On April 4, a male coyote wandered into a Chicago fast-food restaurant. The following week, a female coyote was captured in front of the Federal Courthouse in downtown Detroit.
State departments of Natural Resources, Humane societies, city officials, and rural and urban families are experiencing close encounters of the coyote kind with ever increasing frequency. This is due in part to shrinking numbers of black bears, wolves, mountain lions and other top predators, but it is also related to urban sprawl and the associated loss of natural habitat. Farmers and ranchers have forever fought with the crafty coyote, but now the battles have moved to town.
How will I recognize it?
Coyotes (Canis latrans) belong to the dog family. With a weight of 25 to 35 pounds, they have pointed ears, yellow eyes, a narrow muzzle and a round, bushy, dropping tail with a black tip. Generally, the coyote’s upper body is a yellowish gray with a light-cream fur covering the throat and the underbelly.
What’s for dinner?
Coyotes are omnivorous scavengers, and while their primary diet consists of mice, rabbits, squirrels, insects, reptiles and berries of wild plants, they will eat garbage and various types of carrion, including roadkill. Coyotes only attack livestock and household pets when such animals are easy prey. Unsecured trash cans, overfilled bird feeders and outdoor pet-food bowls are also part of a coyote’s food supply.
Coyote family life
Coyotes prefer to do their hunting from midnight to dawn. Normally, howling, tracks or scat (feces) are the only evidence that there are coyotes in the area. If they are seen, it’s usually during the breeding season from mid-January to March. In April, the females may be spotted as they begin to look for a den in which to raise their pups.
Similar to wolves, coyotes form packs to socialize and defend their territories. A territory can consist of several square miles or simply the boundaries of a park. A coyote pack may consist of five to six adults plus any pups born that year. Coyotes typically hunt alone, but they may cooperate to take down larger animals.
Circle of life … and death
Coyotes have a life span of 6 to 8 years. In most territories, only the alpha male and female breed (one litter per year), but all members of the pack help raise the pups. The breeding pair mate for life, and their litters range from four to 11 pups with an average of six. Coyote young stay in the den until they are 6 weeks old. After 6 months, they are on their own and may stay with the pack or move to another area. Pup mortality rates are high, with only 5 percent to 20 percent making it to adulthood. They reach breeding maturity sometime after their first year.
Coyotes create a lot of controversy. As a general rule, they avoid people and are not aggressive. As predators, they help eliminate nuisance rodents such as mice and woodchucks, and slow deer population growth through fawn predation. In some areas, coyotes help control Canada goose and red fox populations.
In the largest study of urban coyotes to date, Stan Gerht, biologist at Ohio State University in Columbus, noted that in locations where coyote numbers increased, Canada goose numbers decreased. Likewise, in areas where coyotes have been eliminated, mouse and rabbit populations skyrocketed.
Coyote attacks on humans are extremely rare. The only fatality resulting from a coyote attack occurred in 1981 in Los Angeles. In virtually every other direct human/coyote conflict, the canine had been intentionally or unintentionally fed by people beforehand.
Take ’em for a ride
Coyotes are, among many other things, highly adaptable. They have successfully side-stepped eradication programs for centuries and have an uncanny ability to cope with whatever we throw at them – even in the cities that some now call home. Depending on the municipality, nuisance coyotes are either destroyed or relocated, but some people question the efficacy of either program. History has shown that it is impossible (not to mention completely undesirable) to eradicate them all, but are relocation programs that much better?
In most relocation programs, wayward coyotes are medically evaluated, quarantined for a week, and then released into a natural habitat some distance away from their urban territory. In many cases, these animals attempt to find their way back home and wind up as roadkill in the process. In other situations, when the coyote is successfully removed, another solitary animal moves right in.
The closest most folks ever get to a wild coyote is its howl. But those who live in the middle of an active territory might unknowingly come to within a few feet of a coyote as it pads through their yards long after dark. Unless that midnight marauder leaves a calling card on the lane, you’ll never even know it was there.
If your chickens are safely in the henhouse and your pets are safely put up, you might never have a problem with the crafty canines. However, even if you don’t sense their presence, a few things can be done to minimize potential conflict:
- Never leave pet food unattended.
- Do not allow small pets to roam free (at night especially) when coyotes have been sighted. Large dogs will keep coyotes at bay.
- Secure all trash cans and put garbage out the day of pickup rather than leaving it by the road.
- Seal all crawl spaces and keep your barns and sheds closed if possible.
- Clear large wood and brush piles near your residence since they make good homes for rodents and can hide den entrances.
- Quickly remove all dead livestock.
- If a coyote visits your yard in broad daylight, there’s probably something seriously wrong with it or it is exceedingly hungry. In either case, avoid confrontation and call your local animal control office.
- Immediately report all aggressive coyotes to local authorities.
Most coyotes are harmless and can peacefully co-exist with people. The best advice is to keep your pets and livestock safe, don’t give the coyotes any reason to come close, and then leave them alone to keep their place in the web of life.
Jane White grew up on a small farm in Michigan, working summers pulling weeds for a local gladiola farm. She spends her time writing and growing Hawaiian plumeria to sell at farmer’s markets. She and her husband, Robert, live on a small acreage near Detroit, with their Jack Russell terrier.