Yes – insects make the world go round, but sometimes we turn the spotlight on a different kind of organism (lichens, slime molds, wood frogs, muskrats, etc.). The BugLady wrote this for the BogHaunter, the newsletter of the Friends of the Cedarburg Bog, in the waning days of 2007.
Two paradoxes surround the coyote. First, why has an animal that is so beneficial to farmers found itself bountied, trapped, poisoned, and hunted since its “first contact” with settlers? Second, how, in the face of centuries of “population control” has that animal increased both its numbers and its range?
It’s worn a variety of names, including “brush wolf,” “prairie wolf” and the Native American “God’s dog” and “little wolf.” Although Webster recognizes both “Ki’–oat” and “Ki–o’–tee,” many consider the Mexican-Spanish “Ki-o’-tee” more legitimate. “Coyote” comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word “coyotl”. Because of the settlers’ tendency to “cry wolf” at the sight of any large canine, early records don’t accurately indicate their range or behavior.
Coyotes are mid-sized members of the dog-family, often described as resembling a small German shepherd. Most are grayish-brown above and light below, with a short, bushy tail, cinnamon-tipped ears, and tan eyes. Their gait is springy and they often tuck their tails close to their bodies when they run. Compared to wolves, their muzzles are slimmer and pointier, their ears are proportionately longer, and their legs and feet more delicate. Mainly nocturnal, they can be seen at any time of day.
The coyote’s scientific name (Canus latrans) (latrans means “barking dog”) is well-chosen. They produce a wide vocabulary of whines, yelps, yips and growls, and the sound of a group hunting in the night makes civilization recede. Set off by the need to communicate, by storms, or by the noon whistle, their barks and howls carry for two to three miles. Where coyote concentrations are low, they vocalize less; howling is less common when pups are young and more common during the breeding season. Only Sandhill Cranes are noisier denizens of our landscapes.
Coyotes breed in late winter, and the pups are born two months later. Snags and natural cavities are excavated for dens, or woodchuck or skunk burrows may be enlarged. Females prepare several dens so pups can be moved if predators threaten.
Both parents care for the young and will regurgitate partially-digested food outside the den as the pups get older. Pups generally leave the parents’ territory in fall, although one or more females may stay. Coyotes don’t mate for life, but a pair may stay together for a few years. The average life expectancy of wild coyotes is less than a decade.
Supper is anything they can catch – about 1 ¾ pounds of it per day – and rabbits, voles and mice make up the bulk of their prey. Depending on their habitat, coyotes may live and hunt alone, in pairs, in family groups, or rarely, in larger packs. A lone coyote stalks and pounces on small animals; pairs and family groups, hitting speeds of 45 mph, use a “tag-team” method to bring down larger, faster prey including deer. Vegetables and fruits, snakes, frogs, insects, carrion, and sometimes livestock round out their diet.
Coyotes’ historical range was limited to the western half of the country from Canada to Central America, especially the Great Plains, with enclaves where tongues of the Prairie Peninsula touched the edges of mid-western states. They were present in Wisconsin when the first white settlers arrived, though probably not in great numbers.
Serious expansion into eastern North America seems to be a 20th century phenomenon. As recently as the 1950’s some biologists felt that most coyotes in the east were released or escaped animals. Today, they are found from sea to shining sea and from southern Alaska to Panama – the widest range of any North American carnivore. The southeastern states are the coyote’s final frontier.
Although they don’t typically interact with wolves because of the wolves’ clear dominance, the coyotes’ range expansion has followed the wolf’s decline. As coyotes reached the Northeast, they hybridized with wolves and adapted to more wooded habitats; and before Red wolves were extirpated from their range in the Southeast in 1970, coyotes hybridized with them, too.
Habitat change is the primary reason for their eastward spread, and almost any area that can support adequate prey will support coyotes. These are extraordinarily adaptable animals – the ultimate “generalists,” able to take advantage of rural, suburban and urban habitats. Coyotes are just as happy serving as very effective controls on agricultural pests as they are eating trash and the occasional house pet, sheep or cow. Approximately one-quarter of coyotes will take livestock (although the livestock in a coyote’s stomach might have been ingested as carrion), but coyotes take the rap both for their own crimes and for damage done by domestic and feral dogs, and by coy-dogs (coyote-dog hybrids).
Competition with human hunters for rabbits and other game, livestock damage, folk tales, and man’s unease with wild predators explain their long history of run-ins with people. In Wisconsin, with a small game license, you can shoot coyotes all day and all night, year round. National Geographic has an article about coyotes entitled “How the Most Hated Animal in America Outwitted Us All.” Come on, NatGeo – do we really have a most-hated animal? Do we need one?
In the lore of natives of Central America and the Southwestern US, coyotes were magicians, humorous tricksters and shapeshifters, often associating with the Creator, admired for their intelligence. Depending on the culture, coyote was responsible teaching people how to live and/or for bringing fire, war, death (to prevent overpopulation), winter, dance, music, seduction, and social rebellion.
For a nice bunch of pictures, see https://nhpbs.org/natureworks/coyote.htm (because the BugLady doesn’t have a picture of one yet).