(This 904th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 20, 2008.)



Coyote in the Penn-Dixie Quarry in Hamburg, NY

photo by Richard Spencer


Our Eastern coyote is an animal that reverses an old adage: it is the beast too many people hate to love. Like Rodney Dangerfield, it "don't get no respect."


But I join the fine East Concord wildlife rehabilitator, Elise Able, in holding this animal in very high regard. Despite its Roadrunner cartoon portrayal, this is a truly wily animal.


Let's get some facts out there, many of them kindly provided by Ms. Able:


      Choose either the Southwestern pronunciation, coy-O-te, or that of the Midwest, COY-ote.


      Coyotes range across most of North and Central America including Alaska. They are, however, less common along the Atlantic coast and rare in Florida.


      You may not see them but there are many around. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation estimates that over 20,000 coyotes share our state with us. You seldom see them because they are very shy, timid and secretive animals. They are most active at dawn and dusk, but their habits vary widely depending on local conditions. Increasingly these rural animals are now being found in suburban and even urban settings.


      Although eastern coyotes are significantly larger than their western cousins, they aren't all that big: seldom does a big male top 45 pounds and females are significantly smaller. Wildlife specialists tell us that the larger size of these eastern animals is due to their acclimation to more northern climate and earlier interbreeding with wolves.


      Like other omnivorous animals, coyotes will eat almost anything available. Four-fifths of their diet consists of small mammals like rabbits and mice, but they will also eat grasses and fruit like wild blueberries and raspberries, carrion and garbage, insects, birds and larger mammals like raccoons, possums, muskrats and deer, usually fawns. And yes, here occasionally they do take poultry, livestock and pets. In the west they are more substantial predators, in particular killing many sheep.


      Will coyotes attack humans? Very few attacks have been reported and most of those incidents involved people feeding them. At such times they respond very much as do pet dogs. National Geographic writer Robert Winkler, who studied such coyote attacks suggests that instead of considering coyotes a threat, "a person who sees a coyote should feel lucky."


      Compare the extremely sparse record of coyote attacks with that of domestic dogs. Annually there are about 4.5 million dog bites reported in the United States – more than one out of every 70 of us is bitten -- with presumably many more bites going unreported. An average of over 15 of those bitten die each year, most of them children.


      Coyotes are very successful animals. The federal agency Wildlife Services kills thousands each year, mostly in the west, yet the animals continue to thrive and extend their range. Many conservationists feel that this decimation is counterproductive: the coyotes respond to empty territory by having larger and more viable litters.


      Coyote pairs remain together for life, but they can only mate in January or February. Their young are born two months later, usually in an abandoned woodchuck den the parents have improved for their use. The male brings food to the female during the April birthing period and continues to share care of the four to seven pups. The surviving young stay with the parents until late in the year when they leave to find a territory for themselves, thus coyote packs are most often family groups.


      Although they can also mate with dogs, there are problems with estrus cycles and a male dog will not care for a mated female coyote during the whelping season. Thus their offspring usually die young and the resulting coydogs are rare.


      Rabid coyotes are also very rare. That disease is generally restricted to skunks, raccoons, bats and foxes. Like other animals, coyotes are, however, subject to mange, a serious mite-borne infection which leads to hair loss and declining physical condition.


      As a predator on fawns and the eggs and young of Canada geese, coyotes help to control those populations, especially in suburban areas where hunting is not allowed.


What should you do? Watch for these handsome animals but keep your small pets indoors.-- Gerry Rising