Signs of Spring 3: Coyote America!

Coyote. Photo by D. Moss, Wikimedia Commons

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I first came in contact with coyotes in 1970 during my freshman year at Texas Tech. One of my professors had an on-going project examining coyote stomach contents that he hoped would result in a definitive assessment of their diet, and he asked for student help sorting through a backlog of frozen, coyote stomachs. With the pay set at $1.75 an hour, how could I say no? So I worked for a couple of weeks in a windowless lab room all gloved and masked up, armed with a scalpel and forceps and learned to sort and eventually even recognize some of the bits and pieces of critters eaten by a coyote.

Stomach contents of a coyote. Public Domain.

Some of the stomachs were empty which indicted tough times out in our local coyote country, but most had bits of rabbit, various mice and other rodents, insect exoskeleton pieces, feathers and an odd mixture of plant leaves and stems. The project was sponsored by the state of Texas with the expectation, I think, that we would find nothing but raw mutton and wool in the stomachs. Local ranchers blamed every lamb loss and death on coyotes. I did not see any sheep residues, though, in any of the stomachs I dissected during the two weeks I worked on the project.

I found out later that after the project was completed there was very little evidence of any coyote predation on lambs or sheep. Also, I heard that the state and the local ranchers didn’t believe the results were accurate. Coyotes, they insisted, all evidence to the contrary ignored, were sheep killers.

Projects like this were carried out over and over all across the western plains, and the conclusions were almost always the same: coyotes eat rodents and rabbits and a strange mix of vegetation and detritus. They eat what is available. When they can, they will eat lambs and sheep, but they very seldom do so!

One of the most compelling observations in the aftermath of the decades of coyote extermination programs out west, in fact, was the declining quality of the range land for sheep and cattle. The arid grasslands were overrun with grass and seed eating rodents and rabbits leaving little forage available for domesticated grazing animals. Coyotes, in an incredibly unexpected way, since they were the prime predators of these grass and seed consumers, were actually good for sheep and cattle!

Again, the ranchers and the State of Texas did not want to hear any of this, and it took decades to get any of them to listen.

I just finished reading Dan Flores’ book “Coyote America.” The range of the discussion in the book is breathtaking: Flores describes myths in which coyotes are creator gods, or mischievous and incredibly “human” lesser deities. He goes through the science of coyotes as they lived in ecological equilibrium on the pre-European western plains. He discusses the propaganda and hysteria which labeled coyotes “arch-predators” in the increasingly settled west and explains how they become the focus of a “shock and awe” campaign of extermination. He describes coyotes as eventual (and maybe inevitable) survivors of these extreme programs, and then follows them in their migrations out of the Great Plains, driven by the very instincts and impulses that made them such a successful, plains and desert species. They hybridize with wolves along the way, and slip into urban ecosystems and increasingly intimate contact with their own modern day “arch” predator, human beings. And, amazingly, all along the way coyotes never lose their own unique, wild identity.

Photo by D. DeBold, Wikimedia Commons

Let’s picture coyotes in their pre-European, North American range: They were the small “prairie wolves” of the Great Plains and desert southwest. They scavenged wolf kills (of bison, deer or pronghorn) but mostly ate small prey like rodents, rabbits, prairie dogs, skunks, birds, insects, and were omnivorous enough to also consume, when available, a wide variety of plants and fruits. These broad food tolerances coupled with their ability to exhibit, at need, both “fission and fusion” behaviors (they could live alone or as mated pairs (fission) or form larger packs for protection and group hunting (fusion) depending on the dynamics and limiting factors of their environment). These behaviors combined with their innate furtiveness and caution and their ability to reproduce just to the carrying capacity of their ecosystems made them a very successful species under a wide range of conditions. They were also incredibly intelligent and could solve local food gathering and survival problems and communicate those solutions to their fellow pack members and even their offspring! Coyotes had a very robust cultural and species tradition!

Coyotes were bottled up in the plains primarily due to the large populations of surrounding, mountain and forest dwelling gray wolves. Modification of the North American landscape by Native American agriculture a thousand or more years ago (long before the mass arrival of Europeans) opened up many of these dense forests and allowed plains species (including bison and coyotes) to migrate into them. Coyotes encountered scattered populations of gray wolves that under the stress of depopulation and habitat change, instead of killing the invading coyotes mated with them. These hybridizations created the Algonquin wolf in Ontario and what was called until recently the “red wolf” of the southern United States. This “red wolf” is, in fact, genetically 80% coyote!.

