Our family is fortunate to live a short walk from The Woods. It’s a back-woodsy kind of woods, hilly and rocky and in some places forgotten, with brush piles and game trails and old hunting blinds caved in with snow, and oh!, a rather steep gorge. It’s a hinterland of varying moods: nurturing, neutral or creepy, depending on where you hike. Certainly, there’s a traumatized vibe where the loggers couldn’t be bothered to collect the trees they knocked down. Most of all, it’s a Place in its own right, rich with natural history and the comings and goings of the wildlife who call it home.
Some of their calls resonate, and raise a thrill of gooseflesh, leaving us humans staring wide-eyed in the dark.
Because here we are in our home by the woods, sound asleep one minute, wide awake the next. We lay perfectly still, listening. There it is again. The wind is carrying a primordial song, a gathering of voices, a yipping and a howling. A coyote pack is on the move.
But what are they doing? Hunting? Mating? Regrouping?
The answer could be one or all of the above. And, though to our stretched ears it sounds like there’s at least twenty of them, in reality there may be just a few.
“The coyote is a very vocal animal with a varied repertoire of calls,” said Jo Yellis, project coordinator of Coyote Smarts, a public information initiative created to address the state of Rhode Island’s growing Eastern Coyote population. “It uses a long howl to report its location, short barks to warn of danger, yips when reuniting with pack members, growls when establishing dominance, whines and whimpers when bonding and high-pitched barks to summon pups.”
Another wildlife ecologist, Kelli Hendricks, adds, “What coyotes don’t do is howl when they kill something, even though it can sound like that’s what’s happening.”
Hendricks is the Ranching With Wildlife Coordinator for Project Coyote, a California-based non-profit that works to “promote compassionate conservation and coexistence between people and wildlife through education, science and advocacy.”
As a life-long predator advocate who happens to live and work on a cattle ranch, Hendricks is well placed to help Project Coyote “address and replace long held fears with newer, better practices regarding stewardship of the land and its wildlife inhabitants.”
Toward that goal, she recently led a Virtual Coyote Talk in partnership with San Francisco Animal Care & Control and the SF Recreation & Parks Department. What follows below are the Questions and Answers such coyote conversations typically generate. Additional information was provided by Jo Yellis and Coyote Smart’s public education materials.
“Are Coyotes Dangerous?” is the question at the top of most people’s minds.
Perhaps understandably so. According to the science journal Current Zoology, “with the extirpation of apex predators (wolves, cougars, grizzlies) from much of North America, coyotes, Canis latrans, have become the de facto top predator and are ubiquitous members of most ecosystems.” *
A relatively large predator at that. The Eastern Coyote, the subspecies Rhode Island’s Coyote Smarts initiative seeks to help people respectfully co-exist with, can weigh as much as a medium-sized house dog; with female coyotes averaging 35 to 40 pounds and males topping out at 45-55 pounds. Meanwhile, the Western Coyote is more finely knit with males and females each being ten pounds lighter than their respective east coast counterparts.
That size difference reflects recent DNA studies that show Eastern Coyotes are actually a coyote-dog-wolf hybrid. One study, led by New York’s Stony Brook University, found “that of 462 animals tested, their average genetic breakdown consisted of 64% coyote, 13% gray wolf, 13% eastern wolf, and 10% domestic dog. ” Those traces of Canis lupus DNA mean that unlike their lithe western cousins — who often hunt and forage on their own — east coast coyotes are more likely to engage in behaviors associated with wolves, with related coyotes hunting together, sometimes even hunting as a pack to take down bigger prey like deer.
Right, ubiquitous, adaptable and in some places impressively robust but … do these de facto top dogs pose a threat to that very definition of a superpredator: humans?
“Almost anything you can think of injures more people every year than coyotes,” answers Hendricks. “Sidewalks, pencils, trees, even vending machines injure more people every year than coyotes.”
The Humane Society of the United States echoes Project Coyote’s response. “Coyote attacks on people are very rare. More people are killed by errant golf balls and flying champagne corks each year than are bitten by coyotes.”
