Predators

Katy Widger, one of the most valued members of our network, has written two articles for Pet Alert on the predators which live among us in the East Mountains. She has written each either from personal experience or from research on this subject. The first, "Protecting Our Pets" is a discussion about all our predators and how we can keep our pets safe. The second, "Silent Predator of the Sky," was specifically written to give information on the Great Horned Owl.

Katy lives in Edgewood with her husband Ken, and their beloved canines with whom they share their lives: Hunter, a German Shepherd; and Sadie, Wyatt, and Zeke, their three Lhasa Apso's. Katy has diverse talents and interests. She is an artist who also does pet portraits, and her work can be viewed at her website, www.katywidger.com.


Protecting our Pets from Predators

We live out here in the East Mountain region for a reason: we enjoy the close encounters with nature, the open spaces, and the privacy, but it comes with a price. Living close to nature means sharing our lives with the wild critters that have always lived here. And those wild animals, many of whom are carnivores, have to eat.

We've made it easy for some of them to thrive, coyotes and owls in particular, but also hawks, golden eagles, bobcats and, in some cases, cougars and black bears. Coyotes and Great Horned Owls now inhabit virtually every state in the continental United States and have been very successful making their homes in not only suburban areas, but in the very heart of our cities, as well. And here in the East Mountains, well, coyotes just come with the territory, as do the owls. If we think that we push them out of their territory when we move in, we must think again. In many areas, the population of these predators remains the same, or is even increased, because we keep them well fed.

House cats have become one of the Great Horned Owl's most common foods. Let that sink in for just a minute. Coyotes, too, have learned and in turn teach their pups, that domestic cats left to roam at night are easy prey. Often, where there are cats, there are also small dogs, which are even easier to catch. I cringe every time I receive an email from Pet Alert describing the loss of a small dog or cat. My first thought is Owl or Coyote.

A Great Horned Owl can take prey up to 14 pounds. Coyotes can easily take larger prey and when hunting in packs, can bring down even a large dog. Once habituated to eating easy to catch prey, they will seek it out, haunting our neighborhoods nightly, waiting for the naive animal guardian to let her little dog out to do his business, or the cat out for the night. A neighbor of mine, who lives in an area that is just on the edge of the woods, where juniper trees begin to be more abundant, was doing some gardening one morning, her little toy poodle within six feet of her, when a coyote, lurking behind a tree, grabbed the unsuspecting little dog. The woman managed to scare the coyote into dropping the dog, but she was already dead, crushed by the incredible strength in the coyote's jaws. Another woman, up in Cedar Grove, reported to her neighbors that her old dog was killed and eaten while she was at work. She'd always left the dog in their courtyard when she was away. Apparently, hungry coyotes couldn't resist the opportunity for an easy meal. The courtyard wall was only about four feet tall. Her old girl didn't stand a chance. A good friend of mine had her cocker spaniel attacked by an owl right on her patio. I take extra precautions to insure that my little dogs are safe, but we have lost a couple of chickens when owls walked right into the hen house in the middle of the night and took sleeping hens off their roost. We regularly hear sad tales of missing cats, and little dogs that have never before left the yard--how could they, being so small--suddenly just vanishing "into thin air."

Harris and Red Tailed Hawks, and the occasional Golden Eagle (I saw three of them on the ground over by the Edgewood Library one bright, shiny day!) pose the most threat during the day, while Owls usually do their hunting at dawn, dusk and most of the night. Coyotes are opportunists and will hunt whenever they have determined that their preferred prey is most likely to be available. That means that if your subdivision empties out during the day when everyone drives into Albuquerque to go to work, and most dogs and cats are left outside, even in a fenced area, that is the most likely time coyotes will prowl about. If, on the other hand, they have learned that folks are home during the day, but dogs and cats are put out or left out at night, they will adapt their hunting to this reality. It's all just a matter of when the dinner bell rings for them.

Killing off all the predators is simply not an option. Not only is it impossible, it is impractical and unwise based on their ecological service. A coyote's natural food includes rodents, rabbits, insects, lizards, snakes and the occasional ripe fruit or vegetable. They are scavengers and help keep carrion under control. Owls preferred prey, apart from our house cats, small dogs and chickens, are those cute little cotton tail bunnies, rats, mice, gophers and voles. Hawks mostly live on prairie dogs, doves and pigeons around here. Owls, coyotes and hawks do a great job of keeping rodents under control and we need them to have a healthy environment.

During drought, which we are all too familiar with here in the East Mountains, conditions favorable to the proliferation of prey needed by the indigenous predators in our area suffers. That means less natural prey animals for coyotes and birds of prey to eat, and makes it all the more imperative that we take steps to protect our pets and domestic animals.

Here's what you can do:

Keep your pets securely enclosed and protected at night. Don't let them roam. If your little dogs must stay outside during the day, make sure they have a warm, secure dog house in a secure area. Better yet, make a secure place for them in a sun room or utility room, or provide a "doggie door" for them to come and go. Best to always keep cats indoors.

Walk your dogs on leashes. If you see a coyote, pick up your small dog. You can find great tips on dealing with direct encounters with coyotes at the website www.projectcoyote.org.

