By Jennifer Tuohy, Island Eye News Editor
Residents of Sullivan’s Island appear to have some new neighbors. Coyotes, a species of canine that historically populates the western half of the United States, have found their way to our little slice of island paradise.
“We don’t know how long have they been here,” Andy Benke, Sullivan’s Island city administrator, said. “But they have become more prominent this year.”
Benke who grew up on the island, saw his first coyote over Thanksgiving weekend. “It was night and my first thought was somebody’s German Shepherd is running around, but as I got closer it took off.” Benke says it’s difficult to know how long the creatures have really been here, as people may have seen them over the last few years but not realized what they were. “We’ve only received reports this past year, starting in the summertime.”
Of course coyotes aren’t the only large mammal to call the islands home. “We’ve seen pictures of the red foxes that are here, and there’s a pretty significant group of deer on the island,” Benke said. “I’ve seen some very large deer on the island with huge racks, and one in our yard that was having a nice breakfast on my wife’s ornamental flowers.”
Populations of coyote, now found throughout North America, were first established in South Carolina in Pickens and Oconee counties in the late 1970’s by houndsmen and, coupled with natural immigration, have since expanded to include all counties in the state. Contrary to popular belief, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources did not stock coyotes in South Carolina to control the white-tailed deer population, or for any other reason.
A typical coyote weighs 30 to 45 pounds, although coyotes over 60 pounds have been recorded in other states. As with all wild animals they are naturally afraid of humans, however, they can pose a threat to small pets and, as they are very territorial, may view large dogs as a threat. The town of Sullivan’s Island has released a leaflet providing information to citizens concerned about coyotes, some of the information is summarized in the sidebar (see below) or you can get a copy from the town’s website www.sullivansisland-sc.com.
One island resident has found a way of getting up close and personal with the creatures without disturbing nature’s delicate balance. Stanford Kirshtein lives in Mount Pleasant, but his family has had a home on Sullivan’s since the 1970s that he visits on a regular basis. After his neighbor posted on her Facebook page about seeing coyotes near her house, Kirshtein became concerned about the safety of his dog, but also interested to find out more about these new neighbors. He installed a fence on the property, which is close to the station 26 1/2 beach access, and bought a wildlife camera.
The Eyecon Trail Camera is both motion and heat activated infrared camera and, since he installed it in late October, it has been busy almost nightly capturing fascinating video of the five or six coyotes living close to Kirshtein’s house.
“The first video I got the coyote was out there watching me,” Kirshtein said. “I didn’t realize this until the next morning when I looked at the time stamp, but it was looking straight though the fence at me for about 3 minutes. They’re very interested in what’s going on in my yard. I guess because they used to be able to go in and out at will.”
Watching Kirshtein’s collection of videos, which he adds to frequently, is a fascinating insight into the lives of these nocturnal creatures. They walk past his property almost daily, mostly at dusk or dawn, making him surmise that their den is nearby.
“My neighbor and I think the den is between the two houses,” Kirshtein said. “This seems to be their first stop in the evening right after it gets dark, so they probably haven’t travelled far from their den yet.”
The wildlife camera Kirshtein installed has also caught some great footage of deer and other nocturnal animals. The beauty of watching these videos it that you are looking at the animals in their natural state, unaffected by human interaction because they don’t know we can see them. View Kirshtein’s videos at www.youtube.com/user/stanfordjoel.
Kirshtein’s house is right on the beach, near the forest that has sprouted adjacent to station 26 1/2 since Hurricane Hugo swept through the island 25 years ago.
“It’s really grown up in to a wildlife refuge,” he said of the forest. “These kinds of creatures were never here before. It’s a very habitable place for a lot of animals, a whole ecosystem. There are possums, snakes, rats, feral cats, rabbits, squirrels, hawks and red fox.”
Kirshtein has become something of a local expert on the coyotes, reading up on them and communicating with state experts, and he knows that it’s likely this relatively recent abundance of their food source that has drawn them to the island.
“They exist in family units,” he said. “You have an alpha male and alpha female. They have their pups in the spring, a couple stay with them, then the rest go off and fend for themselves. So, with teenagers from the last litter there probably 6 or 10 within their territory and then there’ll be another family in another area nearby.”
The Town is monitoring the situation closely, but as of yet there have been no reports of the coyotes being a pest or nuisance to anyone.
“They appear to be very skittish or afraid of humans,” Benke said. “They don’t have any natural predators here, besides humans or a fast moving Chevrolet. We’ll just have to plan an action if it becomes an issue. Unfortunately however, in the state of South Carolina you cannot relocate them they have to be destroyed.”