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Coyotes

Coyote Close-UpWho are coyotes? Coyotes are individuals. Your average little coyote is cunning, intelligent, curious, playful, protective, adventurous, independent, self-reliant, self-sufficient, has family values, a frontier spirit and strong individuality. Hey, aren't these the same rugged characteristics in which we ourselves take pride? — Janet Kessler for WildCare 

What is a coyote, really? In Native American legend, Coyote displays human-like intelligence, scheming ingenuity and impishness. He is a self-seeking trickster, whipping up discord and testing and disregarding moral principles. Wherever Coyote goes, he brings about changes, both good and bad.

Is that an accurate portrayal of a coyote? Kind of. The coyote is resourceful and clever, often outsmarting his human and animal predators. Coyote can raise litters in a hostile environment and frustrate those who seek his demise by, well, "outsmarting" them. Anyone observing a coyote may well ascribe the same traits that they would to a human who was able to do the same, whether or not the descriptions are accurate.

Coyotes are one of a handful of existing carnivores that evolved on the North American continent. Canis latrans (literally "barking dog") has been in existence in its current form for over 1 million years. It evolved from the species Canis lepophagus that is believed to have existed on the North American continent up to 7 million years ago. Except for being slightly smaller, C. lepophagus was otherwise identical in form to our present day coyotes. Importantly, to survive for millennia a species must be highly resilient (replenish their numbers quickly), be able to survive on many different food sources (i.e., a generalist), and be quick to adapt to new situations.

 

How would you describe a coyote? Read on. 

Coyote Communication

Physical Description

Coyotes are members of the dog family. Coyote colors and sizes are different depending upon location. They can weigh from 20 to 50 pounds and are gray, reddish, or tan (usually a combination of colors) and generally have lighter chins, chests and bellies. The eyes are usually yellow or amber with circular pupils. The ears are wide, pointed and erect. The muzzle is slender and tapering, with a black nose. Coyotes have long, lean legs and a bushy, feather-duster tail, usually with a darker tip. At a glance, a coyote resembles a medium-sized dog like a small German shepherd.

Communication – And the Soundtrack to Every Western Ever Made

Coyotes are the most vocal of the wild canines; at least 11 different kinds of vocalization have been documented, including woofs, barks, yips, growls, yelps, lone howls, group howls, greeting songs, and group yip-howls. Given this vast repertoire, more study is required to determine the precise meanings of these sounds, although scientists have a basic understanding of many sounds.

Mother coyotes are known to signal to their pups with calls that indicate danger, dinner, or other more complex feelings. Their very distinct yip-howl is used to keep pack members in communication when they are separated, but it has also been heard simply as a means of expressing some deeper feelings of the animal. Barking and distress howls are used as warnings to other coyotes that are approaching territory borders.

When you hear coyotes howl, you may think that you are hearing many animals. Two can sound like six because of their complex, interruptive, variable vocalizations. Sometimes their hauntingly beautiful songs echo off nearby rock walls, exacerbating the illusion of many animals.

However, like other canids, coyotes don't rely solely on sound to communicate. They also communicate through their gait, posture and the position of their tails, and scent marking is as important to a coyote as to the family dog—perhaps more so since your dog isn't likely to get into a fight to the death over territory.

 

How are coyotes doing? That's the next page. 

Coyote Lunch

Growing Populations

Because coyotes are intelligent and highly adaptable predators, they have been characterized as fierce killers, resulting in centuries of persecution. Yet despite relentless harassment and trapping for fur, this species is thriving. As humans have expanded where they live, the ranges of most mammalian predators have gotten smaller. The coyote is an exception.

One reason for this expansion of territories is that coyotes are not particular about what they eat, making them able to live nearly anywhere. They are predators, scavengers and omnivores; coyotes eat nearly anything at any time. The coyote's preferred diet includes those creatures easiest to catch—gophers, rats, voles, mice, rabbits and ground-nesting birds. However, they are opportunistic feeders that eat road kill, insects, grass, fruits, berries, seeds, prickly pear cactus and the kills of other animals. They also eat squirrels, beavers, deer, elk, amphibians, lizards, snails, crawdads and fish. Although their diets are largely natural, urban coyotes are able to find food in household garbage, compost piles and bird feeders and make meals of pets and pet food. Urban coyotes may make their dens in natural open spaces, storm drains, under storage sheds, or in holes dug in vacant lots, parks and golf courses.

