How to tell if a lion or coyote killed a deer

We frequently receive calls and messages from local landowners telling us about a fresh-dead deer in their yard.  This is fascinating information and helpful to our research – we’ve trapped and collared several mountain lions in this way.  In many cases, the deer was killed by a lion.  In many other cases, the deer was killed by coyotes.  What are some ways to tell the difference?

Mountain lion kill is typically…

…under cover (brush, shrubs, trees).  Lions tend to not leave their food out under open sky.  An exception may be if the deer was killed in a fence enclosure, and then the lion is likely to have dried dragging it past the fence.

Note how the forest debris has been raked into a pile. Cats do this.

Note how the forest debris has been raked into a pile. Cats do this.

…covered with leaves, sticks, grass.  There will be an area around the deer where the raking of the lion’s paws left bare dirt.

…eaten starting at the ribs.  Lions tend to eat the chest-area organs first (lungs, heart, liver).  They chew a hole in the ribs to get to these tasty and most-nutritious morsels.

…missing the stomach.  Lions remove the stomach (called the rumen) when they first open the check cavity and bury is a few feet away from the body.  This prevents stomach acids from spoiling the meat over the 3-5 days it will take the lion to finish eating the entire deer.

…”shaved”!  Yes, you read that right.  Lions will nip the hair off of the body of a deer before they start chewing into it.  Think of a surgeon shaving the patient before cutting.  The clumps of nipped hair are about 1” across – the distance between the lion’s canine teeth.  They snip the hair with their incisors.

…neat and tidy.  The deer is usually in one piece (rather than scattered about – a leg here, a leg there…).

 

Coyote kill is typically…

Note how the hindquarters are the first part to be fed on, and there's no attempt to drag the deer out; it's lying in the open.

Note how the hindquarters are the first part to be fed on, and there’s no attempt to drag the deer; it’s in the open.

…in the open.  We seem to find several deer killed by coyotes along fencelines, as if coyotes trap the deer against the fence or run the deer into the fence and kill it by injury.

…uncovered.  Coyotes don’t cache their leftover food.  That’s a cat behavior.

…eaten starting at the hind end.

…messy.  Picture a group of dogs playing tug-o-war and that’s largely what you’ll find.  A piece here, a leg there.  Stomach contents spilled and guts dragged around.

 

Another good clue is whether coyotes are regularly seen or heard in the neighborhood.  Not everyone has coyotes in their neighborhood.  Coyotes tend to be found in certain areas in the Santa Cruz Mountains such as rural residential areas and coastal grassland prairies.  It’s likely because their preferred foods are in those places more than in the deep redwoods and oak forests that make up most of these mountains.

 

If you find a deer that has been recently killed and you’re willing to allow us to use it to trap a mountain lion for our research, please contact us ASAP.  If possible, we’ll come and investigate.  If you’re unsure whether the deer was killed by a lion or coyote, please – still contact us and we’ll come take a look.

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