Coyotes: the Controversial Mesopredator

March 5th, 2020

The word coyote can invoke a variety of descriptions — frightening, nuisance, beautiful, clever, intelligent, adaptable. And there’s one description in particular that needs to be acknowledged: resident. Many of us have stories of sightings and interactions. I am contacted frequently regarding this neighbor of ours. In order to effectively and peacefully coexist with coyotes, let’s learn some natural history.

In the early 19th century, the coyote was not found east of the Great Plains, and was exclusively a western animal. As a result, Lewis and Clark had never seen one until they got to the middle Missouri River. They wrote they were seeing some new kind of fox, but once they shot one and looked at it up close, they realized this had to be some kind of wolf. They named it a prairie wolf, and for most of the 19th century that’s what the animal was known as in American natural history. Fast-forward to modern day, the reduced number of apex predators including mountain lion, red wolves and gray wolves, permitted the coyote to migrate into all eastern states — making it a resident of the entire US. Distinctively an American species, coyotes are excellent opportunistic predators with a generalist appetite and habitat selection. 

Though they once roamed only the western prairies and deserts, the coyotes we know now live in forests and mountains and adapt to the changing landscape. They have even colonized metropolitan centers like Atlanta, Chicago, and New York City. The coyote evolved with an adaptive, evolutionarily derived strategy for surviving under persecution. 

Coyotes quickly learned to adapt. They evolved alongside larger canids like wolves, who often targeted them and killed their pups. As a result, coyotes developed  fission-fusion adaptation. This means groups can merge (fusion) or split (fission) as they move through the environment, making group composition a dynamic property, and enables them to function as pack predators or as singles and pairs. When they’re persecuted, coyotes tend to abandon the pack strategy and scatter across the landscape in singles and pairs. Early and mid-century poison campaigns thought to be eliminating the coyote actually kept them scattering across North America, increasing fecundity and health. 

Another fascinating and — often unknown — adaptation coyotes have developed is that when their populations are pressured, litter size increases. The normal litter size is five to six pups. It’s possible to reduce the numbers of coyotes in a given area at a given time, but the next summer, after birthing season, the population will return to the original number. This is the main reason lethal control methods are not a viable long-term option. 

Roland Kays, a research associate professor at North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences states, “Unlike mountain lions, wolves and bears that were hunted to near-extinction in state-sponsored predator-control programs, coyotes do not give in easily. Coyotes are the ultimate American survivor. They have endured persecution all over the place. They are sneaky enough. They eat whatever they can find — insects, smaller mammals, garbage. When they move into urban areas, their primary source of mortality in rural areas is now removed and that was people. You might wonder, how can that be removed? That’s because you don’t have hunting and trapping occurring in the cities. The cities actually act as a kind of refuge for coyotes once they get established.”

Kays continues, “Coyotes do not breed like rats, but they could hold their own in a contest. It is an animal that, when threatened, reacts by making more coyotes, becoming stealthier, nearly impossible to find even as their numbers grow. The attitude of game officials in the 1930s was to get rid of the wolves and then deal with coyotes. But you can’t get rid of coyotes, it doesn’t work. The one thing that will reduce coyote numbers is wolves.” 

The red wolf, native to the southeast and currently surviving in very small numbers in one wild release site in northeastern North Carolina, is the perfect enforcer for coyotes. More red wolves on the landscape means competition for coyotes. Red wolves also do not prosper around humans like coyotes do, making them less of a conflict where humans are considered.

Coyote Q&A with Wildlife Director Tish Gailmard

Now that you are more versed about our neighbor, what’s the best way to deal with them?

The Atlanta Coyote Project, is a group of scientists devoted to learning more about metro Atlanta coyotes and striving to be a relevant and credible source of information providing strategies for avoiding human coyote conflict. According to their research, passive management is the key to coexisting peacefully with coyotes. The group lists these measures:

  • Never feed coyotes and always prevent their access to food around your home.

  • Do not leave pet food outside.

  • Make trash cans inaccessible and secure them with tight lids.

  • Control small mammals from feeding in and around bird feeders, which can attract coyotes.

  • Clean and store grills when not in use.

  • Properly dispose of dead animals, including any nearby roadkill.

  • Do not allow pets to roam freely and bring them indoors at night.

  • If pets must be kept outside, consider installing fencing and motion-activated lights to discourage predators.

  • Keep small livestock and poultry in enclosed or sheltered areas.

  • If you see coyotes near your home and feel uneasy about their presence, make loud noises, spray them with a hose, and generally make them feel unwelcome.

  • Never run from a coyote.

What makes a coyote happy?

Like most animals — food, shelter, water and a safe place to reproduce and raise a family!

These adaptable and opportunistic animals will eat almost anything, hunting rabbits, rodents, fish, frogs, and even young deer. They also happily dine on garbage, insects, snakes, fruit, vegetables, and carrion. They have good vision and a strong sense of smell. 

Breeding season is January through March, with pups born 60-63 days later — sometimes daytime activity is increased during breeding season, though coyotes are nocturnal. They increase feeding activity and begin searching for suitable denning sites after breeding season. Coyotes may dig their own den or enlarge another animal’s den. Natural holes, blown down trees or rocky ledges may also be utilized as den locations. After pups are born, both parents and non-breeding adults feed and protect the young and their territory, forming strong family bonds. The young are weaned after 5 to 7 weeks and are able to hunt on their own by the following fall. Young coyotes begin dispersal in October. 

Coyotes communicate through a series of yips, barks and howls. A common call of the coyote is two short barks and a long wavering yodel known as the howl. They use stumps, posts, bushes, or rocks as scent posts on which they urinate and defecate to mark their territory.

“I have coyotes, will you come get them?” 

The Atlanta Coyote Project stresses coyote relocation is not an option.The territorial behavior of coyotes helps explain why trapping and killing is not a good management option. If coyotes are regularly occupying an area (i.e. have established a territory), it means they’ve found a good place to live where their needs are being met. Removal of these resident coyotes creates a vacancy that can eventually be filled by a transient who is in search of its own territory.

Additionally, removal of resident coyotes decreases competition with any remaining coyotes in the area, which means more food is now available. More food enables more pups to survive and the local population grows. A vicious cycle of trapping followed by repopulation sets in motion.

Simply stated: if you don’t want coyotes in your area, remove the things that make them happy.

In the south, we have no apex predators like wolves — with the exception of the small population of red wolves in northeastern North Carolina — to help maintain ecological balance and the coyote has stepped into that role. Without apex predators, trophic cascade can set in motion, which means that dramatic chances in food chain and ecosystem structures alters landscapes, animal populations and the relationships between them. We must remember that every animal serves a purpose, and it’s our job to recognize the purpose and be responsible stewards. Coyotes are an essential part of keeping the balance.

Our relationship with coyotes is directly affected by our behavior — coyotes react to us, and we can foster mutual respect (or lack of respect) through cues we send them. Coyotes are watching and learning from us, and we influence their behavior. It will be our actions that determine what the future holds for our wildlife neighbors.

Posted by Tish Gailmard
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