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Nature Notes: Coyote

If you enjoy this article, you’re sure to love Ed Robinson’s 2018 book, Nature Notes from Maine, which includes many of the wildlife stories on this website, new stories and stunning photographs and ink drawings. Click here for details.

By Ed Robinson

On a blustery January day, Andy and I laid in the snow-filled corn field for several hours among our goose decoys with nothing to show for our efforts but chilled toes and fingers. Occasionally we would see a V-shaped flock high in the distance, but our calling had little effect on birds that were headed south ahead of a building storm system. Andy had just finished calling to another flock when a pair of German shepherds ran out of the woods in our direction. When they came closer we realized they were not dogs, but coyotes, the first ones we had seen in New York State.

That encounter happened around 1992, when sighting a coyote east of the Mississippi was not so common. Twenty-six years later, you can easily find the signs of coyotes all across New England and the eastern Canadian provinces. While you may not have seen one of these wary creatures, the odds are good that you have a family of coyotes living within a couple miles of your home. As some pet owners find, to their chagrin, coyotes have learned that living close to humans has some advantages.

We are referring here to the Eastern coyote (Canis latrans var, the “barking dog”), one of nearly 20 subspecies of coyotes found in North America. The Eastern coyote is not a native of Maine, nor many other states in New England. The fact that our state now hosts more than 15,000 (per the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife) of these large canines is remarkable, given that so many wildlife species have been in decline during the last 40 or 50 years. Anywhere you encounter them, coyotes are intelligent, highly adaptable and able to live in close proximity to humans. A site in Hamilton Cave, West Virginia yielded the oldest fossils of the modern coyote dating back nearly one million years. It has been estimated that the original range for coyotes was limited to the West, extending from the Sonoran desert to Alberta. Today, thanks to several factors, including the near elimination of wolves from much of North America and cross breeding of coyotes with dogs, coyotes now range from Central America all the way to northern Alaska. While the coyote was originally a creature of grassy plains and arid regions, today you will find them living almost anywhere, including major urban centers like Los Angeles.

The coyote was well known to ancient Native Americans, and was often viewed as a trickster or a changeling − a sly creature that could not be trusted. In some cultures, it was seen as a symbol of strength, which is rather surprising given the coyote’s small stature compared to the wolf and its tendency toward retreat rather than aggression. But through time, most observers of wildlife recognized that the coyote possesses an innate intelligence that serves it well in periods of hardship or rapid change.

Wolves have always been dominant over coyotes, despite some crossbreeding over the centuries. The near elimination of wolves from most of their range created a vacuum that coyotes have gradually filled. In the mid 1900s coyotes began moving eastward into the Great Lakes states. Because the early migrants were scattered, they began to breed with domestic dogs, creating a hybrid that took on characteristics that would serve it well in further migration. The hybrids were larger than the original coyotes and took on some of the appearance of large dogs, causing some to refer to them as coydogs. But scientists now believe that the period of hybridization is over. With only tiny remnant populations of wolves left in the eastern United States and Canada, the Eastern coyote is now well established in a huge region where it is often the alpha predator. A DNA study in 2014 found that the genetic mix of Eastern coyotes is 62 percent coyote, 14 percent western wolf, 13 percent eastern wolf and 11 percent domestic dog.

The Eastern coyote male may reach 45 pounds, with a body length of four feet plus a bushy tail that exceeds one foot. Females are roughly 10 percent smaller. Their fur color varies from light gray or blond to reddish brown with black and white mixed in, particularly on the stomach, chest and chin. The ears are carried erect and are rather large for the head, contributing to excellent hearing. Average height is two feet, and the long, powerful legs allow the animal to run at speeds up to 40 miles per hour. The coyote leaves a track that is elongated, while most dogs have a more rounded footprint.

While coyotes may hunt on their own, they are generally social animals that live in small family groups clustered around a mature, fertile female. Young adults may stay connected to the family for two years, and bachelor males sometimes join for short stints, perhaps to allow the pack to take on larger prey such as adult deer. If a female is soon to enter estrous, normally in midwinter, she gives off pheromones that are easily detected by the coyote’s sensitive nose, causing several males to gather around her with inevitable squabbling and jockeying for her affections. Once the female selects her mate, the other males move on in search of another promising female.

