National Coyote Day on March 23rd

By Elizabeth Trickey

Coyote rehabilitated at Procyon Wildlife prior to its release

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….

Young coyotes being rehabilitated at Procyon Wildlife Centre

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
Family- Family
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.

German Shepherd By Hans Kemperman
Coyote, photo by Jennifer Howard
Grey Wolf, photo taken by Jennifer Howard at the Haliburton Wolf Centre.

 

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.

Coyote pup. Photo by Jennifer Howard

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.

Coyote pup. Photo by Jennifer Howard

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. 

Howling coyote by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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!

Coyote at Procyon Wildlife prior to its release back to the wilds.

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.

Hunting squirrel in Stanley Park by Michael Schmidt

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….

Samson The Coyote (1)
Samson the Coyote came to Procyon in the winter of 2019. He was successfully rehabilitated and released in April of that same year.

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!

Wood fence with Rollers by Rollers Direct

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.

 

International Polar Bear Day on Feb 27th

By Elizabeth Trickey

Polar bears – beautiful to view and so interesting to learn about.  That’s why I travelled up to Churchill, Manitoba, the polar bear capital of the world, to spend some time watching these amazing creatures.  I spent several days and nights on the shores of Hudson Bay – the nights spent in a trailer (similar to rail car with bunk beds, a dining room and a lounge) and during the day, travelling about the Arctic plain in a Tundra Buggy.  The buggy was like a wide bus with huge tires and an outdoor viewing platform. 

A Tundra Buggy in Churchill by Studiogirl54

Our buggy driver was wonderful, providing lots of information for the passengers.  I took this tour at the height of polar bear season and was surprised at how few bears I actually saw over the 3 days I was out looking.  October and November are the months when they are most abundant around Churchill, since this is the time of year when polar bears migrate through the area, waiting for the bay to freeze over.    

Polar bears are the only bear species to be considered marine animals.  They can swim for days at a time as they move between ice floes.  Even though they only use their front paws to swim, they can reach speeds up to 10km/h.  

The first thing I should mention is that there are 19 sub-populations of polar bears in the Arctic and this article primarily discusses the one in Western Hudson Bay.  These polar bears have a migration pattern that starts around the Churchill area.  When winter approaches and the waters of Hudson Bay begin to freeze up, the polar bears climb aboard the newly frozen ice to go seal hunting, ringed seals being their main food source.  The bears travel over the frozen ice, out to where the ice is fractured.  This is because the seals they are hunting need a place to get out of the water, which is where the bears often lie in wait for them.    

polar bear hunting on ice by By Andreas Weith

Ice may be solid and appear non-moving, but the water underneath is not, and as the current moves, so does the ice.  The polar bears spend the next 7-8 months feeding on seals as the ice floes drift away from the Churchill area.  As the warmer spring weather arrives, the ice melts and the bears make their way back to the land.  However, due to the drifting ice, they end up much further south.  The polar bears gradually make their way back to Churchill by land to wait for the next freeze-up.  During this land migration, they eat very little, so it important that they build up stores of fat during the seal hunt to get them through to the next hunt. 

 

 

As with most things, there are exceptions.  This annual routine does not happen with female polar bears that are pregnant.  Mating occurs in the winter when the bears are out on the ice, feeding on seals.  The egg implantation does not occur until the following autumn, and only if the mother bear is healthy enough.  At this point, the mother has not eaten for months and will not eat again until after the cubs are born and old enough to venture outside of their den, which is usually early spring.  That means that the mother may not eat for up to 8 months.  Wow!  Now that’s dedication to her cubs! 

During the autumn, after the land migration back to the Churchill area, the pregnant polar bears make very small dens out of peat and snow.  They do not join the other bears that return to the ice.  Mothers give birth to 1-4 cubs (usually just 2) in the winter.  A COY (cub of the year) stays with its mother for about 2 years. It is very tiny at birth, less than 1½ pounds, with very little fur, but the cub grows fast.  By 3 months old, it is about 25 pounds.  Mother’s milk has a very high fat content that helps the cub grow quickly.  It nurses for 1 or 2 years depending on the health of the mother, since nursing takes a lot of energy. 

In those first 2 years with Momma Bear, the cub is taught all that is needed to survive in the harsh winter environment, such as migration, dealing with potential dangers, and hunting for seals.  Oh, and staying away from Papa Bear.  Male polar bears will sometimes try to kill the cubs or even the mother.  A few reasons have been suggested as to why this happens including because the male wants to mate, he’s hungry, or just because he can.  Scientists do not know for sure.  After that 2 year period of learning, the cub lives on its own and is considered “sub-adult” until it is about 5 years old.  Polar bear cub pictures by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

 

 

 

Polar bears facts:

  • solitary animals 
  • live for 25-30 years in the wild and up to 35 years in captivity 
  • females reach reproductive maturity at about 5 years old and tend to have a litter every 3 years
  • 22 000 – 31 000 polar bears worldwide 
  • 60% of all polar bears live in Canada 
  • males can weigh up to 1700 lbs and are 6-10 feet long 
  • have 3 eyelids (an extra lid to protect from the icy weather) 
  • fur is translucent though looks white, but their skin is black 
  • have blue tongues 
  • can smell prey up to a kilometer away 
  • no natural predators and no fear of humans 
  • can run 40km/h

Not all polar bears sit quietly by the bay, waiting for the freeze-up.  They will occasionally hunt for terrestrial food such as birds, rabbits and foxes.  After all, they haven’t eaten much in 4 months!  Interestingly, the bears have an inherent ability to judge the energy they will expend in chasing an animal vs. the energy they will get by eating it.  These bears seem to know that unless they can catch the prey quickly, it isn’t worth the effort.  So mostly, polar bears are just couch potatoes (tundra biscuits?) just lazing around, until it’s time to go hunting for seals.   

