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Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Cunning Coyote

Coyote, Canis latrans

Although the coyote has been (and continues to be) one of the most persecuted mammals in human history, this is largely due to the common misconceptions and myths that surround the species.  Add the fact that they are a highly intelligent animal with keen senses of hearing, sight, and smell, and you can easily see why they are the subject of such scrutiny.

About the size of a small German shepherd, the coyote weighs an average of 25 to 40 pounds, with long, slender legs, a bushy tail with a black tip, and large ears that are held erect.  While its coat can vary, it is usually grey or buff-colored and its snout is long and slender.  A strong swimmer, the coyote characteristically runs with its tail down, instead of horizontally like foxes or up like wolves and dogs.  Primarily nocturnal and very opportunistic, coyotes will eat almost anything, but in Texas they prefer rabbits, rodents, and insects.  Because coyotes can utilize many different food sources and humans have all but exterminated its main predator, the wolf, coyotes have rapidly spread to all parts of the country, including urban and suburban areas.  

Considered monogamous with pairs living together for several years, coyotes are usually shy and elusive, but are frequently seen individually, in pairs, or in small groups, especially when near food.  A family group, more commonly known as a pack, consists of the parents, their pups, and, occasionally, the previous year's pups.  Male and female coyotes pair up, establish a territory, and breed from mid-January to early March.  Normally utilizing a natural cavity or a den dug by another mammal, they will make the necessary renovations by excavating multiple escape tunnels linked to the surface.  After a gestation period of 63 to 65 days, a litter of five to seven pups is born. During the weeks following the birth, the male will bring food to the family, but the female will not allow him inside the den. Coyotes normally may live from 10 to 12 years.

It is easy to get the impression that an area is overflowing with coyotes when one hears a family’s howls.  It reality, there are probably only 2-6 individuals in a pack!  While some people may find it a bit unnerving, coyotes use howling as a means of communication to tell non-family members to stay out of their territory, to locate one another within their territory, to distract other coyotes away from young pups, and as a means for older pups to practice mimicking their parents.

Due to misconceptions and fears about coyotes, many people don't recognize the beneficial aspects that coyotes contribute to our ecosystem. Predators, such as the coyote, serve a valuable function in keeping prey species in balance with their habitat. Populations of small animals, such as rodents and insects, could increase out of control without predators. Coyotes can reduce the number of small animals that homeowners and gardeners consider as pests. While coyotes may change ecological balances of predator and prey species somewhat, they will not eliminate other species from the environment. Many scavenger animals, such as foxes and vultures, benefit from coyote predation on other animals through increased food availability from leftover carcasses.

Coyotes are naturally afraid of people and their presence alone is not a cause for concern, though they can become habituated to rely on human-related sources of food.  Simple steps you can take to peacefully coexist with them include keeping your garbage and recycling inside and secure until the morning of pickup, closing off crawlspaces under porches and decks, feeding your pets indoors, keeping your pets indoors at night (especially cats and small dogs), and educating your neighbors to do the same.

Like all wild animals, coyotes have a right to inhabit our wild places, including the preserves that border our suburban homes.  If you do your part to help strike a proactive balance between humans and these wild creatures and respect their right to exist, you may well be rewarded with a familial chorus of howls on a moonlit night!