Photo by R. Richardson. Wikimedia Commons

Six hundred years later, wolf populations were again exterminated this time by increasing numbers of colonizing Europeans. This allowed coyotes to again migrate out of the plains in almost all directions. When the Europeans turned their attention to the coyotes (who were in the post-gray wolf world the most obvious predator at hand to be hated) and began to try to exterminate them, the pressure on the coyote to move north, south, east and west became intense.

These migrating coyotes once again encountered scattered populations of gray wolves and the coyote/wolf hybrids from previous migrations. Once again, the wolves under their own ecological stresses of de-population and on-going extermination, mated with the coyotes instead of simply killing them. These matings added more coyote genes to the southern red wolf and created the large, eastern “coywolf”  hybrid in the north and east. The coyote/wolf matings and the formation of these hybrids allowed the coyotes to migrate across North America at a very rapid rate.

Coywolf. Photo by L.D.Mech, et al. Wikimedia Commons

So, there were coyotes and coyote hybrids all across North America. Coyotes historically had had an intimate relationship with humans and human towns and villages. The Aztecs, in fact, named a number of sections of their cities after the large numbers of coyotes that lived there, and the diaries and journals of early travelers across the plains mention the abundance (and audacious behaviors) of coyotes in the camps and settlements. Coyotes moving out of the plains, though, tended to inhabit areas that were more rural in nature primarily because of another canid that was loose and abundant in the larger cities and towns: domesticated dogs!

American cities prior to the late 19th Century had feral dogs and dog packs running freely through their streets and alleys. These dog packs aggressively attacked and killed any invading coyote (and many other species, too!) and very effectively kept coyotes out of urban areas. The initiation of dog control laws, dog catchers, dog pounds, etc. then effectively removed these anti-coyote forces and opened up urban ecosystem for the coyotes.

City-coyotes had many sources of food available to them: rats, deer (fawns mostly), geese, ducks, along with many exotic plants and fruits. There were also house pets (both cats and small dogs) and human trash, but analysis of urban coyote stomach contents indicate that both of these potential food sources make up a very small percentage of a typical urban coyote’s diet (less than 1 or 2 percent each!). Coyotes may kill cats and dogs because they recognize them as potentially competing predators, but, with some notable individual exceptions, do not generally take them as food. The absence of human garbage in the coyote diet is also very notable. The feral dogs that dominated the urban ecosystems for so many years thrived on garbage and human waste. Coyotes, though, are much more particular in their selection of food and have tended to stay within their broad range of “natural” food stuffs.

There are both biological and cultural section forces operating on urban coyotes. Coyotes are learning to move through the dense, busy city-scapes with fewer and fewer deaths due to cars. There may also be a selection for coyotes that are bolder and less shy around humans. There are also theories that “super genius” coyotes are being generated in the complex, urban environments, and predictions that these coyotes will have an increasingly large influence on future coyote/human interactions.

Photo by B. Matsubara, Wikimedia Commons

Coyotes are much safer in cities than in the surrounding countryside. In Chicago, for example, 61% of coyote pups survive while in nearby rural Illinois only 13% of the coyote pups survive. The tendency of coyote populations to grow to and then stabilize at the carrying capacity of their environment has led to urban coyotes to have smaller litters than their more rural counterparts. This drive to stable numbers has also led to the outward migration of excess individuals from the city ecosystems. Cities are serving, then, as the coyote brood chambers for the surrounding countryside.

We have coyotes here in Western Pennsylvania. My first Pennsylvania coyote was sitting beside a four-lane highway early one morning in June 2004 (I was driving my daughter up to State College for her college freshman orientation). A few years later I saw several coyotes running across a moonlit field in a half rural, half suburban township just south of here in Westmoreland County. Since then, my neighbors across the street have seen coyotes in their backyard, and this fall I spotted two coyotes hunting something late one afternoon in the thick brush on the banks of the Kiski River.

Coyotes are a part of our ecosystem now, and we need to learn to live with them because if history is any judge, we really don’t have any other options!


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