WESTERLY — Coyotes and hawks and bears, oh my!
As temperatures warm up over the next month, local officials are urging residents to be prepared for an increased number of sightings involving wildlife — and taking simple actions to protect your pet and secure property can mean the difference between watching from a distance and a scary encounter.
Westerly Animal Control Officer Arthur Smith said there have been numerous wildlife sightings reported in Watch Hill, Misquamicut and Bradford — as well as other area towns — through the early part of the season. These have included coyotes, raccoons and a large number of both wild turkeys and deer, he said.
“Our advice to people come spring is to enjoy wildlife, but enjoy it from a distance,” Smith said. “We are approaching the end of mating season, which means babies will soon be active in places throughout the community.”
Over the course of the past two years, Smith said, the community has become more familiar with coyotes and the dangers they bring. This has led to a reduction in the calls for service — but not necessarily a reduction in the number of coyotes in the region.
According to the Conservation Agency, a nonprofit science-based research organization based on Conanicut Island in Narragansett Bay, coyotes have fully colonized all parts of the shoreline over the past hundred years. The organization has studied the species over the past decade, launching the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study in 2004 to develop coexistence and management strategies.
The organization notes that coyote sightings tend to be more frequent in areas where there are fewer people and high levels of food sources. The animal is considered to be a scavenger, which means they seek food sources in quieter areas, whether it be where they can hunt small animals or sift through garbage cans.
This often leads them to wooded regions just outside rural areas, such as in Bradford, or places with a large number of vacation homes, such as in Watch Hill.
“If numbers of coyotes are lethally removed, those remaining will respond to the decrease in food competition by increasing reproduction,” the organization says on its website, theconservationagency.org. “Coyote populations rapidly rebound. As long as coyotes are well-fed, their populations will grow.”
Dr. Numi Mitchell, president of the organization, was not available for further comment this week.
Smith said when it comes to coyotes, the best way to protect your family is to take steps to secure your property and never leave pets unattended. Objects such as an electric fence may keep pets close to the home, he said, but will not keep coyotes out.
He also recommended securing or eliminating any food sources, even those used for birds and smaller animals, and keeping dogs on a shorter leash during nature walks.
"If you live in any area in town that has a considerable amount of woodland or open space nearby, I can't emphasize enough how important it is not to let dogs or pets out on their own," Smith said. "Use a leash and stay with them. It will go a long way towards keeping them safe."
Coyotes haven’t been the only animals drawing attention in 2018. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection confirmed multiple reports in March of a hawk attacking residents in Farifield, Conn.
According to Associated Press reports, several people reported minor injuries to police after passing a nest, causing the birds to react in a manner designed to protect their young. No serious injuries were reported, but officials said the incident showed a need for people to be cautious and aware of nest locations, especially as it relates to birds of prey.
Although far from an everyday occurrence, the reality is that there is a growing chance that such attacks could occur including in southwestern Rhode Island, said John Maxson, a raptor expert with Born to be Wild Nature Center of Bradford.
The center, a nonprofit with four acres of land, was founded by Maxson and his wife, Vivian.
“These type of incidents are becoming more common each year as humans continue to expand into (the birds’) habitats,” he said.
The problem, he said, lies in attempting to integrate habitats. Expansion of human residential development has led to “patchwork forests,” known as segmented communities. Maxson said humans and raptors have both struggled to adapt, which has led to increased frequency of these types of incidents. He noted that in recent years, there have been local examples, including a less significant incident recently off Taugwonk Road in Stonington.
There’s little that can be done once a nest is in place to relocate it — laws prevent relocation when there are young still in the nest — and officials will often need to wait out the season before relocating them. There are other steps that can be taken in the meantime, including wearing a hat with “eyeballs” on it to help deter the birds, but these are only so effective for those approaching a nest.
“The best advice is to beware and keep a distance when you know a nest exists,” he said.
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Protection also issued a warning this spring regarding a slight increase in bear sightings. The agency warns that especially in the spring months, when they are rising from their annual slumber, black bears in particular are more likely to tread into rural territories.
Southwestern Rhode Island has not been as impacted by the increase in sightings. The closest sighting, according to both Smith and state officials, was reported in the Arcadia Management Area. But Smith also warns it’s only a matter of time before sightings are likely to be reported in Bradford or other sections of town with woodlands.
“Given the scarcity of food in the spring, black bears may visit bird feeders, beehives, chicken coops, rabbit hutches, and compost piles in search of food,” the agency said in a press release. “Black bears are generally shy and will avoid interactions with humans. However, they can become dependent on backyard food sources, if readily available, and quickly become a nuisance.”
Smith warns residents to take precautions including limiting access to bird feeders or removing feeders altogether, especially from April through November. He said purchasing items such as sealable garbage cans can also reduce access to food sources and limit scents that would attract bears.
DEM officials also suggest use of electric fences in areas with small pets, moving any livestock into barns at night, avoiding feeding pets outdoors, keeping grills and barbecue pits clean, leaving trash secure until the morning of pick-up and not including meat or sweet food scraps in compost piles.
Those with questions about coyotes or who are already having problems with coyotes should call the DEM Division of Fish and Wildlife at the Great Swamp Field Headquarters at 401-789-0281.
Smith said Westerly residents with less urgent wildlife concerns are also welcome to contact Westerly Animal Control at 401-348-2558. In an emergency, Smith said residents should always call 911.
“Taking a few precautions can go a long way toward keeping your pets and family safe,” Smith said.