Champagne corks? Must have been some party. Do be sure to clean up the mess. Because any outdoor leftovers; pet food, messy seeds beneath bird-feeders, open-air compost heaps, un-rinsed tins in recycling bins, even that barbecue grill you forgot to clean all serve to teach coyotes to associate humans and our living spaces with free food. Which often doesn’t end well for people, pets or coyotes.
A situation that leads to two more common questions…
“Do coyotes prey on pet cats? What about small dogs?”
Project Coyote responds with a frank assertion: “Small unsupervised pets face many dangers, the least of which is coyotes.”
Coyote Smarts FAQ expands on that reply: “A safe cat is an indoor cat. Older, less agile cats or naive youngsters are most vulnerable to coyote predation. Nighttime — coyote business hours — is most dangerous. Also, a cat that wanders will generally be at greater risk than one that stays near home and has known escape routes – trees or areas below porches, etc.”
Coyote Smarts Special tips for dog owners warns: “Dogs smaller than 40 pounds are often regarded by coyotes as prey. They should never be left outside unattended, especially after dark. Larger dogs may also be attacked if they intrude on a pack’s territory and are seen as a threat or competitor. All dogs should be walked on a leash, which increases the owner’s control, but never tied up alone in the yard, which increases their vulnerability.”
“What about people and dogs out for a walk?”
Hendricks advises developing habits that foster avoidance. “Walk your pets on leashes, avoiding heavy brushed areas. Avoid walking at dawn and just before dusk, the times when most wildlife are most active.” And, if you still encounter a coyote? “If your dog is unleashed, call it to you and leash it,” she says. “If it’s small enough, pick it up. If you can, practice avoidance by slowly walking in another direction. If you do need to continue along the same path, raise your arms and make noise at the coyote or coyotes and continue to do so until they leave the area.”
“And if the coyote doesn’t leave? What if a coyote stops and stares or starts to approach?”
Coyote Smarts says: “Stand tall, raise your arms, shout and firmly tell that coyote to get lost. If you have no choice but to walk your dog where you know coyotes have been spotted, consider carrying a noisemaker, squirt-gun or pepper spray.” The initiative’s “What To Do if You See a Coyote” page says these hazing tools “can work whether the encounter is with a lone coyote or a small pack. If the leader retreats, the rest of the pack will follow. “
Speaking of following the leader, here’s a question regarding a bit of dogged myth-information:
“Is it true female coyote’s sometimes lure male dogs into a ‘dinner-date’ with her pack?”
“No,” said Hendricks. “There is zero evidence to support the myth that female coyotes lure dogs back to a pack to be killed. Female coyotes are only in heat a few days per year and they are busy mating during that time. What does sometimes happen is that unsupervised or off-leash dogs chase coyotes and coyotes then run back for support where other family members might be. Coyotes hate being chased by dogs.”
Who doesn’t? Who wouldn’t high-tail it home to safety and a pack that’s got your back?
Looking at it from the doggo’s point of view: “Coyote!! There’s a coyote!! In the yard!!”
And, um, that coyote seems kind of bold, nosing around in the middle of the afternoon. Is that cause for concern?
“If I see a coyote in the middle of the day, does that mean it’s sick?”
Project Coyote’s Hendricks responds: “Like humans, coyotes sometimes have to work overtime to feed their families so they may be seen often during the day when they have mouths to feed.”
And those mouths are going to start multiplying in the early spring because…
Coyote Mating Season begins around February
“They give birth in April,” said Hendricks. “That timing may vary a little in different geographic locations but probably not by more than a few weeks. Their babies are called pups, not kits, and they remain in their den only while nursing, so for around a month and a half in total. The whole pack helps raise them. They stay with their family until they are between six and eight months old, at minimum, but some don’t leave until their second year of life.”
And, consider, those extra mouths arrive just as warmer spring days bring more people and pets outside, so it makes sense people start to notice or even cross paths with coyotes running their own lunchtime errands. Just don’t help fill their grocery list or you really could find your community dealing with emboldened coyotes.
As Coyote Smarts’ Easy Pickins‘ page puts it: “Coyotes subsidized by humans may lose their fear of humans, become more aggressive, and have to be removed by lethal means. Think of it this way: ‘a fed coyote is a dead coyote.’”
