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Walk Softly - Coyotes

by Geoffrey Carpentier

Much maligned and certainly misunderstood, the coyote or brush wolf (Canis latrans) is a resourceful and adaptive creature, who has successfully learned to live with us, despite our greatest efforts to discourage it. We find them literally anywhere, from urban streets and parks and rural farmland to dense forests. Their preferred habitat is edge habitats, near forests, adjacent to open fields. They have adapted to eat both live prey and to scavenge suitable carcasses along the roadways and beyond, and are opportunistic in their choice of food. Meat is supplemented with berries and other vegetation, particularly in the summer season. Their impact on wildlife, although often cited as reasons for control, is actually minimal, if natural foods are available.

Before we look a bit more closely into their behaviour, let’s explore their significance, from a cultural perspective, as viewed by some Indigenous peoples. The coyote plays a very important part in Indigenous cultures and its influence spans many nations across North America. It is presumed to be a clever and cunning hero and a trickster who tries to fool other animals and even people to do things to amuse itself. At the same time, it is a teacher and a mentor, sometimes.

The number and scope of traditional lore, including the coyote as the key character, is quite large, as hundreds of stories are preserved by Indigenous peoples across the continent. The coyote is also variously seen as an illustionist, lover, creator and glutton and at the same time it is perceived to have ingenuity, impatience and curiosity. Its impact is far-reaching and it is believed to have links to creation itself, as it appears in several stories involving the first man and woman. It is also thought of as a celestial influence, as it is deemed to have been placed the stars in the skies in some stories.

Perhaps recognition of these traits is based on the observations of Indigenous peoples as they watch and live with the coyote. It is seen as a spiritual creature, with qualities representing both wild animals and people. Whatever the belief of the local people, the tales often are used as teaching tools for the children, as the qualities possessed by the coyote are deemed life influencing.

Now back to its biology. The coyote can be a noisy animal and even its name relates to that fact, as it translates to ‘barking dog’. They produce a variety of yips and howls which can crescendo on certain nights, especially during the denning season, in April and May, shortly after breeding takes place. The variety of the complex calls and responses indicate an advanced communication system amongst and between packs.

Often confused with the Eastern Gray Wolf, which according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry does not occur in our area, coyotes are large animals (60 cm (24 inches) at the shoulder and weighing about 9–23 kg (20–50 pounds)). They are fairly consistent in their appearance, but variations in colour and size may occur, when they occasionally hybridize with dogs, which produce dangerous and unpredictable offspring, called coy-dogs. Often looking much like ‘pure’ coyotes, it is generally this hybrid which attacks livestock. In areas where the gray wolf and coyote overlap, coy-wolf hybrids are also possible. This leads to some interesting genetic history, whereby as many as 19 subspecies of the coyote may exist, in eastern North America alone! Fast runners, they can achieve speeds of 65 km/hr (40 mph), whether in flight or pursuit of prey.

Five to twelve young are born, after a gestation period of about 60-65 days, and the family group will stay together for a long time once the young leave the den. The pups are sexually mature when one year old. Often, a pack includes the dominant pair and the young from this year or last year, depending on the season. They hunt and travel together in these small family groups and occasionally link up with other packs, for short periods of time. These social and highly inquisitive animals are a vital and necessary part of our mammalian communities.

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.

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