The coyote

Adaptable and intelligent, the coyote goes east to seek his fortune and ends up in the doghouse



Introduction

The box says Acme Explosives; the target is that pesky bird that zips across mesas and breezes through desert canyons with one goal in life – to confound the ravenous Wile E. Coyote. Somehow, the coyote is the victim of his own schemes; he gets bulldozed, blown up, and otherwise clobbered in every episode.

The Roadrunner cartoons are great fun, but the caricature of the coyote is obviously drawn more from a human empathy with the underdog (“under-bird”?) than a desire to correctly depict the predator-prey relationship. But in real life, the tables are turned; it is the coyote who has the brains, the cunning, the sense of humor, and the determination to survive, and survive he has done.

The coyote (Canis latrans, barking dog) is cousin to the domestic dog and the wolf. He is native to the prairies (thus another nickname, prairie wolf) and desert canyons of the west, but circumstances have allowed him to extend his range from southern Canada to Costa Rica in Central America. In recent decades, he has crossed the Mississippi River and made himself at home in cities, suburbs, and rural areas in the eastern US, where he has become a potential danger to pets, livestock, and even humans.

Versatile beyond belief, the coyote feasts on a wide variety of foods from fruits and insects to rodents and carrion and is keenly aware of all inhabitants and objects in his territory. He is wary of change and curious about human activities; he may play with sticks or discarded pop cans, and may even draw man or pet dog into the game. But his adaptability has a down-side; he may also kill chickens and rabbits in the barnyard; attack sheep, goats, and calves in the pasture; and prey on cats and small dogs in suburban yards. Although coyotes generally try to avoid people and assaults on humans are extremely rare, confrontations between people and coyotes are becoming more common: a few children have been bitten and some dogs and cats have been killed.

Suburban coyotes are often drawn to backyards by garbage, by outdoor feeding of cats, and perhaps by feeding stations set up to attract birds and small mammals such as rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks. Eliminating these sources of food can force them to move elsewhere.


Appearance

The Pennsylvania Game Commission website (1) describes the eastern version of the coyote as larger than his western brother, perhaps from cross-breeding with wolves.

At first impression, the coyote resembles a small German Shepherd Dog, but yellow eyes, black lines on the legs, and a cylindrical, low hanging tail are distinguishing characteristics. (2) He’s smaller than the wolf but has the same muscular appearance and protective coat of his cousin. In keeping with the general biological principle that northern varieties of species are larger than their southern counterparts, coyotes vary in size from 25 pounds in Mexico to 75 pounds in the mountains and the northern reaches of their range. Eastern coyotes vary from 35-55 pounds with males considerably larger than females. Length from stem to stern, including the bushy tail, can exceed five feet; height is up to 26 inches at the shoulder.

The coyote coat has guard hairs to protect him from the weather and a thick undercoat for insulation. Body coat color varies from brownish yellow to reddish gray, with darker colors more common in the northern reaches of the territory. Legs, feet, and ears are rusty, and underparts are whitish. The tail has a black tip. His long legs, pointed muzzle and upright, pointed ears complete the picture.

Like dogs, coyotes have four canine teeth, two upper and two lower, for grabbing and holding prey. The canines are not as sharp as those of a large cat. The premolars behind the canine teeth assist in tearing chunks of meat from larger prey. Canids also have molars for chewing, but these teeth don’t get much workout unless the animal is crunching bones or eating small, hard objects such as nuts.

Skeletal structure, muscles, and the tendons and ligaments that bind the package together are geared to survival. The coyote can run down his prey, leap and twist to follow rabbit and rodent, and lope for hours without tiring.


Natural history

The coyote’s habits depend largely on climate and habitat. Those that live in desert country tend to be active at twilight and dawn, when temperatures are cooler. Those that live in temperate climates may forage during daylight hours, unless they have been harassed by human inhabitants of their territory. During winter, when food is scarce, they will hunt day and night; during summer months, if food is plentiful, they may hunt at night and sleep during the warmest daylight hours.

Coyotes are very vocal. Their yips, barks, and howls pierce backcountry skies and are more and more often heard in suburbia as their range extends to residential backyards and urban and suburban parks. This repertoire has given the prairie wolf yet another nickname: song dog.

Recent reports indicate that, far from being complete loners, coyotes often hunt in family groups and cooperate to bring down both large and small prey. Coyotes may double team rodents; while one animal digs at the burrow, the other waits for the rodent to emerge from an escape hole. They have also been known to team up to kill deer: one observer reported that three coyotes chased a deer towards an ambush set by two others.

Coyote females may be courted by several males but choose only one mate. Breeding takes place in January or February, with six-to-nine pups born in a den or hollow log after a gestation period of about 60 days. Pups are born with eyes and ears closed and without the ability to regulate their body temperature. Eyes open in about two weeks, ears in about three weeks, and temperature regulation improves from birth. Pups stay with Mom and Dad for several months, learning to hunt successfully before trotting off to fend for themselves.

Infant mortality is high. Distemper takes its toll, as does human predation. Heavy roundworm infestations can also kill pups. Some youngsters may be killed by older pairs or by resident packs if they trespass on occupied territory.


