Critter Corner No. 12
The Coyote by George Sly
I must say, this is the first edition of Critter Corner I have had to begin by offering a disclaimer. But the fact is that few other animals generate the polarized love or hate sentiments engendered by Canis latrans. So, I have to begin by professing a degree of sympathy and admiration for this much maligned predator. Others will not feel so kindly toward the coyote. But, as always, the opinions expressed in Critter Corner are mine and not the Friends of Goose Pond, the DNR. or any other entity. Hopefully I can shed some light on how I find admirable qualities in a mammal with such a generally poor reputation among the public.
Contrary to stories I often hear, the coyote was not introduced into Indiana (the DNR is the usual culprit in these tales). In fact coyotes were present in Indiana when it was first settled. At that time, they inhabited primarily the western portions of the state where extensions of the prairie encroached into the vast eastern deciduous forest. Many 19th century reports of coyotes referred to them as “prairie wolves”.
The first time I can recall actually hearing of a coyote in our area was, I believe, the late 1960’s. An article in a local newspaper showed a coyote that had been shot. The headlines referred to it as a “50 pound female timber wolf”. I did the prep on that specimen while at Indiana State University and it was indeed a coyote. Confusion between these two canids is common; they do bear a superficial resemblance. Up close, the greater size of the gray wolf is very apparent. Coyotes weigh 24-46 lbs. while Canis lupus females weigh around 60 lbs. and males go well over 100 lbs. It has been suggested that eastern coyotes have, in the past, hybridized with gray wolves. As a result eastern coyote individuals tend to be somewhat larger than their western brethren. Typically height at the shoulder for a coyote is around 24 inches while a gray wolf can be closer to three feet. Upon seeing a gray wolf in a zoo, where a close approach is possible, one is astounded by just how big they really are. This size disparity is an evolutionary adaptation to diet. Coyotes do not generally tackle the large mammalian prey (bison, moose, elk) taken by gray wolves. This is also why the latter are pack hunters.
Coyote numbers began to increase markedly in Indiana at about the time I heard news of that first one. The 1970’s found their populations really starting to take off. Now they are found throughout the state. Not only that, they have extended their range into all of the eastern states as well. In fact, as this image (Natl. Museum of Nat. Hist.) shows, coyotes today have one of the most extensive geographic ranges of any large American predator.
One of the secrets to the success of the coyote is that they are supreme generalists. Such animals are those that can utilize a wide variety of habitats and foods. This opens up exceedingly large areas in which they may live. We might compare this with an animal that is a specialist. The giant panda would be one example. With a diet comprised of essentially one type of plant (bamboo), this species is restricted to one small area of Asia where this particular sustenance and the habitat that supports it are found.
Coyotes can, of course, utilize a huge variety of habitat types. Originally they were, as noted, animals of the western prairies. But they are equally at home in desert environments, deciduous and mixed forests, edge habitats, agricultural lands, and suburban landscapes. It is not unusual to hear news of coyotes roaming urban areas. An article about coyotes in the July 17th issue of The Week magazine mentioned New York City, Chicago, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, and Atlanta as cities with populations of coyotes.
Like their ability to utilize a wide variety of habitats, the capacity to eat an equally broad diversity of foods is a key in the immense biological success of the coyote. They eat a wide assortment of animals, mostly mammals. Voles are a major component of their diet. The eastern cottontail is also a favored prey item. J. O. Whitaker, in his Mammals of Indiana, reports that Voles, other mice species, and cottontails make up over 70% of the coyote’s diet. Carrion is often consumed and of course complicates the issue of whether livestock eaten by a coyote was preyed upon or scavenged. Coyotes will also consume insects, fruits, berries, and grasses.
Concern has been expressed that coyote predation on white-tailed deer fawns may significantly decrease deer populations. Studies have shown that predation by coyotes is a significant factor in deer fawn mortality 1,2. However other studies have shown that the impact on deer populations is not detrimental in the long run3, particularly if doe harvest quotas are taken into account.