Fence your property using wire mesh (horse fence) at least 5 feet tall, but 6 feet is the recommended height. There's a product called "Coyote Rollers" which makes it difficult for coyotes to gain a foothold. (www.coyoterollers.com). Fences are even more effective if you use some electric fencing along the top and bottom and outwardly invert the top of your fence. What you need to avoid is giving a coyote any kind of foothold with which he can "climb" your fence. Wooden fences with the rails on the outside are just ladders of convenience for coyotes. Block walls are also easily scaled. The native New Mexican fence known as the "coyote fence" consisting of very tall, thin pine saplings, reaching 6-8 feet tall, wired together in a solid fence is very effective and has been used for several hundred years around here to keep sheep and goats safe from predators.

Motion-sensor lights installed on out buildings and above garages will scare away coyotes and sometimes even owls.

Don't leave animal foods outside. It is wise to not even put up bird feeders. Birds scatter seeds which attract rodents, which attract owls and coyotes, and snakes.

Trim your trees and bushes. Owls like to perch on "snags" or dead branches where they have a good view of the surrounding area. Coyotes can easily hide in dense brush or even thick weeds. Don't give coyotes any place to den on your property.

Follow all the advice you read from Sandia Mountain Bear Watch about keeping garbage, bird feeders, fruit, etc out of reach of bears; it all applies to coyotes, too.

Use common sense, knowing what you know now! Little dogs depend on us to protect them at all times, day and night. Domestic cats may think they're "vicious predators," but they don't have a chance if attacked by an owl or a coyote. Don't ever assume that just because you haven't seen a coyote or an owl that they are not there! Predators depend on stealth to be successful, and whether or not you are aware of them, they are watching you!

Finally, if your little dog or cat goes missing, don't just assume that it was taken by a predator unless you have proof. Continue to search every nook and cranny around your place and your neighbors, as frightened little dogs have been known to travel good distances and have been found hiding in small spaces. Cats are even more likely to quietly hide in dark places, even when their owners are nearby, calling for them. Don't give up!


Silent Predator from the Sky

Please be aware that this article is a factual account of Great Horned Owl predatory behavior and has some graphic descriptions.

Here in the East Mountains, when small dogs and cats go missing, we usually blame coyotes. But there is another predator that is becoming more prevalent in this area, filling the niche that is left when coyotes are eliminated or move on to other territories when they are crowded out by development and fences.

The Great Horned Owl is a formidable predator, hunting on silent wings. Most of the time, his prey is completely unaware of his presence until it is too late. Fences won’t keep him out. Only diligence and knowledge by pet owners can prevent a small dog or cat from becoming prey to an owl.

Owls range in size from about 2 lbs. to 5 lbs. with females being 10-20% larger than males. Their wingspan is from 36”-60”. They generally become active and start to hunt around dusk, continuing most of the night until the sun is well up in the morning. They can take prey up to 2 to 3 times heavier than itself, and hunt by perching on snags, branches, poles, parapets of your house before diving on folded wings down to the ground to snatch their prey. Animals are usually killed instantly by their large talons. They also hunt by walking on the ground to capture small prey or wading into water to capture small fish and amphibians. They are also quite adept at simply walking into a chicken coop and selecting a hen for their evening meal. Even if the prey is too large to carry off, they will be-head and dismember the prey, drink the blood (their only form of liquid nourishment), and simply leave the remains and go about their business.

Their prey-base is very large, including just about any small animal or amphibian available. Small dogs and cats have become a regular part of the Great Horned Owls prey in virtually every part of the country, including city parks and back yards.

I first noticed Great Horned Owls from a distance about 20 years ago here in the East Mountains, hearing their eerie “hoots” late at night, seeing them glide down from light poles at dusk. At my home in Edgewood, we have had three visitations by different owls in the past few years. And those are only the visits that I am aware of; I am sure that many others have taken place in the silence of the night. I can tell you that they are completely unafraid of humans. I encountered a large female GHO one morning as I went about doing the morning critter chores. She sat on a six foot fence about 10 feet from me and watched while I tended the chickens and milked the goat, all the while accompanied by my small, 20 lb dog. Finally, when the sun was well up in the sky, she flew off on large, silent wings. She returned the next evening to sit on the parapet of our garage, looking like a Christmas Santa Claus perched up there! Not too long after, an owl marched into our hen house and killed and partially ate one of our chickens, which seems to happen about once a year.

We have had two other encounters with two more owls, different than the first. I was able to catch photographs of all three, two females and one male.

I have heard recently of turkey farmers in Stanley loosing young turkeys to owls. A friend’s Cocker Spaniel was attacked by an owl and required extensive vet care to overcome the deep puncture wounds caused by the large, sharp talons. Another friend’s cat barely escaped the talons and also required vet care. And then there are the stories of small dogs and cats that simply disappear out of their owner’s fenced yards, never to be seen again.

I have three little dogs now, and they do not leave the house from dusk until well until the next morning without my being there to escort them. I look up and check the top branches of the trees, the parapets of the house, the roof line of the animal enclosures, anywhere an owl could be waiting, silently, with piercing night-vision goggles for eyes, ears that can hear a mouse hundreds of yards away, and deadly talons that can kill or seriously injure in an instant.