, Ms. Mitchell said. But it is reason for residents to ponder what it is about their property that is so attractive.
People may have to change things they have done, she said, like letting pets loose and leaving bowls of dog food and cans of garbage outside.
“I liken it to Lyme disease.” Due to this disease, “unfortunately we can’t do some things that we enjoyed and used to do” like walking through woods and fields in shorts or sitting in the leaves.
To those who think they are doing the “poor, hungry coyotes a kindness by feeding them, you’re not. You are just going to get them killed.”
A result of Middletown’s coyote issues is that that town now has a no-feeding ordinance. “Portsmouth does not yet but boy could it use it,” Ms. Mitchell said.
Portsmouth Animal Control Officer Ariel Fisher, whose job is to deal with domestic animals only, refers any coyote calls to Ms. Mitchell or the state Department of Environmental Management. And she echoes Ms. Mitchell’s advice.
“I understand that some of the coyotes have become very bold, probably because they are so used to living near people.” The best advice, she said, is to avoid leaving food of any sort outside. And if confronted, “Wave your arms and make lots of noise.”