The Crafty Coyote

October 26, 2022

Coyotes, Canis latrans, are routinely observed in Little Lake Valley. Even if not seen, one can usually at least find their scat and other signs of their presence. It is always a pleasure to see one of these beautiful animals loping past in the distance or intently hunting gophers and voles. Their stalking and leaping high in the air to land on a gopher is entertaining and fun to watch. Last week as I was walking on the mitigation land area called Benbow, there was a young coyote creeping through the grassy meadow. I could only really see its ears and furry tail waving and then it leapt high in the air to pounce on a small rodent. It was a while before it noticed I was not that far away. Its coat appeared thick and healthy, and the fur was brown, red, and gold with black tips on the hairs.

Coyotes can bring up different reactions in different people. Some folks think all coyotes are bad, vile creatures that should be shot or poisoned. Others, me included, think they are important predators and carrion eaters in our ecological system that help balance the prey-predator dynamic. I know they can cause problems for humans as they will eat pets like dogs and cats and can impact livestock populations, yet after reading Dan Flores’s book, Coyote America, and doing some of my own research, my respect and admiration for this remarkable canine has increased.

In Coyote America, Mr. Flores states, “the coyote symbolizes the spirit of America.” The coyotes’ adaptability and resourcefulness are traits that Americans embrace. Yet the coyote was labeled as an “arch predator” in 1931 and in the ten years following it is estimated that 6.5 million coyotes were poisoned or shot. Dan Flores tells us that this did not have the intended effect on the number of coyotes we currently have. He states, “Unlike wolves, which operate primarily within packs, coyotes, like human beings, are a “fission-fusion” species. They can function well within a pack to bring down larger prey like deer, or as individuals can survive on smaller animals—mice, voles, rabbits, even insects. This adaption plus its innate ability to adjust the size of its litters from as few as 2 pups to as many as 19, depending on the number of coyotes in the area, has enabled the coyote to survive eradication campaigns which extirpated most other large predators from much of North America.” These adaptations that allow for larger litter sizes in the right conditions and a diverse diet have given coyotes the reputation of being resilient survivors.

A recent survey found that coyotes have expanded their territory 40% since the 1950’s, which is twice the rate of any other North American carnivore. They are native to the western United States but since wolves have been either extirpated or greatly reduced in numbers on the east coast, coyotes now live in 49 states (Hawaii has no coyotes). On the southern end of the United States, coyotes are poised to enter South America for the first time. They reached Panama in 2013 and the Darien Gap is the last block that is keeping them from Venezuela and the Northern countries of South America. Deforestation and the opening of forests into grasslands is creating more habitat for coyotes.

Coyotes mostly eat rodents but are opportunist omnivores that eat whatever they can, including birds, insects, fruit, carrion, house pets such as cats and dogs, and the thing that makes farmers mostly regard them as predacious pests – lambs, calves, and other livestock. Studies have shown that here in California, a major part of the coyote diet is small rodents such as ground squirrels, rabbits, gophers and voles.

They are in the dog family and can weigh 30 to 50 pounds and can run 40 miles per hour. On the east coast where they are recently a resident of, they have been found to crossbreed with dogs and wolves. These animals can be ten pounds heavier than our native coyotes and are called coydogs or coywolves. Their vision is keen, and they have an excellent sense of hearing and smell. They have been called the American Jackal because they fill the niche of the Golden Jackal and are also related. Prairie wolf, brush wolf, and little wolf are all names that coyotes have been called but the actual name coyote came from the Aztec word ‘Coyotl.’

Research has shown that when coyotes have been removed from large prairie habitats for cattle and sheep farmers, the jackrabbits and other rodents have increased and become problematic. The coyote is considered a keystone predator in some habitats like chaparral, grasslands, and wetlands and helps to maintain a healthy balance of microherbivores and mesopredators. There is ongoing research on coyotes that has begun to inform our ability to live with this crafty animal.

Since coyotes are so adaptable in their living requirements and food sources and their population continues to increase, we will have to learn to adapt to living with them. Keeping our pets on leashes and not feeding the coyotes, either by leaving food out for them as some animal lovers are doing or by leaving our cat and dog food out, and just being aware that coyotes are wild animals who will leave us alone if we leave them alone, will help us to live more harmoniously with the remarkable coyote.