Hunting

Coyotes hunt either alone or in groups. Watch a coyote as he wanders a field. He walks slowly, intentionally, stalking, looking for prey. He leans back, holds that posture, and pounces on a one-bite mouse meal. Coyotes that hunt in groups have strategies. Some pairs of coyotes or family groups use the relay method to pursue small deer and antelope. Others use ambush techniques, and still others use a combination, whereby one or more coyotes will drive prey past others lying in wait. Although not generally thought of as a pack animal, it is clear social structure helps coyotes thrive.

 

What about social structure? Onward. 

Coyote Siblings

Social Structure & Family Ties

Coyotes' social structure relies on strong family bonds. However, there is as much variety in coyote families as in human families. Coyote packs, or families, could consist of an alpha pair (the parents) and three to eight additional family members. Or the "pack" might just be a pair bond. Or any combination in between. Coyotes are also often solitary. The size of the pack usually depends on the availability of food, the amount of territory available and the family's dynamics. The parents of the pack members are the only ones to mate unless one of them is killed. Subordinate helpers—older offspring, including males—assist in defense of the young, den-sitting, bringing food back to the den and defending the young of the year.

Some pups disperse and join with other dispersed animals to form new mating pairs and packs. This rearrangement of the pack occurs in late fall, when that year's pups either become nomadic, remain as members of the pack or leave to potentially begin packs of their own in an adjacent territory.

The territory occupied by a pack varies in size, depending on population density and availability of food. Coyote territories range from 2 to 40 square miles in size. Ranges often expand in winter when prey is scarce and contract in summer. Home ranges for nomads are much larger, as they need to avoid established pack territories. Coyotes of all ages seem to know the topography of their territories intimately. They know where it's best to hunt, hide and sleep. As with most canines, coyotes mark their territorial borders by scent marking with urine. Coyotes tend to avoid wandering into the territories of other packs, especially during mating season and right after pups are born when the pack is the most territorial and defensive.

 

What about pups? That's the next page. 

Coyote Pup

Reproduction

(Unless otherwise noted, the information in this section is taken from Carlson, Debra Anne, "Reproductive Biology of the Coyote (Canis latrans): Integration of Behavior and Physiology" (2008). All Graduate Theses and Dissertations. Paper 104.) 

The coyote mating system is outstanding among mammals because of a rare combination of certain features: 1) coyotes generally form strong pair bonds; (2) females come into heat for only a short period of time each year; 3) both parents raise the young; 4) coyotes other than the parents contribute to raising the young; and 5) both mates participate in establishing and defending their territory.

Monogamy is rare in mammals—only 3-5% of mammals are monogamous, as compared to 90% of birds. In biology, monogamy is defined as a mating system of one male and one female forming an exclusive social pair bond. The two individuals share a territory and cohabit, and both individuals take care of the progeny in some way. Monogamy is a stable mating strategy within species that require more than one adult to help successfully rear offspring. While coyotes aren't truly monogamous, they do tend to remain together as a pair more so than most mammals, which helps in raising the young. In coyotes, both sexes provide food to pups after weaning. In addition, if one parent is lost, the other may be able to raise the young.

The female has a short fertile period each year, thought to be only about 10 days. Mating occurs in mid- to late winter. Because multiple changes occur within the female's reproductive tract in preparation for ovulation, it likely that a female coyote is incapable of serial ovulations, even if she is not impregnated during her first estrus. Coyotes in the same locations apparently experience estrus at nearly the same time.

When persecuted, juveniles can enter their first reproductive cycle at approximately 10 months of age.  When not pressured, females reach sexual maturity around 2 years of age, but usually do not breed until they are 4-6 years old.

In most of North America, litters averaging 3-7 pups are typically born between March and May after a gestation of 60-63 days. As few as two young might survive until fall due to disease or predation by eagles, owls, rattlesnakes, or other predatory mammals. Unfortunately, pups are also a target of hunters and ranchers concerned with "controlling" the coyote population.  With increasing numbers of coyotes making their homes closer to urban areas, cars and trains also play a large role in the mortality rates of young coyotes.