Rabies

A strain of rabies specific to canids has devastated coyotes in Texas and led to quarantine on transporting unvaccinated dogs and cats, wolf and coyote hybrids, and several species of wild animals within and out of the state. The state health department also planned to drop vaccine-laced bait to stop the spread of the disease. Although there is no evidence of rabies in Ohio’s coyote population, dog owners should reduce the risk by having their pets vaccinated.


Danger to humans

Although they are among the most successful mammals in the world, coyotes have been considered vermin by farmers and ranchers for more than 100 years. According to the County of El Dorado (California) Department of Agriculture: “Coyotes can cause substantial damage. In rural areas they oftentimes kill sheep, calves, and poultry. In some parts of the state they cause damage to drip irrigation systems by biting holes in the pipe. In other areas they cause considerable damage to watermelons, citrus fruits, and avocados. Aircraft safety is often jeopardized when coyotes take up residence on or near runways. Coyotes have also been known to prey on various endangered/threatened species, including the San Joaquin kit fox and the California least tern. In urban and suburban areas, coyotes commonly take domestic house cats, small dogs, poultry, and other domestic animals. Coyotes have been known to attack humans, and in one case, a three-year-old girl was killed by a coyote in southern California.”

The wily canid moved into niches abandoned by wolves when the latter were destroyed as competitors for game or killers of livestock. Habitat manipulation played a part in coyote expansion as well; open farmland is far more conducive to the coyote’s lifestyle than that of the wolf.

Wholesale poison campaigns promoted by the US Department of Agriculture were based on the supposition that coyotes were a threat to livestock, particularly sheep, but examination of coyote remains indicated that most coyotes that feasted on domestic stock did so after the animal died of natural causes or had been killed by another predator.

Coyotes are featured in news stories recently as they wend their way through and around cities and suburbs. In a rare incident, a child was attacked in his backyard in Sandwich, Massachusetts, in late July 1998; his mother kicked and beat the animal until it released her four-year-old son. Police later shot and killed it.

Massachusetts wildlife officials said that the population of coyotes in the state appears to be growing and that control is difficult in part because the state has banned the use of leghold traps. Ohio and Kentucky have no trapping restrictions, but animal rights proponents thwarted a plan to trap coyotes in a Dayton, Ohio, suburb. Richard Jasper, assistant wildlife management supervisor in Ohio’s Wildlife District Five in Xenia, said that individual coyotes or pairs may feed on livestock, but that such animals are outlaws akin to human bank robbers or other criminals and not representative of the species.

“A blanket approach is probably a waste of time and resources,” Jasper said, “so we may as well target the ones causing the problem.”

Ohio’s coyotes are accustomed to living near people, Jasper said, because we were here first and they moved in. The story out west is different; there the song dog is native, and humans encroached on his habitat when establishing ranches, industries, towns, and homes.

The wildlife officer said he began to hear about coyotes in southwestern Ohio in the early 1980s. The first report came from Dayton Airport, when a pilot from Dallas landed his aircraft.

“He told me he took off from Dallas with coyotes running on the runway, and he landed in Dayton with coyotes on the runway,” Jasper said.

Today, coyotes can be found throughout Ohio and Kentucky along with other eastern states. The Pennsylvania Game Commission estimated that state’s mid-1990s population at 20,000-30,000 animals. Some reports of coyotes may be feral dogs that resemble the wild ones or may be coyote-dog mixes known as coydogs. However, a study done in the early 1980s by examining the carcasses of coyotes caught inadvertently by trappers showed that the great majority of the animals were indeed specimens of Canis latrans.

In September 2002, residents of a Cincinnati suburb reported that their 10-pound Poodle had been killed by five coyotes that jumped over the fence into the yard.3 Dave Risley of the Ohio Division of Wildlife told the Cincinnati Enquirer that the five coyotes involved could have been a mother teaching her cubs to hunt.(3)

Jasper said that owners should not tempt fate. In areas where coyotes have been spotted, he said that owners should be cautious with their pets. The Fairfield, Ohio, City Council had a different idea: residents reported increasing sightings of these wild dogs, and rather than wait until a serious confrontation occurred, the mayor asked the police department to purchase several traps to set along a creek where coyotes are frequently seen. (4)

Coyotes are here to stay. These animals have been shot, poisoned, trapped, and otherwise harassed by man, yet they have flourished. We should accept their help in controlling rats and mice, respect their tenacity, admire their wildness, and salute their curiosity and playfulness. We should also recognize the potential threat to children, pets, and livestock, not only from direct contact but from their potential to spread diseases such as rabies and canine distemper and be prepared to control the song dog when necessary.

For more information about coyotes, see various natural history books and Don Coyote, The Good Times and Bad Times of a Maligned American Original by Dayton O. Hyde. Published in 1986 by Arbor House in New York. Don Coyote is available in many public libraries.


Notes:

  1. County of El Dorado Department of Agriculture, http://www.atasteofeldorado.com/wildlife/coyotes.html
  2. “Dog-eating coyotes outfox sharpshooters” by Susan Vela, The Cincinnati Enquirer, September 17, 2002
  3. “Fairfield police to try trapping bold coyotes” by John Kiesewetter, The Cincinnati Enquirer, December 3, 2003
(Rev/12/03)
Norma Bennett Woolf

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