The initiative’s management tools page details coexistence strategies meant to discourage habituation (the process of losing fear) and rebalance the coyote’s population by restricting them to the wild diet they would naturally provide for themselves and their families. There’s also a link to an interesting conservation study that backs up these management tools – the primary finding being: less free-food equals less emboldened coyotes … and less coyotes in general.
“All we have to do decide there’ll be no more ‘easy pickin’s’ for coyotes and we reverse the habituation process,” writes Coyote Smarts. “Less food equals fewer pups. Coyote numbers will decrease to a level sustained by natural foods, and, since they are not being fed by people (whether intentionally or incidentally) coyote habituation problems will disappear.”
That strategy begs a related question:
“Are Coyotes Becoming Overpopulated?”
“No,” said Project Coyote’s Founder and Executive Director, Camilla Fox. An ecologist by training and a nationally and internationally recognized conservation leader, Fox is well versed in wildlife conservation policies. “If left alone, coyotes self-regulate. They keep their populations stable based on available prey and habitat.”
How? Like their Canidae family relatives, the wolves, coyotes have what Fox describes as “biological mechanisms within them that lower reproductive rates when less prey is available. Additionally, because of their territorial nature, coyotes only tolerate pack mates in the territories they hold.”
That’s an important point because, again, similar to wolves, coyotes are generally monogamous beings and mating is limited to the pack’s alpha pair.
Fox continues, “If coyotes are indiscriminately killed, their social stability is disrupted. That disruption can lead to increased litter sizes, thereby increasing the local coyote population.”
And, as mentioned earlier, the indiscriminate killing of larger predators in general is one of the human-driven factors effecting the size and distribution of coyotes throughout North America.
While coyote’s were originally confined to the western two-thirds of America, with various subspecies appearing from the Mexican border up into the northwest’s coastal and mountainous states, our species relentless persecution of the wolves, cougars and grizzlies who would normally compete with them for food and territory, while also preying on them, has enabled coyotes to increase not just in numbers but in genetic diversity and geographic range.
An August 2019 National Park Service Species Spotlight article states that of the 19 to 20 coyote subspecies fanning across North America, “the Eastern Coyote currently inhabits the entire east coast” — where they make a living and raise their pups in suburban and urban spaces as readily as rural countryside and the secluded woods.
Ah yes, back to those secluded woods we also roam…
How likely is it someone, me for instance, hiking alone in the woods might encounter a coyote? Or do they typically run before hikers even know they’re there?
“Most hikers probably pass many coyotes unknowingly,” said Hendricks. “Coyotes will either leave the area or hide in dense brush when people are moving through the woods. Even scientists tracking colored coyotes have trouble finding them, they hide so well. Coyotes really do go out of their way to avoid humans unless they are being fed by people.”
Which prompts a parting question, the one coyotes need people to ask:
“Why should people learn to live with the coyotes in their midst?”
Fox replies, “By keeping coyotes wild and wary (by not intentionally or unintentionally feeding them) and appreciating them at a distance, we can coexist with America’s Native Song Dog and benefit from their presence in our rural and urban and natural landscapes.”
“Coexistence is a community endeavor,” concludes Fox. “Coyotes are native to North America. They play a key ecological role in maintaining bio-diversity and healthy eco-systems, yes, but they also have self-interests and intrinsic value in their own right.”
Absolutely. As I lay perfectly still, listening as their song reaches a crescendo before melting away through the woods, I feel one may as well ask by what right does the moon shine? Coyote voices sound to my humble sensibilities as essential as the rain, elemental as the night.
If you would like to learn more, please visit Coyote Smarts and Project Coyote and consider watching and sharing this documentary made available via Mother Nature Videos. **
** Mother Nature writes: “This is the story of how the Coyote – at once revered and reviled – has learned to adapt across diverse landscapes. While grizzlies and wolves narrowly missed extinction, the coyote has earned its status today as top dog. No copyright infringement is intended through sharing, this is purely for nonprofit entertainment/education uses only.”