Home » Nearby Nature

Lions and Tigers and Bears oh my….no dear it’s just a coyote!

Published on November 29, 2012

I can still vividly remember the first time I saw a coyote; it was at the gravel pit where I worked during the summer behind the Red Fox housing development in Shalersville. The game protector informed the plant manager that a coyote had been killing young calves on a neighbors beef farm. He gave us permission to kill the animal if we saw it roaming through the area. Later in the day, the animal was laying across the tailgate of a truck.  It was the size of a very large German Sheppard. That was 35 years ago!  Recently Aurora, Hudson and Frohring Meadows in the Geauga Metro Parks have had “coyote experiences”.  On many nights I can hear the eerie howling as they communicate with each other in the woods where I live.  This highly adaptable canine has expanded its range to most of North America and into Mexico and Panama. This is due in large part because the other predators such as mountain lions, bears, lynx, wolverines and bobcats who normally keep coyote populations in check have been pushed out by urban sprawl, upsetting the delicate balance of nature.  Coyotes are found in all 88 counties of Ohio. Coyote populations often increase as the turkey population’s increase in an area. Seldom do they attack a healthy deer, mainly feeding on the weak or sickly. 

Eastern coyotes, Canis latrans,   typically weigh 30-50 pounds and are 48-60 inches long, approximately twice the size of their close relative, the western coyote. Eastern coyotes have long legs, thick fur, a pointy snout, a drooping bushy black-tipped tail and range in color from a silvery gray to a grizzled brownish red. The average life span of a wild coyote is four years. Though coyotes are often mistaken for a domestic dog hybrid, recent genetic research has attributed the eastern coyote’s larger size and unique behavioral characteristics to interbreeding with Canadian gray wolves. Unlike the wolf or domestic dog, coyotes run with their tail pointing down.

Early reports in Ohio indicate coyotes were present in the late 1800s. In the early 1900’s a “wolf” was reported in Northwestern Ohio. Fearing for their livestock, farmers organized a hunt and eliminated the animal. Recent analyses of the pictures of the hunt reveal that the animal in question was a coyote and not a wolf.  From there this secretive and adaptive creature has infiltrated every ecosystem Ohio has to offer.

Coyotes are opportunistic and use a variety of habitats, including developed areas like wooded suburbs, housing developments, and parks. Their ability to survive and take advantage of food sources found in and around these habitats has resulted in an increase in coyote sightings and related conflicts. A coyote’s diet consists predominantly of mice, woodchucks, squirrels, rabbits, deer, some fruits, carrion, and when available, garbage. Some coyotes will also prey on small livestock, poultry, and small pets.  Unsupervised pets, particularly outdoor cats and small dogs (less than 25 pounds) are vulnerable to coyote attacks. Unfortunately last year I fear one of our cats succumbed to coyotes and I routinely don’t let our dogs out at night when I hear them howling in the distance.

The Eastern coyote is a social animal that generally selects a lifelong mate. Female coyotes are monestrous, meaning that they only experience estrus once per year. Thus, male coyotes only produce sperm during the time females are receptive. The coyote estrus period only lasts about 10 days, and if the male tries to breed her before she is ready, she’ll threaten and reject him until the time is right. She’ll growl, bark, yip and even whimper, all the while bearing her razor-sharp teeth in an attempt to make her point to alpha male. Even though coyotes are monogamous, oftentimes the alpha male will get frustrated with the teasing and go on the prowl looking to mate with a receptive female either within or outside his pack. The males simply follow a basic male mating strategy to spread their genes. He’ll return to his mate when she’s ready. Coyotes are quite vocal during their January to March breeding season. The female coyote digs her own den under an uprooted tree, log, or thicket; may use a cave, hollow log, or storm drain; or take over and enlarge another mammal’s burrow. The den will have an entrance 1 to 2 feet across, be dug 5 to 15 feet long, and terminate in an enlarged nesting chamber. Coyotes usually have several dens and move from one to the other, minimizing the risk that a den containing young will be detected. These moves also help to prevent an accumulation of fleas and other parasites, as well as urine, droppings, and food refuse. Coyotes use the same dens yearly or make new dens in the same area. Both parents care for their young, occasionally with the assistance of older offspring. Four to eight pups are born in early May. Within a year some pups will disperse long distances to find their own territories, while other offspring may remain with their parents and form a small pack.

Territories range in size from 5-25 square miles and are usually shared by a mated pair and occasionally their offspring. Coyotes mark and defend their territories against other unrelated coyotes and sometimes against other canid species. Coyotes are capable of many distinct vocalizations – the yipping of youngsters, barks to indicate a threat, long howls used to bring pack members together, and group yip-howls issued when pack members reunite.

Coyotes are biologically able to reproduce with domestic dogs, although because of several barriers, they rarely do. For instance, both male and female coyotes are fertile for only a short time during the year. Also, young coydogs rarely survive because male domestic dogs that breed with female coyotes do not remain with her to assist with parental care. The offspring of a coyote/domestic dog mating are often infertile.

As coyotes have become more common, public concerns about coyotes attacking pets and people, especially children, have increased. Although some coyotes may exhibit bold behavior near people, the risk of a coyote attacking a person is extremely low. This risk can increase if coyotes are intentionally fed and then learn to associate people with food.

NEVER feed coyotes! DO NOT place food out for any mammals. Homeowners should eliminate any food sources that may be attractive to coyotes. Clean up bird seed below feeders, pet foods, and fallen fruit. Secure garbage and compost in animal-proof containers.

You can attempt to frighten away coyotes by making loud noises (shouting, air horn, or banging pots and pans) and acting aggressively (e.g., waving your arms, throwing sticks, spraying with a garden hose). Homeowners should realize that if they live near suitable habitat, fencing may be the only method to completely eliminate coyotes from travelling near homes. In rare cases, efforts to remove coyotes may be justified.

Coyotes are most active at night but may be active during daylight hours, particularly during the young-rearing period and longer days of summer. Daytime activity alone is not indicative of rabies. Sarcoptic mange, a parasitic disease, can affect large numbers of coyotes, particularly when the population is dense and the chance of transmission is high. Many are also killed on roadways by automobiles.

Hunting coyotes is one way to control these creatures in a given location. In Ohio there is no daily bag limit, no closed season. If hunted during the deer gun season, hours and legal hunting devices are the same as for deer gun season. Rifles and night vision scopes are legal for coyote hunting; however, rifles and night hunting (between sunset and 1/2 hour before sunrise) are prohibited during any firearm/muzzleloader deer seasons. It is illegal to bait coyotes with poison carcasses.

Joe Malmisur & Matt Sorrick

About Joe Malmisur & Matt Sorrick

Matt Sorrick is Director of The Center for Science Education at Hiram College. Joe Malmisur is an amateur naturalist and graduate of the Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist program.

Reader Responses

responses