By Elizabeth Trickey
This month, on March 23rd, we celebrate coyotes. Now I have to wonder how most people feel about these animals. Coyotes are a very controversial species – intelligent, playful, and not a threat to humans, yet they can be seen as a problem, especially by farmers. Though coyotes look much like a dog, they are not particularly cuddly like your average pooch. They can sound quite eerie when you hear them howling, especially when you are camping and there’s just a thin piece of nylon between them and you….
Yes, I’ve been there! And I wouldn’t have been so nervous if I had done the research for this article first. You see, coyotes rarely attack humans. In fact, more people are killed by getting hit by golf balls than by being attacked by a coyote (and I live next to a golf course – maybe I should go back camping amongst the coyotes for safety!). Yes, you should feel safe around these animals; however, you might want to keep Bowser and Fluffy indoors when the coyotes are around….
Sometimes it can be difficult to tell a coyote from a wolf, or even a dog. This is because they share an almost identical taxonomy. Taxonomy? What’s that you ask? Aaaahhh, how well did you pay attention in your science class at school? Do you remember “King Phillip’s class ordered a family genie to speak”? No? Well, let me refresh your memory:
King – Kingdom
Phillip’s – Phylum
Class – Class
Ordered a – Order
Genie to – Genus
Speak – Species
Just so you know, humans share the same Kingdom, Phylum, and Class with the coyote. Wolves and dogs share that, plus the same Order, Family, and Genus. Surprisingly, wolves and domestic dogs continue to share the same Species, though do branch off as Subspecies. The coyote, however, is a different Species from wolves and dogs.
Hopefully, that wasn’t too technical. Sorry if it was. I find taxonomy fascinating! So let’s take a look at the coyote’s physical appearance in comparison with a wolf and dog. It is as big as a medium sized dog, smaller than a wolf and bigger than a fox, weighing between 25 and 50 lbs.
Coyotes have been described as looking similar to German shepherds, though I don’t see that. The legs of a coyote look longer and slimmer,the fur tends to be lighter in colour, the muzzle is visibly thinner, and although the height of both animals may be similar, the coyote weighs much less than the shepherd. Its stance is also very different, with coyote hind legs straighter giving its back a level appearance whereas a German shepherd’s rear legs are in a position that keep its back end lower, looking as though it is about to attack.
So let’s just look at the coyote. The thick, coarse fur of a coyote is a mix of colours including greys, black, and reddish browns. Its underside, from throat to belly, is usually white. The tail droops down, almost to the ground, and is long and bushy, often with black fur at the tip. It has a long, thin snout with large canine teeth, big pointed ears, and slanting yellow eyes….the better to smell you, to hear you, to see you. Perhaps that was a coyote that Little Red Riding Hood met up with that day in the forest? Nah, coyotes would never have eaten Grandma or Little Red!
The claws of the coyote are well worn down due to all the walking they do. Their nails are so blunt that they can’t be used in attacking prey or in defending themselves from predators. Coyotes have a reputation for being quick and shrewd, and also have an acute sense of smell and hearing, which they use skillfully in hunting. However, they have a couple of weaknesses – they sleep soundly so predators can easily sneak up on them, and when fleeing their predators, they lose ground by looking back.
The alpha male and female coyotes breed in late winter. Momma coyote chooses a secluded spot to build her den – inside a rock pile, in a hollow at the base of a tree, or in a burrow in the ground, often near a water source. Two months later, Momma gives birth to 3-12 young ones. Their eyes are shut and they are covered in soft, brown fur. The size of the litter depends on the availability of food in the area and how many coyotes share the habitat. If there are a lot of coyote families in the area, the litter is small; conversely, fewer families in the area means momma will have more pups in her litter. Isn’t nature amazing?
Momma stays in the den for a couple of weeks after the pups are born, until their eyes open. In the meantime, Papa hunts for food for the family and guards the den from predators. For this species, both parents take responsibility in raising their children. Momma nurses the babies for at least a month after which the pups begin to sample some of the food that Papa has brought back to the den. This sampling begins with eating the half-digested food that the parents have regurgitated for them. At around 5 weeks old, the pups begin to get more active and are allowed to venture outside the den under strict supervision.
