The cartoons and legends about coyotes were right about one thing: coyotes truly are wily tricksters, though perhaps a better phrase is clever survivors. While their original habitat was the dry, open areas of the western half of the continent, coyotes gradually moved into every state but Hawaii and are in every county of Michigan. I imagine they might still prefer open fields, but coyotes now live successfully within suburban neighborhoods, the heat of the desert, the humidity of the tropics, the snow of Alaska, and the hustle and traffic of huge urban areas as well. Curious but shy, these daytime (diurnal) animals have learned to be most active at night in order to avoid us loud and slightly scary humans. Their complex, coordinated howling can allow a few coyotes to sound like a sizeable pack. That’s a lot of adaptation!
Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our Stewardship Manager, has hosted two well-attended, useful coyote presentations for Oakland Township residents. The first took place in 2016 with naturalist educator Laura Zoet who founded Nature on the Go, and the second earlier this month with Jonathan Schechter, a nature education writer for Oakland County’s blog, “The Wilder Side of Oakland County.”
We’ll soon be entering the mating season for coyotes in Michigan, which runs from December through February or March. That’s when you’re most likely to see two coyotes trotting along in the distance, see two sets of single tracks in a snowy meadow or hear a pair howling and barking in the dark. The breeding and pup-raising season is when most human-coyote interactions take place. So now’s a good time to get better acquainted with coyotes.
Let’s Start with the Facts about Our Northeastern Coyotes
Their DNA: Are They Part Wolf?
You’ve probably heard the term “coywolf” applied to our Northeastern Coyotes (Canis latrans thamnos). Well, our coyotes are much more coyote than wolf. When the wolf populations in eastern Canada and New England were decimated by European settlers, western coyotes migrated east seeking abandoned territories and mates among the few wolves that survived. As a result, according to an article published in the National Library of Medicine of the National Institues of Health, the current DNA of coyotes in our area is about 66% western coyote, 24% eastern and western wolf and 11% domestic dog. (Rarely, if ever, does a coyote mate with a dog these days. Those genes are quite far back in their genetic history.) The wolf DNA has resulted in our coyotes being somewhat larger than western coyotes. But they are still far smaller than wolves and have a different appearance and behavior. Here’s a useful link from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for comparing the appearance of wolves and coyotes.
The Size of Our Coyotes : Less Than Half of the Size of a Wolf
Though our Northeastern coyotes can look large from a distance, their bone structure is actually slighter than most domestic dogs. As you can see above, the size effect is created by their thick fur and long legs. People compare them to wolves, but wolves can weigh 70 to 150 lbs., whereas coyotes weigh 15-40 lbs. That means that our coyotes are slightly smaller than a German Shepherd and on average, less than half the size of a wolf.
Identification: The Tail Carried Low is a Good Clue
Three of the most common field marks for coyotes are: yellow eyes; pointed and upright ears; and a bushy tail carried below the back, nearer the ground. (Coyotes do not have the muscles needed to raise their tails like dogs do.) Their long legs and narrow muzzles with a small nose pad are other distinguishing features. The coyote is known for its short, high- pitched howl which most often is mixed with yips and barking. They use it to bring their family group together during individual foraging, or to announce their territory to other coyotes.
The Coyotes’ Diet: Varied and Always Aimed at the Most Food for the Least Effort
Any wild animal wants to expend as little energy as possible in getting food. As a result, the main diet of our coyotes are rats, mice, and deer carrion. In summer, they also eat fruits, frogs, insects, snakes, goose eggs or goslings. Some birds and small mammals like squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks can make a meal year ’round. Coyotes will occasionally take down a fawn, but rarely an adult deer unless it’s already injured or ill. After all, dead deer along our roadsides are sadly plentiful and require little effort on the coyote’s part. Feral or outdoor cats with their twitching tails in the night are an occasional food source for coyotes; some research indicates less than 2% of their diet. Unaccompanied, unleashed small dogs are an even lower percentage. Larger dogs are generally more trouble than they’re worth to a coyote. You can prevent your small pets from becoming prey by keeping them indoors or accompanying them outside, especially at night.
Hunting Style and the Famous “Howl”
Coyotes don’t hunt in large packs like wolves, but in mated pairs. They may venture off alone for a short distance while hunting and then rejoin their mate as the hunt continues. In late summer or early fall, a family group of adults and youngsters (which can resemble a pack) may hunt together but most of the work is done by the adults. Between October and December, the young disperse, seeking new territory.
A pair or small family of coyotes can sound like a much larger group! According to Dr. Scott Henke, a researcher at Texas A&M University, coyotes use many different sounds and pitches in one howl. As a result, two yipping, barking and howling coyotes can sound like eight. Or three coyotes can sound like a dozen! Coyotes pick up scents up to a mile away, run up to 39 mph, jump 4-6 foot fences, swim and have figured out traffic patterns on our roads and highways. Coyotes, in other words, have all the skills they need to survive.
The Threat to Humans? The Animal on the Left is More Dangerous to You!
Only two human fatalities from coyotes have EVER been documented in North America. Deer inadvertently cause 200 deaths EVERY YEAR in approximately one million car collisions. According to the journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, even domestic dogs cause 19 deaths each year. It’s wise not to take chances with any wild animal, especially in urban areas where coyotes become more habituated to humans and food sources are plentiful. Coyotes are predators, but our caution with coyotes needs to be proportional to the actual threat.
