We’ve heard their howls and we occasionally see them running across the road, or carrying a rodent across a pasture. But what, exactly, is the coyote really up to?
Photo by Geraint Smith
Coyotes are extremely territorial creatures.
First off, the coyote is widespread and ranges from Panama north through Mexico, the United States, and all but the northernmost portions of Canada. The coyote fills roughly the same ecological role in the Americas that is filled in Eurasia and Africa by the similar-sized jackals. The coyotes range has expanded in the wake of human civilization, and coyotes, now readily reproduce in metropolitan areas.
The name “coyote” is borrowed from the Mexican-Spanish word coyote, ultimately derived from the Aztec word coyotl, meaning “trickster.” The scientific name — Canis latrans — means “barking dog” in Latin. If you have ever lain awake at night and heard a pack of coyotes yelping, you know just how appropriate their name is.
In the Preface for “Coyote Stories,” by Mourning Dove, the author writes, “The Animal People were here first — before there were any real people. Coyote was the most important because, after he was put to work by the Spirit Chief, he did more than any of the others to make the world a good place in which to live … There were many times … when he amused himself by getting into mischief and stirring up trouble … Coyote was a great one to play tricks, sometimes he is spoken of as ‘Trick Person.’”
The coyote call or “yip” are often a series of short notes. The yip is most often heard at dusk or at night, and are most common during the spring mating season and in the fall when the pups leave their families to establish new territories. The yip is a very shrill call, it is one you won’t forget.
Coyotes are omnivores, meaning they will eat mice, fruit, vegetables, insects, birds, snakes, lizards, berries and eggs. In other words, if it swims, crawls, flies, or hangs on trees, it is fair game for the coyote. Coyotes are opportunistic, versatile feeders. Part of the coyote’s success as a species is due to its dietary adaptability.
Wayne Grady writes in “The World of The Coyote” that coyote dens are usually dug in sandy soil amid trees and roots and can extend many yards into the ground. Pups stay close to the opening of the den during the day and are called back by the mother at feeding time or if she senses an intruder. The coyote’s “home range,” where it lives and protects from other coyotes, can vary from 2 square miles to as much as 40 square miles, depending on population density and food availability.
The authors of the “Field Guide to Mammals of the Rocky Mountains” — Chris Fisher, Don Pattie and Tamara Hartson — write that coyotes look like gray, buffy or reddish-gray, medium-sized dogs. The nose is pointed and there is usually a gray patch between the eyes that contrasts with the tawny top of the snout. The bushy tail has a black tip, and when frightened, the coyote runs with its tail tucked between its hindlegs.
So what is the big secret when it comes to coyotes? It’s not that it’s such a big secret, it’s just that they are so secretive!
Grady writes that even though they are without a doubt the most numerous and successful large predator in North America, seeing one in the wild is a relatively rare occurrence.
To understand the role of the den site, it is important to know something about coyote territoriality — the area patrolled by a coyote (either individually or in a pack). When a strange or migrant coyote wanders into the outermost area of another coyote’s home range, it may be allowed to do so undisturbed, as long it wanders out again fairly promptly.
If it begins to hunt or otherwise behave as though it were thinking of moving in, there may be some snarling and teeth-baring, and the intruder will usually get the message and amble nonchalantly back into the nearest neutral zone. The outer areas of home ranges can be thought of as a sort of buffer zone between rival packs, where minor transgressions are tolerated as long as they remain minor.
So it’s nothing personal, the coyote wants to keep his secrets from other coyotes as well, not just us humans.
By Steve Tapia