by Whit Gibbons

November 10, 2003

Last week I noted that today's ecologists should be able to answer questions asked by the general public, the primary supporters of research and universities. Ecology graduate students from the University of Georgia gave the following answers to some recent questions.

Q: My girlfriend in Arkansas has copperheads nesting near her home. What should she do about it? Can we get rid of them?

Answer by Xavier Glaudas (Institute of Ecology): This question has no definite answer. First, scientific research has shown that snakes are not aggressive by nature, even venomous ones. However, they can bite if they feel threatened. For instance, they may bite if you inadvertently step on them, and copperheads are masters of camouflage. In the short-term, snakes will disappear soon to hibernate, so you will have time to think about what you want to do before spring. You could leave them alone, but you will have to watch your step. Having children or dogs complicates the situation. I do not recommend killing the snakes because I am deeply opposed to it, nevertheless that is an option. Or you could try to find an experienced person who will remove and relocate the snakes. However, this does not mean you will not see copperheads again. The removed snakes could come back or other snakes might move in.

I appreciate your searching for a solution other than destroying the snakes. Many people would kill the snakes without hesitation. You took the time to think about options and seek advice. All snakes can be observed safely from a distance. And in my opinion copperheads are one of the most beautiful snake species in North America.

Q: I recently observed a wild animal near where we live in Michigan. It was about 16 inches in height, about 16 inches long, and had a long slender tail about the same length as its body. Its color was silvery brown or brindle. The hair was very short, like velvet. This animal was eating grass and at one point picked up an apple in its mouth and carried it 20 feet before eating it!

Answer by Luke Fedewa (Institute of Ecology): Being from central Michigan myself, I would guess that your animal was a coyote. Carnivores such as coyotes and foxes are known to eat plant materials from time to time, although their staple is meat. Sixteen inches high and long would denote a young coyote, but there is the remote possibility that it was a rare color morph of the red fox (which is silvery in appearance). The shortness of the hair could have been induced by seasonal variation, disease, or age.

Q: Do coyotes ever attack small dogs? What should we do about the coyotes that have moved into our area?

Answer by Chris Winne (Institute of Ecology): While coyotes have been reported to attack or even eat small dogs, the chances of this occurring are unlikely in most instances. Coyotes are shy animals that prefer to stay away from people, and generally only in urban settings are they so hungry that they will prey upon cats and small dogs. In the country coyotes should find plenty of small mammals to eat (rats, mice, and rabbits are their natural prey), making it less likely they will harass a dog. Nonetheless, they might see a dog as easy prey if it were left chained outside at night.

While it is unlikely coyotes will detect your dog's scent and try to take over his territory, they might come to the house if they smell his dog food. So you probably should not leave his dog food out overnight. Instead, offer him food in the morning and take any uneaten portions inside at night. Other ways to reduce the possibility of coyotes coming near your house and harassing your dog include: (1) keeping trash cans covered to reduce enticing odors, (2) letting the dog inside at night, and (3) building a fence or dog pen. The last two options, though a sure way to keep the dog safe, may not be necessary.

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