The coyote and the Great Horned Owl are the two most dominant predators on the island’s 2,600 acres of wooded and grassland areas. There are also a number of minor players like the raccoon, mink, Red-tailed Hawk and Barred Owl who terrorize the local populations of small fauna (and each other). The island’s coastlines and pond shorelines are stalked by ospreys, egrets, herons, snapping turtles, and mink. In addition, there are transients like the River Otter that move through the area.
You are probably most familiar with the island’s diurnal predators, as their hunting activity happens in the bright light of day. However, most predation on the island happens at night, hidden by a cloak of darkness. Coyotes have been in residence on the island for over a dozen years yet they were rarely spotted until quite recently. Their nocturnal habits kept them hidden from view, but the chorus of howls at the noon siren left no doubt about their presence.
The actual numbers of each species that currently call Fishers Island home are difficult to determine. Research gives us a basis for the maximum number that might be supported; that information, coupled with anecdotal accounts of sightings, enable us to make an educated guess.
While the scientific community continues to debate whether humans are (still) apex predators, there is no doubt that while not apex, coyotes are the top predators on Fishers Island. Once fully grown at 40-50 pounds, they have no natural enemies aside from irate pet owners and their proxies. Their diet includes all the smaller fauna residing on Fishers Island as well as a large variety of fruits and vegetables. They consume whatever is available season to season, be it nesting swans in the spring or ripe watermelon in the summer.
Their extreme adaptability with regard to diet allows them to thrive even when their home range is constrained. Studies have shown packs existing within home ranges as small as 100 acres (1/15 of a square mile), however in New York State the range for a pack tends to be slightly more than 2 square miles. Contrary to popular imagination, a pack of coyotes is not like a pack of wolves. Coyotes are generally considered shy and non-confrontational. Although coyotes live in family groups like wolves, they usually travel and hunt alone or in loose pairs.
A coyote pack consists of a breeding pair and usually one or more of their nonbreeding offspring. The younger coyotes, especially the males, are forced to leave when a new breeding season begins. A few female offspring may remain to help raise the next litter, if they fail to breed. Eventually, they strike out on their own looking for an unoccupied territory and sometimes they swim to islands like ours, remaining transient until they have established themselves in an area.
Packs do not aggressively defend their feeding territory except during the denning period (April-June) or in times of food scarcity. There have not been any hostile coyote-human interactions reported on Fishers Island, though coyotes have been responsible for the disappearance of several domestic pets. However, they are not the only suspects. The island’s coyotes are vigorously competing against mink, raccoons, owls, and hawks for prey among the island’s smaller vertebrate populations.
Watermelon-eating coyote in Dave Denison’s HHC garden, 1:53 a.m., August 24, 2018. Wildlife cam photo.