The young leave the den for the first time at about 2-3 weeks and are weaned at about 5-7 weeks, depending on the availability of meat. As pups progress to solid food, their diet consists of small animals brought back to the den and regurgitated food from older pack members.

Most pups stay with their parents for several years. Some pups, usually male offspring, may leave their parents before they are one year old. Females may stay with their parents for their entire lives. When under duress or exploitation, pups can begin dispersing from their natal territories as early as 6-9 months of age. Dispersal by young animals is highly risky; dispersing coyotes suffer much higher mortality than do their siblings that remain with the parents.

Denning

Did you know that coyotes do not use dens year-round? Mother coyotes use the dens to give birth and nurse their young. Even when the pups move out of a den, the family retains use of the well-hidden areas around the dens; these become their secret resting places. A coyote den is similar to a bird's nest; it is a temporary nursery. Dens, like nests, may be fixed up the next year to be used again.

A den may be no more than a hidden nook under a dense shrub, or it may be located in a burrow. Both parents dig the den, usually on sandy hillsides, steep creek banks, or under logs or rocks where the digging is easy. Den sites are always chosen for protective concealment and are places that can be watched by a coyote parent from some distance. Coyotes sometimes dig out and enlarge holes dug by smaller animals, such as badgers or foxes.

Dens may be located three to six feet below the surface and can run from only a few feet to 30+ feet into a hillside. The tunnel may connect to a large chamber that has another or more hidden entrances. It is challenging to find active dens because of the various entrances—and because coyotes are careful not to lead anyone there. Coyotes usually have not one but several dens that they move between, not only to protect the pups from predators, but also to protect the pups from fleas and other parasites that build up in a constantly used confined area.  A coyote will fiercely defend its den if it believes the pups are in danger.

 

So, coyotes are good at reproduction. Is that a problem? No, but many people believe otherwise, which is what we'll look at on the next page. 

Coyote Stare-Down

Coyote "Control"

While some ranchers loose sheep, calves, and other small stock to coyote depradation, this is not a large problem, except to those individuals. Unfortunately, the individual farmer or rancher may not see it that way.

Trapping and poisoning have been the primary means of killing coyotes. These methods have grave limitations because they destroy other animals, such as pets, livestock and other non-target species. In some areas of the country, aerial shooting is allowed. In an attempt to control coyotes in the past, bounties have been paid for coyote pelts. In general, bounties, trapping, and poisoning have proven to be ineffective at lowering numbers. There is a good reason for that.

Unseen effects occur when coyotes are killed. Left alone, coyotes will control their own numbers. When a pack is established and stable, only the dominant (parent) male and female will reproduce. Extended family members only support them. If the dominant female is killed, other females in the pack will respond by breeding more coyotes, and the population increases instead of decreases! Thus, it is possible to kill one animal and end up with several more than you started with. Killing parent coyotes leads to a breakdown of the social structure of packs, causing the average group size to decline, the age of individuals and reproduction to rise, and more pups to survive.

Mike Finkel, author of "The Ultimate Survivor" quoted Bob Crabtree, founder and research director of Yellowstone Ecosystem Studies, "The more coyotes are attacked by humans, the more they become entrenched . . . It is easy to view nature as strictly linear—coyotes kill sheep, so we kill coyotes—but the truth is that nature is extraordinarily dynamic. If we simply stopped killing coyotes, it might actually reduce the coyote population and decrease the kills of sheep." Crabtree adds that if the money and effort used to kill coyotes were redirected toward nonlethal predator control methods—guard dogs, guard llamas and better fencing practices—sheep losses would be even lower.

Of greatest importance, though, lethal control has been proven ecologically damaging. Coyotes provide a valuable role in keeping prey populations in check, such as rodents and geese. Top predators like coyotes play a critical role in keeping natural areas healthy. In fact, coyotes are a keystone species, meaning that their presence or absence has a significant impact on the surrounding biological community. Remove this keystone species, and other populations may go out of kilter, for example, an increase in rodent populations, which has it's own negative effect. To paraphrase a famous saying, 'It's best to let barking dogs bark.'

Page Photo Credits — Coyote Close-up - Aditi the Stargazer (www.flickr.com/photos/aditithestargazer/), Young Coyotes - Janet Kessler, Coyote Siblings - Janet Kessler, Coyote Lunch - Eugene Beckes
Last Updated: Mar 14, 2014
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