by Mary Masingale
For some, their first instinct at seeing a coyote is to kill it. This is practical for some – as coyotes can take a toll on some livestock, but for others, they may be eliminating a very valuable asset to their property.
Despite human efforts to control or sometimes eliminate the Canis latrans, (more commonly known as coyote), it has failed to stop this adaptable critter. Once restricted to the sagebrush lands, brushy mountains and open prairies of the American West, while their larger cousin, wolves, occupied the forests, coyotes have since taken advantage of human activities – including the reduction of the gray wolf population to expand their range throughout North and Central America.
Coyotes may now be found almost anywhere– from open space to dense forests to downtown waterfronts – even being spotted in large city populations such as Los Angeles. Despite ever-increasing human encroachment and many past efforts to eliminate them, the wily coyote maintains its numbers and is even increasing in some areas.
At first glance, the coyote resembles a small shepherd type dog. Its color can vary from animal to animal – and include shades of black, brown, gray, yellow, rust and tan. Coyotes have short, bushier tails that almost drag the ground. An adult coyote weighs between 20 to 35 pounds, males being slightly larger than females. Height of the adult male is about 25 inches at the shoulder.
Coyotes seek opportunity – both as hunters and scavengers. They will eat any small animal they can catch, including mice, rats, gophers, rabbits, squirrels, snakes, frogs, fish, birds and anything dead. They are also open to a meal of grass, fruit and berries during the summer. Juvenile coyotes learn their hunting skills on grasshoppers and other insects.
Coyotes will work together in some cases with other members of the family to pursue small deer. Fawns are the most common catch in the spring. Coyotes will also partake in pet food, garbage, poultry, small livestock and yes, your kitty cat – although it should be noted that there are many enemies of domestic cats and dogs including vehicles, bears, cougars, birds of prey and the occasional grouchy neighbor! At calving time, Coyotes are attracted to the scents of afterbirth – but rarely approach cattle as cattle quickly remind them that they are not welcome near their young.
Coyotes hunt mainly at night but when hungry and not feeling threatened, will hunt in the day. You may see them in a freshly worked field – feeding on voles and other small animals disturbed in the process of working the field.
A pair of coyotes may make several dens – mom does the construction – usually under an uprooted tree, cave, or storm drain and occasionally she will take over and enlarge another animal’s burrow. The purpose of having several dens minimizes the risk of the den being detected, as well as prevents an accumulation of fleas, parasites, urine and droppings. They will use the same dens year after year or will make new dens in the same area.
Coyotes occasionally mate for life, depending on circumstances such as mortality of both partners. Breeding occurs in late winter and about 63 days later an average litter of four pups will be born. The female is the primary caregiver, although sometimes an older non-breeding sibling will assist. The male also provides some care of the young. Pups emerge from the den in two or three weeks and begin eating regurgitated food. At about six to eight months of age, the juvenile coyote will disperse alone or in groups, some seeking new territory up to 50 miles away. The greater amount of food in an area, the closer the juveniles will stay to their den.
Although very rare, coyotes can interbreed with domestic dogs. During the breeding season, male dogs may be attracted to the female in her heat cycle – this date does not usually end well for the dog.
The coyote is not without its enemies however, including bears, cougars, humans and even the occasional coyote. Pups are vulnerable to eagles, dogs and some adult coyotes. In the wild, few coyotes live beyond 4 years while in captivity they can live up to 18. Most pups die during their first year. Where coyotes are trapped or hunted, females produce more pups per litter then in areas where they are protected.
Some of you may enjoy hearing the call of the coyote – perhaps giving you the true feeling of living out west – others may feel a chill run up their spine hearing their mournful calls. Coyotes actually have a variety of vocalizations. Woofs and growls alert others to short distance threats, barks and howls are long distance threats and alarm calls and whines are used in greetings. The sound of lone and group howls indicates members of the group have found a food source and are alerting the others. The excited yips and howls that you hear mean the group is united and enjoying their meal. Juveniles may be heard in the summer trying out their voices.
The coyote is a prominent character in Native American folklore, usually depicted as a trickster that alternately assumes the form of an actual coyote or a man and was reviled by in the Ango-American culture as a cowardly and untrustworthy animal. Many of you know that the clever Roadrunner “beep beep”outsmarted even the most serious attempts of capture by Wiley Coyote – regardless of anything mysteriously acquired from Acme to help him in his efforts.
Apparently this species is not going away but humans can take some steps to keep the coyotes at a distance. There were no coyote-human encounters recorded in the United States until 2006 when two Bellevue children were bitten – with their parents nearby. The same coyotes were aggressive toward others in the area – most likely from a result of being fed by people. The offending coyotes were euthanized. Feeding coyotes encourages them to lose their fear of people and their urge to hunt – enjoying the easy meals provided them. This activity increases the likelihood of a bad encounter. Loud noises are the best method of keeping your coyote at a safe distance. Many people fire off warning shots to coyotes venturing too close – which appears to be an effective deterrent.
Prevention is the best way to minimize conflicts between coyotes and humans. Never leave small children out when coyotes are known to be nearby. As mentioned above, never feed coyotes or give them easy access to your garbage. Coyotes will eat fruit – so keeping old fruit off the ground and compost in a fenced area will discourage these unwanted harvesters. If possible, feed your dogs and cats indoors – but knowing this is not always an option, it is suggested to pick up the leftovers at the end of the day and replace again in the morning. Don’t leave any midnight snacks to encourage these cunning critters. Your cats are most vulnerable from dusk to dawn – you may want to consider keeping them inside at night. Coyotes will eat chickens and eggs – along with other culprits including foxes, skunks, raccoons, bobcats, weasels and owls. Chicken houses should have secure fencing and well-fitted doors to prevent these nighttime intruders.
Coyotes carry disease and parasites that are rarely a risk to humans, however they may be transferred to your dog. Distemper and Parvo are both transmittable diseases carried by coyotes that your dog can acquire. Check with your veterinarian on vaccinations if your dog is vulnerable to contact with coyotes or their feces.
In summary, the coyote (or KY-O-TEE as some pronounce it) is not going anywhere soon. The Washington State Department of Fish and Game does not classify them as game animals, but a state license is required to hunt or trap them. For landowners or tenants of real property, hunting and trapping is allowed if the coyote is damaging crops or domestic animals and a license is not required in this case. Acquiring a coyote for a pet is prohibited.
Whether you love them or hate them, they are part of our Eastern Washington population. While some threaten domestic animals – they have an important role in keeping rodents and other burrowing pests under control as well as serenading us and impressing our city visitors with their nighttime serenades.
For more information on this interesting species, visit Washington State’s Department of Fish & Wildlife’s website: https://wdfw.wa.gov/living/coyotes.html.