Through the summer months, the pups are taught all the skills needed for their own survival. Although Momma and Papa are very protective of their children, as the pups get older, they leave them on their own, in the safety of the den, while they hunt for food for the family. Between 6 and 9 months old, the pups are able to hunt for themselves, and at this time, may strike out on their own to find a new territory.
Coyotes do lead interesting family lives, very much like humans. They often mate for life, both help look after their young, they regularly communicate with the extended family, but mostly they live either solitary lives or as a pair. They do not travel or hunt in packs like wolves do, except sometimes when hunting large game.
An important part of pup rearing involves teaching the kids how to communicate with the extended family. And I’m not talking about sending thank you notes for birthday gifts. Coyotes make distinct vocalizations to alert others of danger, to defend their territory, and to find family members – skills the pups need to learn. They may howl, bark, growl, yelp, or put out a series of high-pitched yips. A pair of coyotes can sound so amazing when they communicate that it sounds like there are many coyotes involved.
When coyotes are hunting at night, they will often howl to inform extended family of where they are. If the prey is large, they may call in assistance from them. After the hunt, they may howl to get the family together. They may also howl to warn other coyotes not to trespass on their territory. Some scientists think that the vocalizations could just be sounds of joy! When one coyote howls, others in the immediate area will howl back. Sometimes several of them will be howling at the same time. Quite the concert!
Coyotes are abundant in Canada and are not considered at all threatened. They live in many different types of habitats including forests, prairies, mountains, and even urban areas. As more and more woodlands are being taken over by humans, animals are learning to adapt in the urban environment. In towns, coyotes are often found in parks and golf courses, away from residential and commercial areas. Grey wolves have not been as adaptable, which has provided the coyotes with the double bonus of losing a prime predator and being able to take over the wolf hunting territories. Farmers have also cleared forests and brought in livestock, which is a boon to the coyotes. Talk about Uber Eats! Dinner being brought right into the coyote habitat!
Coyotes often seem to be on the move, either walking or briskly heading off somewhere. When chasing their next meal, they can run about 65km/h. They can swim well, but can’t climb trees. Most coyotes live for 10-14 years in the wild, though can live up to 20 years in captivity. The only time they use a den is when raising pups. Other times, they sleep in the open, usually with some type of coverage such as rocks or bushes.
Although coyotes are most active at dusk and through the night, especially in urban areas where they prefer to avoid humans, they will also hunt during the day when in the wild. Their prey mostly comprises rabbits and rodents, as well as deer during the winter where there is snow. This is because the deer have more difficulty running from the coyotes in deep snow. Coyotes are omnivores although the bulk of their diet is meat. They will adapt well to their current environment, whether rural or urban, and aren’t very picky – what is available is what they will eat. So they will happily chow down on plants, fruit, grass, frogs, snakes, birds, insects, and carrion. And, as mentioned earlier, Bowser, Fluffy and assorted farm animals. Just not you.
Coyote predators include the bear, cougar, wolf, mountain lion, and the eagle, which goes after the pups. Most deaths appear to be from humans, either from vehicle collisions or hunting. Humans hunt coyotes, not so much for sustenance, but for their fur. Farmers kill the ones that go after their livestock. And, very sadly, coyotes are killed because they are erroneously viewed as expendable. Hunters, in their quest for quarry, actually take part in “contests” that provide prizes for their coyote kills. Heavy sigh….
Coyotes also suffer and die from mange, a disease where mites burrow under the skin causing inflammation, itching and fur loss. Although the mites don’t kill the animals, the associated issues often lead to death unless caught early and treated. The mites under the skin are very itchy and as the coyotes try to find relief by scratching, the skin gets torn. These open sores can develop infections, which may kill the animals. Not only does the scratching cause open wounds, but the fur is also scraped off, which is catastrophic in cold weather. During the winter, the coyotes need their fur to survive in the freezing temperatures. Without it, they will die from hypothermia. With all the itching, infections, and fur loss, the coyotes feel so sick that they aren’t up to hunting for prey. They lose weight and eventually die from malnutrition.
