By David Payne Sr.
Historically, the coyote’s range was restricted to the Great Plains area, but today the coyote can be found from Alaska to Central America, as far west as the Los Angeles city limits, and as far east as the Atlantic Ocean.
The coyote (Canis latrans) weighs around 40 pounds and is larger than its western cousin, which is one of the reasons many believe it to be a wolf/western coyote hybrid.
As the coyotes moved east during the 20th century, a northern and southern strain appeared, possibly because of hybridizing with different species of wolf in the north and south.
When the wolf was extirpated from the East in the 1800s, an ecological void for a top predator was left unfilled. However, prey, especially deer and turkey, were scarce.
Once those species began to be reestablished in the mid 20th century, the coyote’s eastward encroachment became pronounced.
“Their growth literally followed the growth of the deer herd,” said Eric Richmond, West Virginia wildlife manager.
The coyote spread along two routes, one across the Great Lakes area and another along the Gulf Coast. Those two strains of eastern coyotes converged in West Virginia and Virginia about 30 years ago.
While coyotes may be similar to dogs, their tracks do look different. A coyote track is shaped like an oval and the toenails are close and curve inward. Dog tracks are typically round and the toenails point outward.
The coyote is a very versatile predator. West Virginia DNR biologist Jeff McCrady said that while he was working in the western U.S. early in his career he was amazed by the different types of coyote crop damage.
“They were eating farmer’s watermelons. They would get it open, stick their heads right in and eat the insides right out,’’ he said.
According to an American Sheep Industry Association report, coyotes are a major factor in lamb mortality in the East. In Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio, coyote depredations accounted for 1.5 percent to nearly 2 percent loss of the annual lamb crop between 1990 and 1999, the report said.
As coyote populations increase, they begin preying more heavily on livestock, lambs especially, but also calves. That depredation increased significantly between 1990 and 2000, especially in Virginia and West Virginia, the report says.
According to the sheep association, measurable levels of coyote depredations on cattle in the Carolinas began to be detected around 2000.
The eastern coyotes’ staple prey are white tailed deer, rats, mice, rabbits, groundhogs, grouse, turkey, chipmunks, fruits, and berries, and they also consume a lot of feral cats and the occasional house cat.
While hunting, I’ve seen fresh-coyote-killed fawns which, at first glance, appear to have been shot by a hunter, field dressed and left to rot. Close inspection, however, tells something about coyote behavior. After killing a deer, the coyotes rip open the bellies and devour the intestines and other vital organs and stick their heads inside the chest cavity to devour the lungs and heart. They leave will their bellies full of organs, but return later to consume the meat.
While many may not like the coyotes preying upon game species, it does fill a predator void left absent by wolf extirpation and plays a key role in controlling pests such as rats and mice.
Coyote hunting and trapping laws are very liberal in virtually all states the coyote inhabits, but efforts to control populations have largely been unsuccessful despite a lack of protection for the animal, as well as the occasional posted bounties. Although the eastern wolf was wiped out rather quickly in the 18th and 19th century, our modern society is unlikely to have a repeat canine extirpation. Not only do fewer people wield firearms outdoors than in the days of our forefathers, but game populations are now controlled. Both the shooting of wolves and a significant decline in the wolf’s prey were factors in the wolf’s extirpation.
Coyotes can live virtually anywhere. They are at home in forests, on farms, craggy mountains, deserts, swamps and even in urban areas.
In the South, coyotes begin breeding in February, while farther North the breeding season begins in March. Coyotes are thought to mate for life and even use the same dens each year. The gestation period is 63 days and litters average around a half-dozen pups. The female gives birth in the den and the male brings food to the female and later for the young once they have been weaned. The young usually leave the den in November.
There is little reason for people to fear coyotes as they are timid and shy.
“I don’t see them as a problem,” Richmond said. “The word predator has a negative connotation and we view the coyote as a predator differently than we do other predators, such as hawks and owls. They are part of our flora and fauna and I think we should learn to appreciate them.”
They usually avoid humans, but once they become acclimated to interacting with humans, problems increase.
According to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the following are important facts to remember when dealing with coyotes near the home:
• Do not feed coyotes. When coyotes begin associating humans with food they loose their natural fears and may become dangerous.
• Eliminate water sources. These areas attract rodents, birds, and snakes which the coyote will prey upon.
• Position bird feeders so coyotes can not get to the feed. Coyotes may also be attracted to birds and small mammals that have been lured in by the feeder.
• Do not discard edible garbage. Coyotes are opportunistic and will eat any table scraps.
• Secure garbage containers. Use trash barrels with lids that clamp down tight even when tipped over.
Do not place trash cans out the night before scheduled pick up. Placing cans out the morning before pick up will give coyote less time to scavenge, as they will not have cover of darkness.
• Do not leave barbecue grills outside and uncovered, the smell of the grill and the contents of the grills’ drip pan attracts coyotes.
• Feed pets indoors whenever possible. Remove any leftovers if feeding outdoors. Store pet food in an area not accessible to other animals.
• Clear brush and weeds from around the property. This deprives coyote prey (small mammals and birds) of protective cover and deters the coyote from hunting around your property.
A fenced yard may help deter coyotes. The fence must be at least 6 feet high. Preferably, the bottom of the fence should extend 6 inches below ground level.