What Churchill polar bears have learned is that not all potential food moves quickly, and sometimes it doesn’t move at all.  Bears have been known to leave the coastline and stroll into the town looking for food.  They might find delicious treats in garbage or food storage sheds.  Or meet up with an unlucky resident out walking the dog!  For this reason, there is a city by-law in Churchill that says you must keep your car doors unlocked in case somebody needs to take shelter quickly!  I kid you not.  OK, how many of you who are reading this are already googling that?   

Churchill is a very small town with less than 900 people.  They have learned to live around the bears as safely as possible by adjusting their lifestyles.  Signs around town say “Don’t walk, get a ride” or “Look before exiting building”.  They have an amazing recreation centre that has everything you could ever want – hockey and curling rinks, swimming pool, gyms, a library, health centre, high school, playground, and even a theatre!  All in one big complex where the bears aren’t allowed!  Hallowe’en, which occurs at the height of polar bear season, is a major event that involves the entire town making sure the children are safe as they enjoy their special night.  It is good to know that some humans are respecting wildlife and learning to live peacefully alongside them.   

But we all know that things don’t always work according to the plan.  That’s why there is jail.  Yes, Churchill has a jail for those that don’t heed warnings.  For the polar bears, that is!  When bears come into town, despite being redirected back to the coast, they are put in jail for a minimum of 30 days.  And they stay at the ‘crowbar hotel’ until the bay freezes over.  It is then that they get pardoned and released about 40 miles north of Churchill where they can continue their migration onto the ice and away from the town. 

Churchill polar bear jail picture courtesy of the Manitoba Government

 

Most of us know that different species can mate, making a hybrid.  Like the wolf and coyote – we now have coywolves; horses and donkeys beget mules; and cauliflower and broccoli produce a broccoflower!  Well, did you know that polar bears have mated with grizzly bears?  They are called either “grolars” or “pizzlies”!  It is often the polar bear that is the female of this match, and because it is the mother who raises the cubs, these hybrids are raised as polar bears.  This is a very rare occurrence since the 2 species of bear don’t tend to share the same habitat.  I’ll bet some of you are googling that fact, too!  

Pol​ar/brown bear hybrid (Pizzlies) by Corradox

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Polar bears are an important part of our world.  They are considered a “keystone” species, which means they have a critical role in their ecosystem, being the predator at the top.  Polar bears keep their habitat in balance and their own health has a direct impact on all other life in their environment.    

For thousands of years, polar bears have also provided a living for people living in northern communities who have hunted them for food and material resources such as clothing, tools and bedding.  For areas like Churchill that are home to polar bears, the bears provide tourism dollars to those communities.   

As global warming melts the sea ice, these polar bears have less time to feed on seals.  As mentioned earlier, they are marine animals so they need the ice to survive.  The only reason they are on land is to make their way back to the northern ice where they can begin feeding again.  As it is, the bears go without food for several months during the summer while they migrate back north.  Less time on the ice means less time to eat.  This is an issue for all polar bears, especially the pregnant ones.  And that equates to fewer cubs being born, and those that are born are at risk of malnutrition.  

Being on land for much longer periods, hungry polar bears will start looking for other food sources.  This includes the greater possibility of human conflicin coastal communities where bears go looking for food while waiting for the ice to freeze.  The bears may also begin finding other animals or vegetation to eat.  Because our natural world is a balance, this would upset that balance and create shortages of food for other species. 

The loss of sea ice also contributes to habitat destruction since the open water allows for more shipping through the polar bear habitat.  As well, industries have begun looking to the Arctic for oil and gas sources.  The polar bear ecosystem will be put in danger with the threat of oil spills and poisoning due to the use of toxic chemicals, not just for themselves, but also for their prey.    

There is much controversy about the polar bear population in Canada.  Some studies will say that more bears are being counted so they are increasing in number.  Well, yes, more bears will be counted because they are on land for a significantly longer period of time and they are more visible on land than when they blend into the ice.  Northern communities are saying that they are experiencing more bears coming into their towns.  Does that mean there are more bears overall or that the bears aren’t getting enough seals, so they are looking for other food sources in towns?  What is the most telling about the polar bear population is that fewer cubs are being born.   

It is difficult to say how all polar bear populations are faring since their habitats cover the entire Arctic, in areas so remote that it is impossible to study.  Some of these regions are extremely cold so melting ice may not be an issue.  In colder areas such as Greenland, there is less ice loss, and polar bear numbers appear to be steady.  

Depending on the country where polar bears are found, their status is anywhere from “Special Concern” to “Threatened”.  In the next 30 years, the number of polar bears in Canada is expected to drop by a third.  Although it is thought that the bears could gradually adapt to a warmer climate, they cannot adapt quickly enough in the face of human induced global warming.  The polar bears need the sea ice, which is their habitat, in order to survive.   

Although industry is a major cause of global warming, all activities that generate heat will contribute to this problem.  People use furnaces in the winter and air conditioners in the summer, both of which generate heat through use.  Just get close to the exhaust pipe on your car after driving somewhere to see how much heat is being put into the atmosphere.  Lots of things in our homes give off heat – TVs, computers, hair dryers, stoves, lights, hot water tanks, and dishwashers. 

We can all do our part in reducing global warming.  On February 27th help the polar bears by finding ways to reduce your carbon output throughout the year.  Put on a sweater and turn down your thermostat.  Leave the car at home and walk or bike to the store and work.  Make sure your house is energy efficient.  Let’s all be part of the solution.

Churchill polar bear photos below courtesy of the author Elizabeth Trickey.