As much as farmers may accuse coyotes of being detrimental, they are actually a natural pest-control company in that they keep fox and raccoons in check and kill the insects and rodents that damage crops. Some farmers, who mistakenly believe coyotes to be more of a problem than a benefit, kill them. Scientific studies have shown that this is an ineffective, counter-productive attempt at a solution. This is, in part, because coyote family territories are under the control of an alpha male and female. They are the only ones that breed in that territory. If an alpha coyote is killed, the other coyotes in that area compete to be the next alpha coyote by breeding indiscriminately. This just leads to more coyote births in that territory, which leads to more coyote mouths to feed. Quite counter-productive, I’d say.
What humans need to realize is that ecosystems have a balance of living things, and when we tear down the natural environment and build structures, this causes a lot of strain on the animals that are displaced. They have to either move away or adapt, and not all species are successful at this. Coyotes have adapted to human development, and being a keystone species, they have helped to maintain appropriate predator/prey diversity and are a much-needed part of the ecosystem. Without them, their prey would become over-abundant and more than just an occasional nuisance. The entire ecosystem would be at risk.
So what do we do? Let’s begin by accepting the role of coyotes in our environment. We need to respect them, give them their space, and learn to be creative in protecting our properties and ourselves. Coyotes can get habituated to humans, which means they can get comfortable around us, lose their fear, and that’s when conflicts tend to happen.
Many issues occur when people leave food in the outdoors. This might include seeds for birds and squirrels, bowls of food for their domesticated pets, compost, fallen fruit from trees that is still on the ground, or leftovers and scraps in garbage bins. All animals will be attracted to these treats, so the coyotes get a veritable smorgasbord of all that food as well as the prey that is eating it! If coyotes are a problem around your home, you might want to consider whether you are unintentionally attracting them in this way.
Remember Bowser and Fluffy? Many people allow their pets to roam freely on their properties and leash-free while out walking. This is just asking for trouble! Coyotes are predators that go after small animals. They don’t know the difference between a feral cat and a pet cat. People have been bitten while trying to rescue their pets from coyotes. Don’t put you, Bowser or Fluffy, in that position!
If you have a backyard that you want to keep coyotes from enjoying, consider putting up a fence. It would have to be at a height of 8’ (coyotes can jump 6’ fences) and preferably smooth so the coyotes can’t get traction when they try to scamper over it. There are also “coyote rollers” that can be installed at the top of fences. These are cylinders, like big, heavy-duty toilet rolls, that are mounted on top of your fence to keep unwanted animals out and wanted animals in. Rumour has it, they work!
When out walking, keep your dog on a leash and carry a whistle – coyotes won’t like the loud noise. In fact, you can yell, stomp your feet, wave your arms over your head, clap your hands, or throw something at it. Face the coyote, keep eye contact, be assertive, and don’t run away.
On a personal note, I am a wildlife rehabber. I do live across from a golf course. I am bordered on the south side by a small forest and on the west side by a wetland. There have been coyotes seen next to my home. And fox, deer, wild turkeys, opossums, skunks, minks, muskrat, and tons of chipmunks and squirrels. I love being a part of their world. There is no reason why we can’t all live safely together. I’m careful to give them their space, and they, in turn, don’t bother me. As Red Green would say “we’re all in this together”!
Header Photo and photos below courtesy of Jen Howard
Note from the Editor:
In the winter of 2019, a coyote came to Procyon Wildlife that was suffering from a serious case of mange. He was in such bad condition that most of his fur was gone, thus, he was named Samson by Director Debra Spilar. In April of 2019, Samson was released. Enjoy the images below of the journey he took while in our care at the Centre and see pictures of his subsequent release. Also, you can watch Samson’s release by clicking here.