Successful predator, singing dog or wily trickster?
by Karen Benson
Nov 19, 2013 | 144 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
These two coyotes are enjoying an exciting game of chase. Young coyotes hone their hunting skills, strength and coordination through play. Seeing them play like this makes you appreciate how very dog-like these wild mammals are.
These two coyotes are enjoying an exciting game of chase. Young coyotes hone their hunting skills, strength and coordination through play. Seeing them play like this makes you appreciate how very dog-like these wild mammals are.
The coyote is all of these and more. It is one of the most successful wild mammals in North America. And yet it was (and perhaps still is) one of most hated and hunted of predators.

Two hundred years ago, the coyote was a creature of the American prairie, known only from west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies. Nowadays, it is firmly established from coast to coast. And coyote can be found from above the Arctic Circle in Alaska all the way down to Panama.

How did this happen? Well, we humans did it. We dramatically affected the coyote’s population and range.

It started when settlers moved westward, clearing land and bringing in vulnerable small livestock. Coyotes, once called “dogs of the prairie,” liked the newly opened-up habitat. It was just more of what they were used to. Plus, humans brought their trash dumps and other waste, which provided a reliable source of food for the scavenging coyote.

For, you see, the coyote is an opportunist. It takes advantage of a variety of food sources. Carrion has always been on its menu. And the leavings of other, bigger predators were readily available to a wily opportunist.

Coyotes are rather small, wiry canids weighing only about 20 to 40 pounds. This means to the much bigger Mountain Lions and Gray Wolves, the smaller Coyotes and their pups were prey items. But we humans helped out the coyotes, unwittingly. We nearly wiped out the dreaded wolves and made a serious dent in the Mountain Lion population. We were afraid for our lives against these two top predators. So we killed the big cats and the fearsome wolves as fast as we could.

We had to protect our lives, our children and our livelihoods, right? Certainly, that was the prevailing wisdom of the times. Unfortunately, in our ignorance of the delicate balance of nature, we actually made things better for the coyote.

Coyotes were no longer under tremendous predation pressure. They had a steady food supply (garbage and chickens, etc.). And they had more and more of the open habitat they liked. They would surely thrive under these conditions.

Thrive they did. They took full advantage of every windfall. With plenty of food, the female coyotes had larger litters. If food is scarce, litter size is only one to two pups. But a well-fed female may have a litter of 10 pups!

Coyotes also have a versatile set of behaviors. Some biologists even propose that they “think about things.” This obvious intelligence allows them to choose their actions. They are wary of humans, understandably, but they seem to be able to make use of our foibles. If we leave our chickens unprotected or put cat food outside at night, coyotes will notice. They “think about it” and take whatever they can get away with. If it is too risky, they will stay away.

This has allowed coyotes to exist almost everywhere. From desert to prairie, from parks to suburbs, there are coyotes. We folks in rural South Texas know they are out there. We hear their wonderful “night music,” a howling chorus of yips and yelps, and feel a thrill or perhaps a chill. I have to admit I like the sound of coyotes howling.

The name coyote comes from the Nahuatl word “coyotl.” It means “singing dog.” The Aztecs must have listened to coyotes howling and liked the sound. They even had a couple of gods with coyote characteristics.

The Lakota people of the northern plains took a different view of the coyote. Their name for him was “Mica,” the trickster. They were well aware of his cunning ways and adaptability.

The modern name is pronounced several ways. Some say “ky-OH-tee.” Others pronounce it “KY-oat.” In South Texas, many people use the Spanish pronunciation, “koy-OH-teh.”

Coyotes are smart enough to stay out of sight most of the time. They can live right next to us, and we never would know it. Once in a while, though, I see a coyote. Twice I have seen half-grown pups. There must be a den on our property in the denser brush. I hope to find the den one of these days.

However, I often see coyote “signs.” Footprints in the soft dust or mud are common. But the most common sign is a pile of scat on the trails.

The scat of many animals is identifiable as to species. Coyote scat is often left in the middle of open dirt roads. It is medium-sized and typically has a little “tail” at the end. It frequently tells exactly what the animal has eaten: seeds of fruit or hair of small mammals. In late summer, coyotes gorge on the ripe fruit of Texas Persimmon. Scat consisting totally of persimmon seeds is common then.

I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I gather up these piles of coyote scat. The persimmon seeds are free of the sticky fruit pulp and ready for planting. Native plants are popular in the landscaping business. So who’s wily now, me or the coyote?
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