How Do We Humans Coexist with Such a Successful Predator? Keep Them Wild!
Coyotes will be with us from now on, but luckily they are naturally shy around humans. A wild coyote will take one look at a human and head the other way. It’s our job to keep them that way! We don’t want them to become accustomed to being close to us and our habitats, i.e., our yards, parks, playgrounds or neighborhoods. Our goals must be to remove what attracts them to our surroundings and to scare them away when they venture too close to humans. Here are the strategies the presenters recommended.
Hunting Doesn’t Work Well to Lower the Number of Coyotes
As of 2016, coyotes can be hunted year ’round in Michigan. (See “Fur Harvesting” regulations at this link.) But as a method for reducing the population, hunting is ineffective. According to naturalist Laurie Zoet, there is some evidence that when coyote numbers begin to decline, the females produce more pups and the juveniles breed at a younger age. Other research indicates that the rebound of coyote populations after hunting is due to other coyotes simply moving into empty territories. Hunting or trapping can only temporarily decrease their numbers. So what to do? Read on!
For starters, NEVER INTENTIONALLY FEED A COYOTE! You want coyotes to avoid you and your home if you are to protect them, your family and your pets. Be careful to eliminate food sources that attract coyotes or that attract their most common prey. Don’t leave dog or cat food out in the open, especially at night. If coyotes are a problem in your yard, consider eliminating your bird feeder – which attracts mice, squirrels and chipmunks, some of the coyote’s easiest meals. If you can, put your garbage out for pick up in the morning rather than at night. If it has to go out at night, be sure it’s in a tightly sealed can. Other ideas include:
- Wood and brush piles are good shelter for small mammals and birds and so are often attractive to coyotes.
- Bird baths are water sources so if you’re worried, remove them, too.
- Close off crawl spaces under decks which might look like a cozy place for a den.
- Outdoor motion-sensor lights can also be a deterrent in some instances.
Nature lovers need to remember that you are not being heartless by keeping coyotes at a distance! You are keeping an animal wild and very likely saving its life, because coyotes that don’t fear humans usually end up dead.
If a Coyote Approaches You or Others, or is Seen Near Humans or Your Pet, Look and Sound Big and Fierce! Don’t Retreat! And Be Consistent.
If you see a coyote on a playground, in your yard, near a school, visiting a neighborhood during the day, it shouldn’t be there. It should not approach you or engage you in any way; it should be turning to leave as soon as you appear. These behaviors mean the coyote is getting comfortable around humans. So this is your chance to act crazy and obnoxious in public – and be appreciated for it! We all need to be consistent about keeping these bright, curious canines wild, i.e., uncomfortable when close to humans. The acronym that’s been created to help us remember the most effective system in keeping coyotes wild is S.M.A.R.T.
S: Stop, establish eye contact and perhaps make a firm stopping gesture. Don’t run. Don’t hide. Don’t retreat. You want to establish that you are the scarier animal. Running, hiding or speaking softly makes you look like prey.
M: Make yourself look big! Spread your arms over your head. If you have a rake, large stick or golf club at hand, wave it overhead or pop open an umbrella. If you’re on a trail, shake a can full of pennies (great trail accessory for kids) or let off a pocket air horn. Throw things toward the animal (not food!), but don’t try to hit it.
A: Announce yourself. In other words, shout! “HEY! GET OUT OF HERE” will work – or whatever you want really – as long as its fierce, forceful and loud!
R: Repeat the shout over and over again, while making yourself look as huge as possible until the coyote turns and leaves.
T: Teach others to do the same, including family and friends.
This strategy makes sense to me and both presenters assured us that it will work! Check out this video to learn more. Remember, coyotes are naturally intimidated by humans.
The Exceptions: If a Coyote is Cornered, Injured, at its Den or with Pups, Don’t Threaten It!
In the above cases, if you inadvertently come across a den or a coyote with pups and are with a pet, pull the pet close or pick it up if possible and SLOWLY, quietly back away. If alone, make yourself look as large as possible and SLOWLY, quietly back away.
Coyotes are Curious Creatures – So Are We!
Predator animals are hard for many of us to love and can seem frightening. But sometimes we scare ourselves simply by the language we use. As Jonathan Schechter wisely pointed out at his presentation, coyotes are not “lurking” at the edge of your property. They’re usually standing, looking, being naturally curious. I’d add, despite what a reporter might say, they are not “skulking” across a field; they’re exploring and searching for food. Are they “devouring their prey,” or simply eating a meal and thereby keeping the numbers of rodents around you in check? Words have power to create fear or understanding.
Remember that if you see a coyote in the distance at one of our parks or natural areas and it is simply pausing to look at you from afar rather than approaching, there is no reason to frighten the animal. Remember SMART while you watch to the coyote to see if it will continue on its way. It’s probably looking for a mouse, a grasshopper, a mole, some fruit, or other easy prey – not you.
It’s sensible to be wary of coyotes as predators. After all, we’re predators from their perspective and they’re very wary of us! They don’t like us near their young or their dens. We don’t like them near our young or our homes either. A certain respect and caution is called for on both sides. All that’s required by residents is to avoid tempting this curious and hungry predator with food and to consistently encourage it to keep its distance. Ultimately, like most animals,we need to protect our young and our territory, and by doing so we can continue to respect and enjoy the continued existence of our wild neighbors.