LUCKY 13 – COYOTES
This spring The Parklands gave birth to 13 coyote pups from two dens. I captured one of the dens on video. But before we get to that, let’s review the story of the eastern coyote.
Coyotes are a new phenomenon on our landscape. Up until the 1800s the wolf was top-dog around here. But European settlers persecuted them to extirpation. Coyotes, as a prairie animal, did not inhabit eastern North America then. They made their way east in the wake of the wolf’s elimination, arriving to Kentucky in the 1970s. Today they can be found in all counties of the state and all states in the east.
Coyotes get a bad rap. Maligned and misunderstood, the animals are often considered nuances and vermin, and there is little justification for it. On the contrary, as a top-predator coyotes perform important ecological functions and add a level of wildness to our tamed and subdued landscape. Nevertheless, it’s worth sifting through the numbers.
There have been 26 documented coyote attacks in the eastern US and Canada since 1960 (approximately 1 incident every 2 years). Of these, at least 1/3 occurred by coyotes that were fed or habituated (never feed a coyote or any wild animal). Another handful of animals had rabies. Considering that every day 1000 people visit emergency rooms for domestic dog bites and 2 people every day die from bicycle accidents, the perception of coyotes as a serious threat to humans is rather misguided.
Occasionally, however, coyotes tussle with domestic pets. They might perceive domestic dogs as intruders to their territory and will occasionally fight with or kill them. It’s instinct, but it’s extremely rare. Cats, on the other hand, are preyed on by coyotes. But this is also rare. Of 1400 coyote scats analyzed from around Chicago only 1.3% contained remains of cats.
Thinking ecologically for a moment, nationwide cats kill an estimated 600 million songbirds each year; upwards of 8 birds per cat. And studies show that where coyote populations are healthy, bird predation by cats is significantly lower.
The bulk of the coyote’s diet—a bit over half—consists of small mammals such as rodents, voles, rabbits, etc. White-tailed deer are regularly consumed, but as relatively small animals coyotes are generally restricted to fawns. A mature deer is too powerful for a coyote. For this reason coyotes are unable to control deer populations; they can slow the growth of a heard, but not control it. In summer the bulk of the coyote diet is comprised of fruits and other vegetation. In late summer coyote scat full of persimmon seeds is common around Floyds Fork; it shows coyotes are important seed dispersers.
Because coyotes feed heavily on small mammals it is likely in some areas that they control tick-borne diseases. For some tick species, part of their lifecycle requires them to parasitize certain species of small mammals. In a world of few coyotes, the numbers of small mammals can be high, potentially causing outbreaks of Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
It’s also worth dispelling the myth of the “coy-dog”—a hybrid of the domestic dog and the coyote. Such animals are extremely rare in the wild. Researchers have looked for genetic markers of dogs in wild coyote populations and have come up blank. Simply put, coyotes are highly efficient and very intelligent animals, and when dog genes enter a population later reproductive efforts fail.
Another myth is that coyotes form large packs. Most coyotes travel singly or in pairs. They may be part of a larger family group all occurring in one defended territory, but it is rare for coyotes to travel in a group of more than two.
Coyotes are a game species in Kentucky with a year-round open season and no bag limits; a reflection of the perception of them as nuisance.
Now for the fun stuff.
On a rainy day in April 2009, I was doing field work when I walked by a favorite tree—a beautifully gnarled old chinkapin oak. Because the light was so nice I decided to take a photograph of the tree. As I lined up my camera, an adult coyote bolted from the tree’s base. Inside the hollow, I discovered half a dozen wobbly little pups. The coyote has denned in that tree now for at least three seasons, this year giving birth to seven pups. You can see a video of this year’s pups learning how to walk here.
I discovered the second den this year late in the denning season. Again I was out photographing when a female coyote walked visibly through the forest behind me. Coyotes are generally afraid of people and avoid them, so I knew that for her to walk within sight of me (but not near me) she wanted me to follow her—away from the area. I chose instead to look around, and within minutes, found the den. There were six pups inside, perhaps six weeks in age. Coyotes give birth in February in our area and by May the family group has left the den.
We can rejoice in the night-music of coyotes, their yipps and howls telling us the land is alive! We’re lucky to have them, and this year thirteen new ones. And with 4000 acres of protected breeding and hunting habitat, they’re lucky to have us, too.