As a result of coyote predation on deer, rabbits, and other game species, many attempts at population control have been undertaken. In fact, I am hard pressed to think of an animal that has been more persecuted than this species. Historically they have been trapped, shot, and poisoned at every opportunity. In spite of this, the coyote has shown its remarkable ability to not just survive but to thrive. Recent studies have shown that coyote populations subjected to culling pressure actually produce more offspring. Given their intelligence, adaptability, and reproductive potential it seems a safe bet that coyotes are here to stay.
Around homes coyotes can be a danger to pets. A 2009 study done in Tucson, Arizona found that domestic cats made up 42% of the diet of urban coyotes. Are coyotes a danger to humans also? In reality, attacks on humans are quite rare. In the U.S., since 1976, there have been 160 instances of coyotes targeting people. There have been two recorded deaths resulting from coyote attack4. In perspective, we might compare this with the 5,581domestic dog attacks suffered just by postal workers in a single year – 20135. In 2015, 42 people were killed in this country as a result of dog attack6. As tragic as any of these attacks may be, it seems clear wherein lies the greater danger.
We humans have historically had a tension filled coexistence with predators. Could it be that we have
an embedded primordial fear of predators? One would assume that, during our early evolutionary history, large predators made no distinction between a meal of Australopithecus or one of gazelle. Certainly, for our American ancestors living on the frontier, the loss of a cow or herd of swine to ;predators could be a life threatening event. It seems to me that the coyote, even today, bears the brunt of an innate human anxiety regarding predators.
But perhaps we should take a moment to consider that even the coyote has its good side. Its heavy predation on voles and deer mice helps to maintain nature’s balance. In some areas they predate the eggs and young of Canada geese, itself a species whose numbers may often test the limits of human tolerance. Ironically, coyotes may benefit ground nesting birds, such as turkeys, by preying upon smaller carnivores which might consume turkey eggs or young7. And, while some may deplore the killing of fawns by coyotes, we must recognize the damage that over-browsing by too many deer may cause in our woodlands.
(photo courtesy of Wikimedia)
I suggest that we take a fresh look at the coyote. Let us forgo our old prejudices and consider Canis latrans for what it is – a survivor. The La Brea Tar Pits have yielded a fossil of this species 46,000 years old8. Through the generations the coyote has endured everything both nature and humans have thrown at it. Surely this resiliency and endurance is worthy of a little respect on our part. Camilla Fox of California’s Project Coyote has well characterized both the coyote and our relationship with this remarkable mammal. “The reality is, coyotes are incredibly adaptable, intelligent, resilient animals, and they have learned how to coexist with us. But we’re still trying to figure out how to coexist with them.”9
Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is considered by many the father of wildlife conservation and management. His understanding of the role of predators within ecosystems was light years ahead of its time. Thus, in concluding my ruminations upon the coyote, I find it fitting to reflect upon his words. “Harmony with the land,” he said, “is like harmony with a friend. You cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say you cannot have game and hate predators. The land is one organism.”10
1. Whittaker, Donald G. and Frederick G. Lindzey. 1999. Effect of Coyote Predation on Early Fawn Survival in Sympatric Deer Species. Wildlife Society Bulletin Vol. 27, No. 2.. 256-262
2. Ballard, Warren B., Heather A. Whitlaw, Steven J. Young, Roger A. Jenkins and Graham J. Forbes. 1999. Predation and Survival of White-Tailed Deer Fawns in Northcentral New Brunswick. The Journal of Wildlife Management. Vol. 63, No. 2 . 574-579
3. Mulhollem, Jeff . 2014. Research indicates coyote predation on deer in East manageable. http://news.psu.edu/story/315340/2014/05/09/research/research-indicates-coyote-predation-deer-east-manageable
4. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coyote attacks on humans
7. Bottom, Christopher. 2014. Habitat Overlap Among Mesocarnivores and Wild Turkeys in an Agricultural Landscape. Thesis abstract. Southern Illinois University.
9. The Week Magazine. July 17, 2015.
10. Leopold, Aldo. 1966. Round River, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993, pp. 145-146.