During a gestation period of two months the pair will prepare a den, often enlarging an existing fox or skunk den and sometimes using a hollow log. The male concentrates on hunting for food that he brings back to his mate, while she ensures the den is suitable and lines it with grass or her own fur. She gives birth to as many as six pups, the number affected by her health, local coyote numbers and the availability of food. The pups nurse for six to eight weeks, with the parents gradually introducing regurgitated food, and finally small morsels of meat. Both parents are involved with feeding and guarding the pups, but if the female dies before the pups are weaned, the male will abandon them.

Once the pups are capable of travel, the den is abandoned until the next winter, and the family becomes mobile, hunting across many miles while guarding their home territory. Coyotes are not particularly aggressive to interlopers and are more likely to chase and harass the offending parties until they depart. An exception is their inclination to kill any gray fox they encounter. The gray fox seems to be a creature that brings out the aggressor in a coyote. The pack’s primary focus is on locating food, using sharp eyesight and memories of past success. The many howls, barks and yips you hear when a pack is near will give you a pretty good indication of what is going on as the hunt reaches a conclusion.

Coyotes are opportunistic carnivores and eat 90 percent meat or more when it is available. The bulk of their diet is smaller creatures: rodents, rabbits, moles, mice, birds, amphibians, fish, snakes and insects. To round out the menu, coyotes are known to gorge on fruits, some vegetables, legumes and grains. In colder months, they will feast upon road kill, and they are known to attack deer weakened by age, disease or sparse winter food in yarding areas. While many deer hunters persist in believing that coyotes are the primary cause of declining whitetail populations in parts of northern Maine, researchers from the State University of New York studied carcasses of radio-collared deer and found that 92 percent of the deer died from motor vehicle hits or other accidents. Only eight of the deer had been killed by coyotes, and most of those deer had significant injuries or illness that would likely have led to their deaths in the absence of coyotes.

In New England coyotes compete with predators like fox, lynx and bobcats. While coyotes can coexist with the cats if food is plentiful, the number of coyotes in a family group allows them to dominate all of the other predators, and coyotes will kill the others in some circumstances. Adult black bears have little to fear from coyotes but newborn cubs are at risk, as are deer fawns. If the coyote population spikes in an area, their ability to harvest large numbers of rabbits, birds and rodents is likely to have a detrimental impact on other predators’ ability to find adequate food supplies.

As the population of Eastern coyotes has grown, they have inevitably come into conflict with humans. While coyotes may do quite well stealing food from backyard bird feeders, they are also attracted to livestock. The National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that coyotes were deemed responsible for roughly 60 percent of the annual 200,000 sheep depredations across the country. I can only imagine how many chickens are snatched from backyard flocks. Goats and calves are also at risk if coyotes become habituated to preying on livestock. As a result, United States government agents are still eliminating as many as 100,000 coyotes each year across the country and bounties still exist in many areas.

In cities and suburbs the conflicts may be more subtle, but no less serious. Coyotes are happy stealing food from unsecured garbage cans or outdoor dog dishes, and domestic pets are also at risk. While there are only two documented cases of humans being killed by coyotes, there are more than 200 cases of humans being attacked and injured. In cities like Los Angeles, where the desert landscape allows coyotes easy access within city limits, there are increasing reports of coyotes coming into yards, onto porches and even chasing humans walking along paths or sidewalks. When you consider that coyotes can be infected by rabies, distemper and other diseases, these close encounters with humans can only lead to trouble.

Not so many years ago, coyote pelts in prime winter condition could sell for as much as $200 each. That led many outdoorsmen to take up hunting and trapping to earn extra money. The fur is primarily used for making scarves or muffs and for trimming coat collars or hoods. The crash in the market for fur led to a collapse in fur prices and most trappers left the market. Harvest statistics for Maine show an average of roughly 1,500 coyotes trapped each year. With the average fur price for Eastern pelts this winter estimated at $20 to $30, the harvest number is not likely to go up given the hard work required to catch the wary coyote. Most of the reported demand today is from Russia. Public attitudes toward wolves have shifted dramatically in the last few decades, to the point where numerous groups champion the continued expansion of their populations, regardless of the impact on humans, livestock, elk and deer. Coyotes have no advocacy group, and in many parts of the country the common attitude is still that the only good coyote is a dead one. Most wildlife specialists and conservationists understand the role that coyotes play in a healthy, balanced environment. You have to admire an animal that has managed to thrive despite every possible human scheme to eliminate them.

December 2018