For years, as a committed insect ecologist, I resisted student requests to work on mammals. My objections included bite risk, rabies shots, Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee forms and permits. But the students kept asking and I began considering ways to avoid bites, shots, and paperwork. Trail cameras provided the solution!
We set out two trial cameras in November last year and had our first photos of coyotes and deer within a week. Based on our near-instant success, we applied to the college for some student research funds, bought a dozen cameras, and two students wrote small grants to fund a summer research project.
Alyssa Valentyn from Medford, Massachusetts, and Jade Jarvis from Derby, Vermont, installed cameras in open and wooded habitats and then visited them either frequently or rarely to see if human activity affected animal visitation. The project was a spectacular success, yielding hundreds of photographs of the various mammal species that live on the Saint Michael’s College campus.
I found the coyotes particularly interesting. They certainly seemed to hear the subtle click of the cameras. The first coyote photo in a series was usually a side view, and the second often captured the animal staring straight at the camera.
Running cameras continuously allowed some glimpses into the coyote world that would otherwise be impossible. We saw mostly single animals in November and early December. By the first of the year, we were seeing pairs. In late March, some coyotes seemed to be carrying food in their mouths.
We never did see tiny puppies, but by early July we started picking up a particularly rambunctious group of four coyotes. In my perception these were the young of the year. Prior to the arrival of this group, the single and paired coyotes seemed to eye the cameras with suspicion, possibly even distain. But the group of four seemed positively curious about all things camera.
We’d pick them up first on camera eight and then later on camera six. They’d walk right up and seem to sniff the cameras. We started getting daylight photos which were quite rare earlier in the season.
The camera-strap-wrestling coyote in the photograph spent a good 10 minutes tugging and straining. The first non-descript shot was taken at 12:31 a.m. on July 4. It immediately became clear that it was a coyote; the next several images show fur pressed up against the camera. A tail shows up, followed quickly by an ear, and then the first camera strap pulling is visible at 12:32. There’s some yanking and twisting and lots of close-up snout views.
After some time the strap is dropped and a second coyote shows up. At first they are side by side, flanking opposite sides of the camera. Then it becomes clear that they are working together to pull up the fabric we installed to keep the weeds back from the camera. There was a little back and forth between strap and fabric wrestling.
At 12:37 they seem to take a break, and one individual can be seen sitting and then lying on the weed fabric. After a few more close-up, blurry fur shots, the last of the 380 photos is of a coyote exiting stage right. Our fabric survived this encounter and another camera had fabric ripped up by a tenacious raccoon, but one camera lost its fabric entirely. The fabric was simply gone and despite searching through dozens of photographs we were unable to identify the thief.
It has been a wonderful season peering into the world of these fascinating animals and quite a contrast to my usual peering down a microscope. We recorded lots of deer, coyotes, opossums, and some fishers. Some trends we noticed were that the deer seemed to favor more open habitats, and the coyotes were slow to return to cameras after we visited them. We even had a very close encounter with a bobcat, but that’s a story for another day.
Declan McCabe teaches biology at Saint Michael’s College.