Eastern Coyote, Canis latrans

ink drawing courtesy Alice Wand

Few people are neutral about the desirability of coyotes as neighbors. You either rail against them or accept and enjoy them. Either way, they are a part of our rural ecology and the Boquet plays a part in their lives.

Coyotes began extending their range eastward from the Great Plains in the early 1900's, using the rural areas along river bottoms as a migration corridor. When they reached the eastern woodlands they found that humans had created a mix of fields and brushy second growth woodlands ideal for their needs. Wooded river edges provided corridors along which they were able to move around. By the late 1900's coyotes occupied most of the suitable habitat in the East and were permanent residents.

We hear them more often than we see them. If you catch sight of one, it looks like a small, thin german shepard with a bushy drooping tail. The eastern coyote is smaller than a wolf but larger than the western plains coyote from which they derived. In spite of the size difference they appear to be true coyotes and may have simply evolved their larger size in response to the different environmental conditions they face in the East.

As coyotes migrated into a new area there were occasional interbreedings with resident dogs or wolves. Earlier claims that all eastern coyotes were "coydogs" or "coywolves" seem to have been based on these early hybrids. But as the coyote became more numerous, they were able to find other coyotes as mates and breed true. Today's eastern coyote is best regarded as an evolving subspecies of coyote.

Coyotes are active all year long although we are more apt to be aware of them in the fall when their howling peaks. Howling and barking are social activities and maintain contact between adjacent groups. The screams and gargles we sometimes hear in the fall are produced by the young coyotes. Groups are usually small, two or three animals (although from the noise they make it may seem as if there are dozens), and may range over 20-25 square miles.

These predators are what ecologist call "opportunistic feeders," i.e. they will eat whatever is available. Coyotes stalk small animals by slowly creeping up from a distance, then pouncing. Two or more coyotes may chase larger prey and sometimes work in relays. When hunting, the coyotes usually travel single file, either on a path beaten down by other animals or on ones they create themselves.

For most of the year small animals like woodchucks, rabbits, squirrels, beaver, and mice along with fruits and grains make up the bulk of their diet. In the fall coyotes feed extensively on deer carrion. Usually these are deer that were wounded by hunters but which escaped and subsequently died. (Much of the deer meat coyotes eat is laced with fly pupae, indicating that the deer was already long dead before the coyotes got to it.) In winter adult deer may be taken along with the smaller animals.

In the spring and early summer coyotes do take fawns. The best evidence to date indicates that usually not enough fawns are taken to affect the size of the deer population. Given the fact that the deer herd in much of the East is increasing to the size where it damages the forests, predation of fawns by coyotes probably should not be a matter of concern. Coyote predation may even produce a healthier deer population by culling sick and weak animals.

Coyotes form pairs in the late fall and breed in February. The pups are born in April or May in a den made for the pups. Coyotes usually enlarge an abandoned burrow of some other animal, but may dig their own. At birth the pups are blind and helpless but by 4 weeks they can run along with the parents fairly well and begin to feed on solid flesh regurgitated by the parents. The pups are usually weaned off the mother's milk at about 9 weeks; the family abandons the den at about this time but stays together until fall while the young learn to fend for themselves. The young usually begin to reproduce their own litters when 2 years of age. They may live as much as 10-12 years in the wild but have lived up to 18 years in captivity.

Surveys show most people in northern New York enjoy having coyotes around. They enjoy hearing the calls at night and the chance to observe them as they go about their lives. Coyotes also have a beneficial effect on other scavengers in the Adirondacks such as fox, marten, fisher, eagles, and ravens that benefit from the scraps left by the coyotes. After the last wolves in the Adirondacks were killed, the numbers of ravens declined and by the 1950's ravens had disappeared. Today they are once again a viable part of the ecosystem.

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