Science has confirmed what West Virginia's hunters have long suspected: Coyotes eat a lot of deer.
A 20-month study of coyotes' dietary habits found that deer remains were found in nearly 60 percent of coyotes' stomach contents and manure samples.
Geriann Albers, the West Virginia University graduate student who coordinated the research, revealed her findings recently at a meeting of the Northeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. She didn't mince words.
"Coyotes in West Virginia are primarily consuming deer," Albers said.
Division of Natural Resources officials commissioned the study to try to determine what impact, if any, coyotes might be having on the state's whitetail herds. The findings appear to show at least some impact.
"Of course, we had no way of telling how much of those stomach contents were the result of predation," Albers explained. "There's probably a good bit of it, but coyotes also scavenge road kills, eat remains of deer gutted during hunting seasons, and scavenge the carcasses of deer that die of winterkill.
"Our findings would suggest that there's a need for further study to see how much predation actually is occurring."
The research that generated Albers' findings wasn't at all glamorous. Instead, it involved hundreds of hours' worth of grisly, smelly CSI-style detective work.
Researchers spent part of that time examining the stomach contents of road-killed coyotes and coyotes killed by hunters and trappers. That, believe it or not, was the most glamorous part.
They spent the rest of the time breaking down coyote manure samples and analyzing the contents.
Deer remains showed up in 59.5 percent of the 969 samples examined. Grass and twigs showed up in 39.7 percent, small mammals such as mice and voles in 19.3 percent, fruits and seeds in 18.4 percent, squirrels and chipmunks in 11.4 percent, birds in 4 percent and rabbits in 4 percent. The percentages add up to more than 100 percent because many samples contained more than one category of food items.
The study found that by volume, deer remains comprised nearly four times as much of coyotes' stomach contents and manure composition as small mammals, the second-ranked category.
Deer accounted for 44 percent of the volume, followed by small mammals at 12.5 percent, squirrels and chipmunks at 8.2 percent, fruits and seeds at 7.1 percent, grass and twigs at 7.1 percent, rabbits at 3.3 percent and livestock at 3.1 percent.
If nothing else, the study showed that coyotes are opportunistic feeders.
"They'll eat anything - and I mean anything," Albers said. "Their diets vary according to what is available."