Signs of Fall 8: Coyotes!

Thumbnail image for eastern coyote ForestWander Wikimedia Commons.jpgIn January 2012 I was writing a very early Sign of Spring in an attempt to get my mind off of the already interminable winter. I found little things to write about: skunks going out on their mating walks and great horned owls, one of the few predators of skunks, calling each other to set up their own hopefully fruitful meetings. I also mentioned the other major predator of skunks that also happened to be out and about on these long, cold winter nights: the coyote (Image by Forest Wander (Wikimedia Commons)). Like the skunks, the coyotes were walking around looking for mates (and maybe also for some skunk snacks!). I cautioned everyone to keep their pet cats and dogs in at night. House cats and small dogs are perfectly sized prey for a coyote.  I had seen a coyote a few nights before crossing an open field in Plum and another some months before out in a similar habitat out in Kiski Township. Wildlife authorities and commissions report that coyotes are abundant in almost every rural and urban region of the country. They are close by, very active, and working very hard at not being seen by people.

Well, I can add some more details to all that. We now have coyotes in our backyards in Apollo, Pennsylvania! Last week my three across-the-street neighbors spotted a group of them running across their yards late one night. I no longer let my house cats go out at night!

The coyote (Canis latrans) is a medium-sized canine 32 to 37 inches long with a drooping, bushy tail that is an additional 16 inches long.  Mature coyotes weigh between 25 and 50 pounds and stand 15 to 20 inches at the shoulder (males are larger than females, and the eastern coyote, as I will talk about below, is larger than the western). They are gray-brown to yellow-gray in color with white throats and underbellies and reddish-brown feet, foreleg, and head and muzzle highlights. Their tails are tipped in black, and they have black-tipped guard hairs down their backs and over their shoulders. Their ears are very large and pointed, and their muzzles are long and slender. Coyotes have smaller feet than dogs of similar weights and make tracks that are compact and oval (not round like a dog’s track). Coyote tracks have distinct toe-claw marks and a very symmetrical overall appearance.  When running, coyotes carry their tails below the horizontal line of their backs (another characteristic that distinguishes coyotes from dogs or wolves).

Coyotes eat almost any type of food: small mammals (skunks, rodents, rabbits, woodchucks, raccoons, etc.), large mammals (white-tailed deer, calves, lambs), fruit, green plants and tree leaves, invertebrates, carrion, and, in urban environments, garbage and house pets. Many coyotes change their diets through the seasons of the year in order to take advantage of the most abundant and easiest to acquire types of food.

Coyotes are nocturnal and typically hunt either alone or in pairs. When not rearing pups they usually do not have elaborate dens or even rigidly defined or defended home territories. A coyote will have a well concealed sleeping site where it passes the daylight hours and hunting territories to which it will regularly return as long as food is abundant. Whelping dens are often formed by enlarging abandoned woodchuck or badger burrows.

Female coyotes go into heat once a year (usually between late January and late March). They are reproductively receptive for 2 to 5 days. During this same period of time males will begin to synthesize sperm. A mated pair of coyotes may stay together for several years but not necessarily for life. Gestation takes 60 to 63 days, and litters may range from 1 to 19 pups. The pups emerge from the dens after 3 or 4 weeks and are weaned shortly thereafter. Both parents (and often additional adults that are assisting the care and rearing of the pups) bring food to the den and regurgitate it for the growing pups. The pups are fully grown by 9 to 12 months. Males leave the den when they are 6 to 9 months old while females may stay with the denning group to form a family pack. Pups become sexually mature by 1 year of age.  Although coyotes can live 10 to 15 years in the wild, very few of the pups born each year (only 5 to 20%) survive their first year of life

Coyotes can mate with both wolves and also domesticated dogs and can produce reproductively viable offspring from those matings. It has been hypothesized that the increased body size seen in the eastern coyote is due to the hybridization of the western coyote with grey wolves. Examination of mitochondrial DNA (which is only inherited from the maternal linage) shows that coyote mitochondrial DNA occurs in wolves but that wolf mitochondrial DNA does not occur in coyotes. Crosses between coyotes and wolves, then had to occur when large, male wolves mated with much smaller female coyotes, but that male coyotes could not mate with larger female wolves.

Coyotes are iconic species of the Great Plains and the desert southwest. The image of a coyote silhouetted against a moon-lit landscape raising its head to howl is an enduring symbol of the Wild West. It is surprising to many people, then, to learn that coyotes have expanded their range across the United States and now can be found in some abundance all the way into our large northeastern cities. The present range of the coyote extends from Central America all the way up to the Arctic Circle.  Why has this species been able to expand its range so far and so fast? One reason has to do with the phenomenal ability of the coyote to live and find food in almost any habitat. A second reason involves the reduction and in many places the extirpation of large predators (like mountain lions and wolves) that might compete with or even prey upon coyotes.

The eastern coyote, then, is a hybrid species. It has both western coyote and grey wolf genes. The first photographic record of coyotes in Pennsylvania, according to the PA Game Commission dates back to the 1930’s. In the 1980’s, though, the numbers of eastern coyotes in our state increased dramatically. In 2005, again according to Pennsylvania Game Commission data, 20,000 coyotes were shot or trapped in Pennsylvania!  

Last March Deborah and I were out in New Mexico visiting our daughter. Late one afternoon near sunset we were hiking out of a desert canyon when we heard coyotes all around us howling and singing. This was a very exciting and a very place-appropriate experience. I am not sure how I am going to react, though, to being serenaded by coyotes living in the fields and woods around my house!  

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