Monday, January 29, 2007

Coyotes in your backyard

As everyone knows from watching those old Westerns on TV, coyotes live in the southwestern United States. That is pretty much where they lived back in 1492 when Columbus arrived. But a crazy thing happened over the last 500 years….we humans wreaked havoc with nature.

One of the things we did was kill all of our competition such as Mountain Lions, Wolves, Bears, etc. These animals were the top of the food chain until firearms, traps and poison wiped out or greatly reduced them from their original range. Especially with the wolves gone from the lower 48 states, a void was left that coyotes were all too happy to fill. Wolves have since been reintroduced in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana and there is a population in Minnesota. But in most of the eastern U.S. coyotes rushed in to fill the space where wolves once roamed.

One web site says that it was 1985 when coyotes were first confirmed in the Smoky Mountains. That is probably about the same time that they found Fairfield Glade.

Coyotes look very much like small German Shepherds. They usually weigh between 20 and 40 pounds. Supposedly, one way to tell is that coyotes travel with their tail down (not between their legs, just down) while dogs usually carry their tail up. But don’t worry too much about trying to identify them. Coyotes are rarely seen. Even living in the southwest for 15 years, I only ever saw a handful of coyotes, even though I heard them many times. However, another way to know that coyotes were in your neighborhood in Dallas was that your night roaming cat suddenly turned up missing. Coyotes love cat snacks.

Coyotes are rarely a threat to humans unless they become conditioned getting food through either garbage left out overnight or pet food left outside. Even then, they usually skedaddle at the sight of a person. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency website says that in “recorded history there have only been 30 cases of coyote attacks on humans, while 30 million children are bitten by dogs each year.”

My wife Nancy and I were lucky to see two in Fairfield Glade last winter. We were walking along a back road near our house one morning about 10am when two deer ran across the road in front of us. I was curious why the deer were in such a high gear. I knew the answer when 2 coyotes appeared on the road a few minutes behind the deer. They stopped and looked at Nancy and me for 5 or 10 seconds, and then they were off. Coyotes probably don’t often catch healthy adult deer, but like all predators they will always look for a weakness. These two either knew something about the deer they were chasing or they were hoping to get lucky.

We hear a pack near us several times a week in the summer when we have our windows open at night. Sometimes we hear them twice a night, sometimes just once a week. They yip and yap more than they howl, but there is no mistake when a whole pack sounds off.

Coyotes! They are here in Fairfield Glade and just about everywhere in the U.S. even though you may never see them. Step outside at night and listen or better yet, sleep with you windows open in the summer and you just might be lucky enough to hear one of the great sounds of nature.

By the way, my chances of getting a picture of one of these elusive canids is pretty darn slim. Most of the pictures in my blog are ones that I have taken. But in this case, these pictures are ones that I found on the internet.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Identify this animal

If you guessed a cute dog or an ugly girl, you are way off. If you thought that this is a llama, you are wrong, but very close.

This is an alpaca. Alpacas are related to llamas, vicunas and guanacos....all camelids from South America.

Why am I writing about alpacas from South America? Well, we visited an alpaca farm in Ohio over the holidays and I found out some very interesting information about these animals.

Alpacas live naturally in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile at elevations of 10,000 to 15,000 feet above sea level. They have been imported to raise in the United States and other countries primarily as an investment. Their wool (or fiber, as it is called) can be sold and it is supposedly lighter and warmer and less itchy than sheep's wool. But the bigger market is to sell alpacas to other people hoping to raise alpacas to sell them to other people, etc., etc. It sounds a little like a pyramid scheme to me. At some point won't there be more alpacas than people wanting to buy them? And is the market for the fiber big enough to cover your costs? However, alpaca web sites claim that the market for alpacas has remained steady for 20 years.

And what is the price of a nice alpaca these days? The owner of the farm in Ohio said that males go for about $3000 and females for $9000. But on the alpaca farms websites that I found it looks like good females (good meaning having won some ribbons at an alpaca show and having nice soft fiber) go for $14,000 to $20,000. Since alpacas have babies (a baby alpaca is called a cria) once every year you could conceivably recoup your investment in a female in a year or two if her crias were female or in 5 years or so if they were all males. The guy in Ohio said that taking care of 30 alpacas is easier and less expensive than the 3 horses he used to have. He will board your alpaca for $90 per month if you don't want to shovel alpaca poop yourself.

And speaking of alpaca poop, these tidy animals all go in the same spot in the barnyard....making cleanup easier than for other large animals. Websites claim that alpacas can actually be housebroken. Although they are smaller than llamas they would still be a little big for sitting on your lap on the couch.

Male alpacas, although usually gentle with humans, have "fighting teeth" that must be trimmed to prevent damage to important male alpaca parts necessary for breeding. Ouch!

In the picture to the left is my grandson, Justin in the barnyard among about 20 alpacas. This young female named Cinnamon took a liking to Justin.

We were told that alpacas are smaller and gentler than llamas and they are much less likely to spit or regurgitate their stomach contents on you like an agitated llama has been known to do. They are too small to be used as pack animals like llamas. As you may recall from an earlier posting, llamas are used in the Smokey Mountains to deliver supplies to Mount LeConte three times a week.

We stopped at the alpaca farm because Justin had done a school report on llamas earlier. The alpaca farm visit was the highlight of his day....week....month! You too could visit an alpaca farm if it sounds interesting. There are farms all over the U.S. and several in Tennessee. These farms generally welcome your visit because you could be the next investor in a nice $20,000 bundle of fur.