Mother Nature’s mischief makers: The coyote

By : 
Lynne Farmer

Anyone living in rural Minnesota, or even on the outskirts of our towns and cities, has likely been mesmerized by the song of a coyote. It’s a soaring solo, sung by an alpha male coyote, the leader to whom all other pack members bow. Years ago, as day was pulling into night, one of these four-legged troubadours set our valley to music. I’ve heard other coyotes since, but that one loud clear voice still echoes. Every now and then I repeat the haunting notes to myself for old time’s sake. 

Regardless of how a person feels about a melodic reminder that coyotes are our neighbors, they seem to be here to stay despite efforts to hunt, trap and poison them to a fare-thee-well. And yet they persist, blamed for many things of which they’re not capable, and some of which they are.

Logging in at a top weight of 50 lbs., most are smaller, about the size of a beagle underneath all that fur. Mates are generally chosen in spring, with an alpha male and an alpha female topping the pack hierarchy. A litter of six to eight pups is reared, though this can vary. Studies show that smaller litters are birthed when population and habitat conditions warrant. If food is scarce the hierarchy is enforced with only the alpha pair leading and breeding.

Many pups don’t make it to adulthood due to starvation, disease and predation. If a pup survives these early trials it has a hard-scrabble existence for the rest of its life. The coyote diet consists of small animals such as rabbits, rats, mice, moles, gophers, birds, snakes and frogs as well as a variety of fruits and berries.

When a coyote parent returns to the den, pups gather round and lick the parent’s muzzle. This stimulates the parent to regurgitate and thus feed the hungry pups. Males leave the family when about eight months old, but females tend to stay.

As adults, the pups mature into hunters and scavengers. When winter snow causes food supplies to dwindle, a coyote’s razor-sharp senses become even more crucial. A keen sense of hearing leads them to prey several inches beneath the snow. Winter is the season when their rodent hunting skills excel, but also when berries and dried fruits make up a larger part of their diet.

Food is sometimes buried for later retrieval and the area is marked with urine. Coyotes scratch and roll on the earth of their favorite hunting/food storage spots to alert other coyotes that a claim has been staked. In fact, in times of abundance they have been observed sharing their food with foxes and birds. And in a sort of symbiotic relationship, coyotes will follow badgers to catch animals stirred up by the badger’s excavations. The resourceful coyote does not turn down a golden opportunity.

Coyotes are considered a “varmint” by many, thanks to their occasional taking of a stray chicken or other small livestock. However, coyotes are often blamed for predation that is the result of feral dogs or other predators. Sometimes coyotes are seen eating a carcass abandoned   by another predator that made the kill, eaten its fill and moved on. Being an able scavenger, the coyote comes in to eat the remains and is assumed to be the predator.

 For the past 15 years we have had a free-range chicken flock on our acreage and although hawks, dogs and raccoons have nabbed a few chicken dinners, the resident coyotes never have. I suspect this is because they have plenty of wild fare in the surrounding fields and woods.

In the 1940’s, Klamath County, Ore., launched a program to completely eliminate coyotes. The county’s rodent population exploded as a result, causing millions of dollars in crop damage. Coyotes were subsequently reintroduced and are now a valued part of a balanced ecosystem there.

In his book “Don Coyote” Dayton Hyde, a western sheep rancher, recounts his enduring friendship with a coyote that overcame the tendency of man and coyote to keep at arm’s length. Anyone curious about the bond a coyote can establish with a human being would find this captivating book an eye-opener. It portrays coyotes as the intelligent, cautious, curious and loyal canines they are, with many of the same characteristics we prize in our dogs.

As more is learned about our coyote neighbors, perhaps we can celebrate the sight of one coursing across an open field this winter as a reminder of its important role in a healthy web of life.